5 strategies for saying no more often

“I should say no more often”, I often say to myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For me the hardest part is not actually declining the request, but deciding whether to do it. There are just so many interesting opportunities and I would love it if I could accept all of them! As a result, often other projects (cough writing cough) tend to suffer. Then I start feeling anxious and guilty about all the things that I need to do, and it’s a vicious circle from there. Since the demands on my time are increasing, I have been (proactively) thinking how to approach this. This post covers a few strategies I have found helpful so far for saying no.

5 strategies for saying no


1. Does it help or hurt my goals?

Sounds logical, right? If you can do this well, you wouldn’t even be reading this post. But for me this is the most counterintuitive strategy. The things I say yes to always end up being helpful, perhaps even in ways I cannot imagine at the time of the request. By that logic, I should say yes to everything, which is of course not a viable strategy.

I’ve started realizing that the problem is that my goals are not defined clearly enough. I recently read “The Productive Researcher” by Mark Reed, where he gives several examples of his goals. One goal is something along the lines of “[important research thing here] while not being away from home more than 2 evenings a week”. Very specific and actionable, so I’m definitely adopting this one.


2. Data, data, data!

Keep track of how much you are doing already. For example, I always felt I couldn’t decline a review request – it was an interesting paper, an important journal, a nice editor, etc. Then I realized I was reviewing WAY more than my “share”, roughly defined as three times the number of papers you submit yourself. Now that I’m aware of this number, it is easier to say no.

It hasn’t been an issue yet, but I imagine that in future I might impose similar quotas on other types of activities, such as committees or travel.

3. Keep a list of things you’ve said no to

Next to my CV of Failures, this year I have also started keeping a list of opportunities I have said no to. This includes things I didn’t feel I should do (such as too many reviews), but more importantly, things I wanted to do but decided not to overschedule myself.

Just as the CV of Failures felt rewarding to put together, this list too helps me feel better about declining opportunities. Now, it is just a list of things I declined, but in the future, I might add “did I regret it”, to convince me myself it’s OK to say no.


4. No Committee

Get a few people together to join your own personal “no committee”. When you are doubting about something, your committee votes whether you should say yes or not! For a more in-depth explanation, see the post on Get a Life, PhD, where I first found out about this concept.

I find that it is not actually necessary to interact with your committee about decisions. You just have to imagine talking to them and think about the advice they would give.


5. If it’s not a hell yes, it’s no

Heard this one through Tim Ferriss (either his podcast or  “Tools of Titans”, which I highly recommend). Basically the idea is that if you are doubting already (it’s not a “hell yes!”), you should say no.



That is all I have so far – do you have any other strategies you find helpful? Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

2 thoughts on “5 strategies for saying no more often”

  1. The first is rather selfish I think – I always prioritise the goals of others first, which is what I have so many PhD and Masters graduates on my cv, and no books. But I am happy with that and it is part of a ‘socially just’ approach to academic life. . Saying no to reviewing the work of others is a real no-no, as Simon Springer explains. https://fennia.journal.fi/article/view/66862 Us DIY/alternative journal editors are exasperated with reviewers that don’t [saying you will then not doing it, is the worst] . I won’t review for Elsevier, but always make sure i do my share. No. 2 makes sense, especially when it is time for an annual review with the boss. Ditto, 3. 4 and 5, see 1.

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for starting the discussion! I would first like to point out that I write about strategies to say no often when you have too much to do – not recommending people reject specific types of things as reviews. If your goal is to always help others, then that’s a logical thing to do.

      I have a similar goal, but I think I will be in a position to help more people if I get to stay in academia. If I would accept all requests I am getting, there would be no time for me to do any writing or improving my courses, and therefore no way to get tenure. I’m not alone in this – women get disproportionately many requests for service, and are not correspondingly rewarded for it – see https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11162-017-9454-2. Or I could try doing everything, but I have already experienced how this affects my health, and I don’t want to repeat that experience. I’m definitely doing my share as I wrote, but I’m putting my own oxygen mask on first. I don’t mind if you label that selfish.

      Great to see you share your CV of failures too by the way!


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