How and why to say “no” to colleagues and collaborators


Credit: adapted from Getty

The world’s most productive scientists often have CVs filled with dozens of pages of publications, suggesting that they fully accept and take advantage of every opportunity presented to them. But devoting time and energy to one project can limit other opportunities.

Many young scientists and principal investigators find it difficult to say “no” to offers of collaboration or participation on seemingly important committees—often thinking “something is better than nothing.” It’s important to prioritize – and make the most of limited time and energy to track high-return activities, allowing time to recover outside of work.

Working in an academic medical center, we are constantly surrounded by competing demands. AS is a medical resident who balances clinical responsibilities with research, volunteerism and leadership activities. RG designs and leads advanced workshops on time management, among other topics, and is pursuing a doctorate while working full time.

Managing your calendar and learning how to allocate time to the right projects are crucial first steps.

Reverse engineer from desired goal

Think about your desired goal and break it down into small pieces, researching what they might be. For example, if your ultimate goal is academic promotion, talk to someone who has recently achieved it or find out about your institution’s promotion criteria. A recently promoted colleague can guide you towards your goal. Consider saying no to any activity that won’t help you get promoted.

In medical school, for example, AS wanted to spend a year at another institution to learn how to do high-quality clinical anesthesiology research. He used his existing professional network to connect him with alumni who had also taken a year off to do research. These people helped him identify conferences and projects that had principal investigators who would be able to provide funding and mentorship on his schedule.

Use the ‘SMART’ framework, a tool used in the business management industry, to help you achieve your goal. This framework helps organize how short-term goals are set and measured. It requires objectives to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. In a university setting, the framework could be used to achieve a SMART goal of university promotion, for example. So it could start with something specific (I will enhance the guest speaker portfolio component of my chair application) and have a measurable outcome by aiming to speak at 25% more guest lectures than the previous year. Then include something actionable (I will contact five colleagues to speak at their institution) and a statement on relevance (having a national reputation for my work is crucial for promotion and giving virtual or in-person talks can help to achieve this goal). Finally, add a deadline (I will reassess my measurable goal by the end of calendar year 2022).

Check the return on your investment

Before blindly accepting all opportunities, take at least 24 hours to assess the “cost” of the activity. What will the work consist of? How often will the group meet? What are the responsibilities? How long per week should this take? Once we’ve completed the project, who reviews it? How long until implementation?

List all the activities you spend time on daily, including work commitments, hobbies, and work-related responsibilities such as standing meetings and deadlines. Assign an estimated time value per week to each, then give yourself a 10% margin for unexpected events. If engagements are in-person rather than virtual, allow extra time for travel. Then ask yourself if this new activity will fit into your current schedule and if it’s worth moving or changing other commitments.

It’s far better to be honest and turn down opportunities that you don’t think will be of great value than to accept them and later regret taking them. Although it may be more difficult to say “no” than “yes” in the moment, you could save yourself hours of frustration and give yourself the opportunity to do an activity that you are much more passionate about and committed to. later.

Periodically reassess each commitment

Some commitments that initially seem high value may turn out to be low value (and vice versa). Take stock of your energy levels and overall productivity during the first few weeks of a new engagement. Toggl Track and RescueTime are popular time trackers that work on a variety of online platforms. Alternatively, simply print or write down your planned commitments and note at the end of the day how much time you actually spent on each task.

Come back: is this activity as useful and exciting as you first thought? If the answer is “no”, don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself and, if possible, try to reduce your level of commitment. Is it possible to move to a more peripheral role? For example, rather than continuing to serve as a lead member of a newly formed recruiting committee, you might offer to serve as an advisor instead.

how to say no

To decrease your involvement in a role or committee, consider saying, “Thank you so much for asking me. Unfortunately, over the past few weeks I’ve had competing engagements that have taken more time and effort than I initially thought. I am committed to helping with this project, but I don’t think I have the capacity to continue at this level of involvement. I have a few people I would like to recommend to take my place. Could we schedule a quick call to examine these people? »

To decline additional research or grant proposals, try responding with: “I very much appreciate the opportunity to get involved. I aim to be sincere and authentic about completing existing projects before agreeing to undertake new ones. I do my best to speed up current manuscripts, but I have a realistic impression that it will be around [insert date here] before being ready to undertake this new project. If this timeline still works for you, I’d be happy to discuss it further.

Don’t forget that saying “yes” to a commitment is inherently equivalent to saying “no” to the following ones.

Although this opportunity cost is difficult to predict, balancing your time and energy with the estimated value of a commitment is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Saying no can keep you flexible to engage in higher leverage activities – a crucial way to advance your scientific career.

Competing interests

RG Ruth Gotian has two NIH grants. 1. National Institutes of Health/National Science Foundation (1RO1 GM 137411-01) Development of an evidence-based toolkit to improve diversity in the medical and scientific workforce (total direct costs: $996,693; role on grant: co-principal investigator; award dates: January 2020 to November 2023). 2. National Institutes of Health/National Science Foundation (1RO1 GM 137411-01) Development of an evidence-based toolkit to improve diversity in the medical and scientific workforce (total direct costs: $996,693; role on the grant: co-principal investigator; award dates: January 2020 to November 2023). She is also on the editorial board of British Journal of Anesthesia and receives royalties from IGI-Global for a previous book on The effectiveness of medical education training programs and systems and Kogan Page for The success factor. She also receives royalties from Skillsoft, Madecraft and ExecOnline for educational videos.


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