Why And How To Say No

noPeople in our line of work, whether academic or altac, are often at serious risk of over-commitment. This can happen for a number of reasons, including disorganisation, pressure from other people, and the inability to say ‘no’.

Disorganisation is often made up of the best intentions, lack of foresight or planning, unrealistic expectations, and inability to understand how long different jobs actually take. It can be truly difficult to figure out how long it will take to do a given piece of work, but a useful strategy is to make your best guess then add fifty per cent. So if you think you could definitely get an article written in six weeks, tell anyone who needs to know that it will take you nine weeks. One way to keep your expectations realistic is to take care to factor in all your existing commitments – which, don’t forget, include your social life and holidays as well as work. Also, remember that the empty spaces in your calendar in the months to come will fill up as the dates come closer. People often say to me things like, ‘I’m really busy this month and next, but I’ll have lots more time after that.’ I think, ‘No you won’t, you poor deluded fool, because by the time you get there “the month after next” will be “this month” and you’ll be just as busy as ever.’

People often over-commit from the best intentions. They want to help, or they are being offered interesting projects, and they think they’ll find a way to get it done. Often they do find a way, but that can be at the expense of their happiness, their relationships, and their health. I know, personally, two senior academics who have been reduced to taking sizeable portions of sick leave due to over-commitment in the last year alone. Part of this is because of the structure of academia and the ever-increasing demands placed on its staff. The only real solution to that is collective action. Yet, without wanting to sound all neoliberal, there is also scope – and, I would argue, responsibility – for individual action in the interests of protecting our own well-being.

Some people seem completely unable to see what is around the corner. One fairly senior academic I know moved from a research job to a teaching job, and was then astonished to discover that time-consuming preparation and marking were required. Another, a parent of two young children, seems continually surprised by the need to provide care for them. Perhaps over-commitment breeds over-commitment because, when you’re currently over-committed, it’s hard to find the time to give proper thought to potential future commitments and their likely implications. But finding that time is the only way to escape the over-commitment trap. And the only way to find that time is to learn to say ‘no’.

Saying ‘no’ can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour. So, to begin with, try learning not to say ‘yes’ immediately. Say something like, ‘That’s a really interesting proposition. Can I think about it and get back to you? I need to check my other commitments before I can give you a firm answer.’ Then if you decide you don’t want to say ‘yes’, you can say, for example, ‘I’d love to help but right now I don’t have the time to do the work well, and I don’t want to do a bad job for you.’

When you owe a favour, even this can feel very difficult. It can help simply to acknowledge the fact that you owe a favour. ‘I know you did X for me, and I am still very grateful. I do want to return the favour but I’m afraid it’s a really difficult time for me right now, as I am already fully committed for the next few months. Is there some other way I can pay you back?’ Being up front like this can feel scary for some people, but it is a great way to diffuse the anxiety that unspoken worries can create, and therefore it is worth the effort.

The wider pressure to ‘be collegial’ is another difficulty faced by those working in academia, whether from inside or outside institutions. For example, I recognise that I can’t expect people to peer-review my articles without offering to peer-review the articles of others. However, I can decide how many articles I am able and willing to review, per month or semester or year. Given that there is a need to review articles which are not and never will be fit for publication, as well as those that are or could be publishable, I might decide to review two articles for every article I submit. Or I might decide I can manage one per month, or two per semester, regardless of how many I write myself. The number you can manage will, of course, depend on your other commitments, but the basic principle is the same. You need to think the whole thing through, make a decision, then stick to that decision – and explain it to people where necessary. The same could apply with other regular one-off tasks such as examining theses, reviewing book proposals or typescripts, writing forewords, and so on. You have the right to set a limit on any such task you’re being asked to do more often than you can comfortably manage – and to enforce that limit.

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the ‘unsexy undergarments’ of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who over-commit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families, and friends, we have an obligation not to over-commit, and that means learning to say ‘no’.

Positive Disruptive Practice

This blog post is part of a messy, asynchronous, stimulating conversation that I’m lucky enough to be part of, along with @debsnet and @nomynjb and @jennacondie and @cj13. The conversation was influenced by the man with the best Twitter name in the multiverse, @timbuckteeth, who started the #blimage process. The idea of that is to write a blog post inspired by an image, then challenge someone else to write a blog post inspired by a different image. I was challenged by @debsnet and I then challenged @nomynjb – but @debsnet was inspired by the spiderwebs image I’d picked for @nomynjb, so she wrote another blog post inspired by spiderwebs and incorporating that image. Then @nomynjb wrote her post, referencing @debsnet’s post, also incorporating that image, and asking, ‘Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?’

best spiderwebsYes. I do.

The post by @debsnet is about ‘technology which connects’, and it’s also about disruption: breaking or bending rules. From making good use of accidents, to ‘colouring outside the lines’, @debsnet praises and celebrates the positive power of disruption. So does @nomynjb, though from a different angle. She traces the development of mass asynchronous communication from Gutenberg to today’s boundary-crossing multimedia, and suggests that people who are breaking the Gutenberg rules are the ones who help us all move forward.

This so resonated with me. I grew up in a wordy household: my father was an English teacher, we didn’t have a TV, and I lived in a world of conversation and storytelling. Disruptive use of language – puns, neologisms, etc – was encouraged. My mother taught me to read when I was three, mainly I think to equip me to amuse myself while she dealt with my newly arrived sister. Since then I have never been without a book on the go and often have half a dozen half-read: a literary novel, an escapist novel, short pieces of non-fiction, long non-fiction, poetry, and a research methods book, so I can pick up and read whichever suits my mood. I also started writing very young and have never stopped. I’m in love with text, and am a compulsive communicator. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I was an early adopter of blogging, starting in 2005, and I’ve been on Twitter since 2009; like @debsnet I find it helps me learn to be more concise. I was a bit more reluctant about Facebook and LinkedIn, but eventually got involved in 2010. I am on Pinterest but have never really got the hang of it, though I’m doing better with Instagram; I’m not a very visual person, but Instagram is helping me learn to see more beyond the oh-so-compelling text.

Many of my offline non-social-media friends and colleagues think I’m amazingly digitally skilled. I know this is not the case. I’ve never Tumblred or Flickred, I didn’t LiveJournal or MySpace, I don’t SnapChat or WhatsApp, and I know there are a hundred others I can’t even remember – if I ever heard of them in the first place.

In @debsnet’s post, she wrote about how she’s using and valuing Voxer. I’d never heard of Voxer, which evoked a familiar feeling of near-despair. Another one! I can’t keep up! Other people I know online are upping Periscope with enthusiasm. I want to join in with all this and I have loads of ideas for content but I struggle with the process. For example, I’ve been trying really hard with YouTube for over a year now, and I’m rubbish at making videos. I can see that if I spent several hours a week working on it, I would slowly improve, but I’m struggling to find the time or, perhaps more accurately, the motivation. As with writing, I enjoy the editing process, but find the first draft a chore. With writing, you only have to do one first draft, but with video, you (or, at least, I) have to do loads of them till you get one that’s good enough to edit. And it’s so complicated: you have to juggle light, and sound, and visuals, and appearance, and performance. Every time I play back something I’ve recorded, I can see what’s wrong with it, but I don’t have the skills to fix it quickly and effectively like I can fix clunky text, so I get frustrated. And no, I’m not being a perfectionist; if I show my videos to my friends, they say things like, ‘Why are you so wooden? You’re not like that on the mainstream media or when you speak at conferences,’ and I want to go and hide in a hole and cry.

I agree with @nomynjb that we need to break the Gutenberg rules of privileging unchangeable print and linear modes of communication. I have loads of ideas about how to do this. For example, I want to make and embed short videos and comic strips in my blogs, and I want to know how to do all this on my phone, on the move, as well as from my laptop at a desk. I long to embrace the new technologies, not still be struggling with the old ones, and – as @nomynjb put it – ‘access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness’. But I don’t have the skills and I can’t afford to pay other people to help me. I can’t even afford the software I want to use for comic strips.

For every iota of skill I acquire, a whole new online platform develops. I find this hugely frustrating! I want to be in the middle of the interwebs, connected to everything, because I can see, and hear, and almost feel and smell and taste, the opportunities and the fun and the creativity available to those who can use technology for its potential. I long to plunge in and disrupt and play. But, without the skills I need to move toward the centre, I’m stuck on the edge.

Then again, there’s still scope for positive disruptive practice on the edge of the web, and in text-based communication. Much of my last book showcased the work of people who bent the rules of research methods, and I’ve just co-written a paper on disruptive methodologies. So maybe it makes sense for me to let go of my longing for the technological playground and, instead, use technology for its usefulness and play to my textual strengths. Also, I suspect nobody, or very few people, can actually keep up with all the technological developments. So perhaps the answer for most of us is to practice positive disruption wherever we usefully can.

The Art Of Asking

theartofasking_imageFollowing on from last week’s blog post, I’ve been reflecting on the art of asking, why it can be so difficult, and how to make it easier.

I used to find it difficult to ask for help. I am naturally independent, and grew up on second-wave feminism which preached self-reliance. Asking can be hard because it’s a risk: you’re making yourself vulnerable, exposing your wishes or your needs, and the person you are asking might say ‘no’. You could experience that ‘no’ as a rejection or a slap in the face, as derogatory to your very being in the world. Alternatively, you could reflect that nothing major has changed, you’re still in the same position you were in before, and you have lost nothing. Or you could land up somewhere in between.

Asking can be easier in professional than personal contexts. Asking a librarian to help you track down a book, or the IT support desk to help you solve a techie problem, should be stress-free. You’re entitled to ask and it’s their job to help. But when you’re an indie researcher, those organisational networks of obligation don’t exist. So asking for things in professional contexts can be weird, even paralysing: why would anyone want to help me? Why would anyone be willing to put themselves out on my behalf?

I found myself on a steep learning curve in asking when I developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple of years ago and needed help with opening jars and bottles, moving furniture, doing DIY etc. The writer Laura James expresses the necessity of this eloquently and, like her, I have become shameless about asking for help. This has probably helped me learn to ask in other areas. Amanda Palmer’s wonderful book also provided a timely shove in the right direction.

I’ve learned other things as a result of learning to ask for help. For example, some people are incredibly helpful. Professor Rosalind Edwards is one of these people. I met Ros at a conference in Leicester in early 2014 (which, incidentally, I got to go to because I asked, on Twitter). The previous week I’d been to a meeting at the British Library, where I’m on an advisory panel for the Social Welfare Portal, and Ros’s name was mentioned as someone we could ask for help with publicity through her role as Co-Director of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). So when I realised she was at the conference, I went to ask her for help on behalf of the Portal, and found out that she’s warm and helpful and funny. We chatted on Twitter in the weeks and months following the conference. Another kind and helpful person, Kandy Woodfield, invited me to be on a panel at the 2014 Research Methods Festival, which Ros helps to organise, so we met again then and had a lovely chat on a bench in the sunshine.

A couple of months ago I decided that I would really like to be a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. I had a look online, but couldn’t find evidence of any opportunities. So I asked Ros. She said NCRM didn’t have visiting fellows, but they’d been thinking about whether to start. I said was there any chance they could start with me? She went away and talked to the other directors, and they said ‘yes’.

They said ‘yes’!

So as from this very day, I am a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. Because I asked. I wouldn’t be one, otherwise.

Another incredibly helpful person, Gemma Noon, is currently Impact Evaluation lead at Calgary Public Library. I met her online in the noughties, we met in person once before she emigrated from the UK, and we’ve kept in touch. She stunned me by inviting me to give a keynote in Canada, all expenses paid – my first international speaking engagement! I didn’t even ask! But I did ask Gemma whether she had any contacts with local universities, and she put me in touch with Carol Shepstone at Mount Royal University, and I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for them while I was in the area, and she said ‘yes’. Then, at the creative research methods conference a couple of months ago, I saw Barbara Schneider present her excellent research. Barbara works at the University of Calgary, so I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for her while I was in the area – and she said ‘yes’. So in late October I’m off to Canada, to work for the library service and two universities in Calgary.

They said ‘yes’!

Some of this, of course, is sheer luck, and being in the right place at the right time. And there is an old saying: ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, and I do work hard, so I figured that was the other influencing factor. I sent Ros a draft of this post, as a courtesy because it features her, and she told me firmly that my analysis was incomplete. She wrote,blush

“Of course, we don’t just give out fellowships because we get asked, and I bet you wouldn’t be invited to Calgary if it wasn’t because people think you are rather good at this research thing. You miss that bit of the story!”


Even so, if I hadn’t asked for help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m also finding that the more I practice asking, the easier it becomes. I now regularly ask people for help: old friends and new, professional contacts, random strangers on Twitter. Of course they don’t all say ‘yes’ – but a surprisingly large number of people are able and willing to help.

If the prospect of asking repels you, ask yourself this: how do you respond when someone asks you for help? Are you generally willing to help others? I bet you are; it probably makes you feel good. And if that’s the case, why aren’t you willing to give other people that feel-good sensation by asking them for help in turn? Go on, give it a try – the results can be surprising and delightful.