To Ask Or Not To Ask

helpI am all in favour of people asking for what they want and need. It’s useful for each of us to figure out what we really want, what we need, how much of that we can sort out for ourselves, and what we need to ask from others. However, as my work has become more widely known, I have begun to receive more and more requests for help from people I have never met offline or interacted with online. I want to help where help is needed, but some of the requests I get are quite unreasonable. For example, I got an email from a stranger asking me to write their doctoral thesis for them, because they were unwell, and because God would reward me in heaven for my good deed. There is so much wrong with this request. To begin with, I would never write someone else’s doctoral thesis for them, or even part of one, because that would be highly unethical. I do take writing assignments on a professional basis – which means I get paid in actual money (or I don’t take the work). Also, assuming someone shares the same beliefs as you is not sensible and, I would argue, not ethical.

Other requests are differently unreasonable. Direct messages on Twitter or Instagram asking things like, ‘I’ve heard of thematic analysis, what other kinds of data analysis are there?’ which could easily be answered through an online search. Or ‘What’s the best way to ask people for consent to participate in research?’ which is a big question with no context and so impossible to answer. Then there are the emails saying, for example, ‘I love your blog, can you tell me how to get a good deal from a publisher?’ which signals to me that the writer hasn’t bothered to actually read or search my blog where I have written about this subject.

Then, of course, there are all the reasonable requests. Can you review this article? That manuscript? Keynote this conference? Deliver that seminar? And so on.

Recently I spent a whole morning responding to requests, only one of which was asking me to work for money. I realised, then, that I needed to write this blog post.

I would like to suggest four key pointers for contacting busy professionals with whom you have no existing relationship (and, FYI, a couple of tweets exchanged does not constitute a ‘relationship’). I have been using this system myself for many years, but it’s only just occurred to me to put it in writing.

  1. Do all you can to find the answer you need for yourself. Use internet search engines and search functions on website and blogs, libraries, and your own networks. Apart from anything else, this will strengthen your research skills.
  2. If you can’t find the answer and decide to ask someone you don’t know, wherever possible, ask in public. If you ask in a public tweet or blog comment or suchlike, others can also provide answers which can help the person you’re asking, and any answer may help other people. Asking questions in private – through direct messages, emails and so on – puts more pressure on the respondent and doesn’t benefit anyone but the questioner.
  3. There will be times when asking in private is appropriate, such as if you want to ask about something sensitive, confidential, or contentious. But if you do need to ask in private, try to keep it to a single or – at the most – a double exchange. Don’t assume that because you received a helpful reply, the person you have contacted is your new best friend.
  4. If you get help from someone you’ve not otherwise dealt with, think about how you could repay them. Are you in a position to contribute to that person’s Patreon, Kofi, or suchlike? If not, can you review one of their books (or equivalent) on a website or blog? I would not recommend posting on social media about how helpful they are, because I can assure you the last thing they want is for you to encourage more people to ask them for help. If nothing else, vow to ‘pay it forward’ – i.e. help someone else when you’re in a position to do so – and make that happen.

I think one of the problems with private messaging or emailing is that each person may feel they are the only one making such requests because there is no opportunity for them to see all the others. But I am absolutely sure that if you have enough respect for someone’s work to want to ask them a question, so will many other people. So now I’m going to ask of you: please, please be aware that you’re not the only one, and that the person from whom you’re seeking help has very many other demands on their time.

This is not to say “don’t ask”. It is to say please ask only as a last resort, and in public whenever possible. Thank you.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Achieving A Good Work-Work Balance

work workA lot is said and written about achieving a good work-life balance, as though work is only one thing (and life another). Work is in fact several things and achieving a good balance between them is also important. In fact, a good work-work balance is an essential prerequisite for a good work-life balance.

Let’s start by thinking about paid and unpaid work. If you’re doing more unpaid than paid work, you are more likely to be a woman than a man. For sure some men do more unpaid than paid work, and anyway gender isn’t binary, but nevertheless this is a feminist issue. Having said that, sometimes more unpaid than paid work is inevitable, such as if you’re an unemployed job-seeker or on maternity leave. But if you’re employed or self-employed such that paid work occupies a good chunk of each week or month, you’ll need to take care to balance that paid work with any unpaid work you take on.

Of course people can have more than one job, or a job plus self-employment, or several kinds of paid self-employment. I currently earn money from research, writing, teaching, speaking, private coaching, and occasional bits of consultancy advice. Unpaid work, too, comes in a variety of forms. Although I earn money from my writing, I don’t receive any income until after my work is done, so the actual act of writing is unpaid (except for the rare occasions where some lovely person decides to pay me to write, which I’m glad to say does happen from time to time). But I love writing so I’m going to do it anyway. My visiting fellowship at the UK National Centre for Research Methods is also unpaid, though I do receive access to academic literature and some mentoring in return for providing help with various academic tasks, none of which are overly time-consuming or onerous.

Other forms of unpaid work include:

  • Formal volunteering (I’m currently a member of the publications committee of the Academy of Social Sciences)
  • Informal volunteering such as helping out a neighbour on request, reviewing an article for an academic journal, or joining a community litter-pick
  • Caring for family members who need your care, perhaps because they are very young or very old or living with one or more disabilities, and
  • Domestic work such as cleaning, shopping, and cooking.

We all have to do domestic work, though there are shortcuts – grocery shopping can be done online, ironing is not as important as some people seem to think, and if you have spare cash you may be able to outsource cleaning/gardening/DIY etc. But you will still have to do some domestic tasks. Also, caring may not be optional. If you have children you’re generally expected to meet their needs, while caring for older relatives or those living with disabilities may be optional in theory but is likely not to feel optional in practice.

However, formal and informal volunteering are optional and when necessary you can resign from formal positions or say no to informal requests. I have posted before about why and how to say no; it’s not always easy but it is essential if you are to create a good work-work balance. We all know people who wear themselves out doing everything for everyone and forget to meet their own needs. Maybe you’re one of those people. If so, you need to look at your unpaid work and think about what you can jettison. This can be difficult: it feels good to be needed, and it can be demoralising to realise that you are not indispensable. But it’s not impossible. And if you don’t control your unpaid work, it may end up controlling you.

In the final year of my PhD, realising that push actually had come to shove and I needed to spend a lot of time writing my thesis, I gave up all of my formal volunteering. I had a few roles at the time and giving them up was the only way I could meet my thesis deadline. I also turned down various offers of unpaid work – some of which were really tempting – on the grounds that I needed to get my thesis written. My doctoral work was also unpaid, as I was self-employed, and spending lots of time writing my thesis was quite enough unpaid work for one year. This meant I had a good work-work balance. (I gave up most of my social life for that year, too, so my work-life balance was terrible, but it was temporary and a means to an end.)

These days I take on one formal volunteering role at a time plus an honorary fellowship. Alongside my unpaid writing work, and the unpaid admin that goes with running a business, this is plenty to set against my paid work. So on the whole I think I have a good work-work balance. What about you?

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons who help with my work-work balance. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!