I was catching up with a med school girlfriend last week, and she was sharing that work has gotten pretty busy lately, and how someone told her that third year of attending life (where we both are) is when that shift from “I could take on more” to “My plate is full” happens. I hit the same point myself a few months ago, and it got me thinking about saying yes versus saying no at work, or really, in life.

Some of this is easy to figure out. We should say yes to the projects that light a fire in our bellies, because as we know, we are good at making time for the things that matter. We should say yes early on to most things, whether early means early career or early in a new position. We should say yes if we can anticipate the return on our time will be worthwhile – to me, this means spending a month on a chart review that results in a publication, or making time for a committee that lets me network with important people.

What’s harder for most of us is saying no, and although I don’t love generalizations about women, I genuinely think this one is true. First of all, there is data – in Brave Not Perfect, Reshma Saujani talks about how girls are raised to be people-pleasers, and how saying yes is part of that culture. One thing I do to combat this instinct is to ask myself, when I’m unsure about a new project, what would my (male) colleague do? If I can picture him passing without any guilt, then I shouldn’t have any, either.

Another tip that seems helpful is to have a ready list of alternate names, as in “I’m overcommitted at the moment, but you should ask Dr. X.” This way, we’re not leaving the asker stranded, and depending on our level, possibly even demonstrating sponsorship in action! I’m not in charge of too much yet, but, I love this idea for one day. One tactic I do employ now is to keep a timeline in my head of when I’ll be free to take something on, so that my answer can be “I can do that in February” instead of a flat-out “No.” I keep a running list of projects I’m working on for this month, and for the next three months, which helps me immensely.

I believe honesty goes a long way, and that it’s okay to explain that a certain initiative does not align with one’s career goals. That’s an important line to straddle: after all, there is rarely perfect alignment between what I want and need, and what my institution wants and needs. At the end of the day, more often than not, though, there is a workable solution.

There is no exception to the practice makes perfect rule here. The more we say no – and realize that nothing terrible happened subsequently – the easier it will be to say no the next time around. I’m not saying that it will be easy, or that there will never be any consequences. It won’t, and in all likelihood, there will be. But in the conversations I have had with my girlfriends, and in the popular press I read about women, it has become clear to me that something has to give, and that something should not be our time nor our sanity.


Related Reading:

Say Yes to Saying No at Work

4 Completely Inoffensive Ways to Say “No” at Work

Brave, Not Perfect

Related Listening:

The Power of No: Oprah Winfrey

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