Black and white image of a wall with two windows. Wall says exit in capital letters.
Academic life

Saying no after saying yes (at work)

Today’s blog is in the genre of “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…”. I’m here to give you permission to back out of a work commitment you already made. By “you,” I mean those of you who believe that nothing short of a natural disaster or terminal illness is a good enough reason to say no after you said yes.

It’s okay to say no, even when you’ve already said yes. It’s true in the bedroom, and it’s true in academia, too.

If the very thought of this turns your stomach to liquid, this post is for you. After all, saying no is hard enough. Saying no to something you previously agreed to do? That’s a whole other ball game. But I’m here to say that if you’re overworked, over-committed, or on the verge of burnout, saying to hypothetical things in the future is not enough. You need to, and you can, say no to something you’re already doing.

For many of us, this is virtually taboo. If you’ve been socialized to put others first, people please, and juggle a million personal and professional responsibilities, you’re more likely to sacrifice your own wants and needs well before pulling out of a commitment. The very phrase “backing out of” implies that there’s something cowardly and shameful about halting your involvement in a project. Isn’t going back on your word a bad thing?

Let’s be clear about a few things. Agreeing to serve on a committee, oversee a journal issue, or collaborate on a project is not a marriage vow. There’s no reason to treat every commitment as equal in weight and force. Moreover, there’s a long distance between being frivolous with your word and treating every yes as though it’s on the stone tablets. In short, saying no to something you’re already doing does not make you a bad person.

When to step away

I’ll assume that you’ve said yes to something in good faith. However, you’ve come to realize one or more of the following:

  • You are over-committed and no longer have the time.
  • You underestimated the commitment and can no longer fulfill it.
  • You don’t actually have the right skills or knowledge to do the task.
  • There is a logistical clash between two or more commitments.
  • Your heart is not in it and you sense or know that you won’t actually do the thing anyway.

A few outcomes are possible.

  • By sacrificing sleep, heath, family time, and the quality of your other work, you follow through with the project.
  • You half-heartedly continue and end up making a mediocre contribution.
  • You bend over backwards to accommodate conflicting schedules and end up resentful and exhausted.
  • You avoid and procrastinate until the last minute, at which point you back out anyway.

What if, instead of these less-than-desirable paths, you were straightforward and upfront now about your need to step away? I know that for many of you reading this, letting others down is one of your greatest fears. I feel you. But, in most of the scenarios above, you’re still letting others down. Even if you “successfully” muscle it out, what message are you sending to those around you and those coming up behind you?

So how do I do it, you might be asking now. Try using and adapting the following scripts:

  • I’ve been looking over my schedule for the next few months, and I realize that I am not going to be able to meet the time commitment required for [x].
  • Thank you for including me in [x]. Unfortunately, I have come to realize that I do not have the resources/skills/right knowledge to continue with this project.
  • As I approach tenure/book deadline/other major life or work event, I have come to the conclusion that I must prioritize this ahead of other commitments. Therefore, I have to step away from [x].

Remember, you only need to be honest and straightforward. You don’t need to provide a laundry list of reasons or go into detail. Be brief, be firm, be thoughtful. I assure you, the sky will not fall. People change their minds and make different choices every day. It’s a normal part of work, relationships, and life in general. Will somebody else be disappointed? Possibly. Trust that they can handle it and that they’ll get over it. You officially have my permission to do it!