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How to Have More Time

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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It helped when Deirdre identified what each “no” would allow her to say “yes” to.  “Yes” to a bit of time for writing rather than class prep, “yes” to getting more settled in her new environment, “yes” to having a good start on her research and teaching before adding on the major logistical challenge of the industry collaboration.


The posting below looks at some great ways to say “no” to things you don’t want to do so you can say “yes” to things you do want to do.  It is from Chapter 1, How to Have More Time, in the book, The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life, by Rena Seltzer. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166 2102. Copyright © 2015 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Coming to Grips with Coauthor Responsibility


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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How to Have More Time


Deirdre was in tears talking to her best friend on the phone. “This is my dream job. I’m surrounded by great colleagues. I have super-smart and motivated students, and I can study topics that excite me, but it’s just too much. Every day I’m sure I’ll be able to work on my writing tomorrow, and then my day is completely full, and I fall into bed exhausted, and I still haven’t opened my manuscript.”

Deirdre is a highly competent professional who knows how to do each part of her job well; however, she is experiencing tremendous stress because she can’t find enough time. Although I work with people who find writing challenging, many of the professors I support love engaging in their research and writing but can’t find time to do it.  They have all kinds of responsibilities with near-term hard deadlines.  The lecture must be written before students show up for class on Monday, the applications must be read and ranked before the admissions meeting on Wednesday, and the report must be submitted to the granting agency next week.  The writing that must be done on their own articles or book is put off until they can find the time, but the time never comes.

The “No’s” Challenge

When I get a call from someone like Deirdre, who is eager to write but is drowning in other commitments, the first thing I do is issue a challenge to find 10 things to say “no” to in the next week.  I explain that in coaching, a client can respond to a challenge by accepting, declining, or making a counteroffer. Deirdre was daunted by the prospect of having to find 10 things to turn down, but she made the counteroffer that she would try to find five “no’s.” I accepted and explained that in addition to obvious “no’s” like turning down an invitation, she could count “no’s” to herself and delay tactics. Thus, making a decision to use last year’s lecture rather than reworking it with updated information, sitting on her hands when her department chair asks for a volunteer to pick up the cake for the retirement party, or telling a student she can’t meet this week but will schedule something for next week would all count as “no’s.”

When we next spoke, Deirdre reported that she had found four items for her “no” list and was contemplating a fifth. She told her students they could skip a reading, which meant that she didn’t have to reread the article herself; she decided not to travel over a holiday break to give herself some much needed time and space; she decided against attending a conference; and she chose to skip some parts of a program that her department was sponsoring. The fifth item she was considering was postponing an industry collaboration that would have provided some exciting opportunities for her students.

Deirdre struggled with each of the decisions. She had chosen the class reading because it illustrated something valuable.  She recently moved across the country for her position and missed her family back home, so the decision not to travel was a tough one.  The industry collaboration depended on connections that had taken her time to forge, and she worried about whether the relationships would hold up if she delayed the start of the program.

It helped when Deirdre identified what each “no” would allow her to say “yes” to.  “Yes” to a bit of time for writing rather than class prep, “yes” to getting more settled in her new environment, “yes” to having a good start on her research and teaching before adding on the major logistical challenge of the industry collaboration.  As an energetic and creative person, Deirdre was drawn to new ideas and projects and had to grapple with how to prioritize competing demands. However, she was highly motivated to change, because her job and her physical and emotional health depended on freeing up some time for writing, exercise, and adequate sleep.

Although the “no’s” assignment is difficult for some professors, others find it remarkably easy once they get on a roll. One professor gained an incredible 16 hours from the four “no’s” she found. She declined to judge a science fair, let colleagues handle a hospital orientation visit without her, skipped a committee meeting, and asked her husband to take their sons to music lessons, karate, and soccer practices.  You wouldn’t want to say “no” to everything that comes your way, but if you can find even an extra hour a week by looking for “no’s,” it can make a significant difference in getting out a paper or getting home to your family.

There are certainly trade-offs. A management professor told me I had to be the most expensive coach on earth, because she turned down several lucrative consulting gigs to create time to write.  Someone else told me with a laugh that she had skipped a meeting and missed her surprise baby shower.  There is no single right answer to how to spend your time, but in these cases my clients wanted the long-term career benefit of time for their research more than the things that they gave up.

In contrast to the difficulty of saying “no” to a well-paying side job, the Internet provides opportunities for easy “no’s.” Several presidential elections ago, I was working with a professor who is a self-proclaimed news junkie and spent hours reading Internet news sites. After I realized we had similar political convictions, I asked if she thought her Internet news hobby could influence the outcome of the election. “No,” she laughed, “unfortunately not.”

“Well, if it could,” I continued, “I’d encourage you to spend even more time online!” Instead I challenged her to go “cold turkey” and quit the news. She wanted to stay in touch with what was happening and countered with a plan to set her timer for 15 minutes, and when the timer went off, she would turn to her research.  When we spoke the next week, she had successfully followed her plan and happily exclaimed, “You’ve changed my life!”

“Great! Are we all done then?” I couldn’t resist asking.  We ended up working together for several more years, and she has been highly successful in reaching a number of goals, including publishing articles in top journals and serving as dean of her school, but that simple initial action of limiting her Internet news habit made a huge difference.

Other easy places to save time include forgoing electronic games and online shopping or sports sites and limiting time on social media. If you find it hard to stay away, there are software programs that you can set up to block yourself from specified sites during your work time.

The Internet “no’s” are easy and obvious, but there are many legitimate academic activities that you may also want to say “no” to. If peer-reviewed publications are the key to promotion in your field, then invitations for book chapters may be tempting distractions that will eat away at your time without adding much to your CV.  All academics do some peer reviewing, and if there is a journal you would love to edit or if you’d like to be in a particular editor’s good graces, then there are reviews you will want to accept. But if you aren’t completing your own articles, then you may want to look for review requests to turn down.  Guest lectures in other departments may also bring minimum reward. I know a professor who agrees to one guest lecture a semester and is particularly skilled at giving an upbeat “no.”  If asked to guest lecture when she has already scheduled her once-per-semester gig, she says that she would love to do it but is full up for this semester and hopes they will ask her again.  She initially came up with this strategy when she was desperate for more writing time, but then she realized that far from hurting her career, conveying that her time is full actually increases her clout by making it clear that she is in demand.

There are times to make exceptions and say “yes.” If you are invited to give a guest lecture in a department that your spouse is courting for a job or the preeminent scholar in your field invites you to coauthor a book chapter, by all means say “yes.”  The political ramifications of accepting or declining a particular request may not always be clear, so ideally you will develop relationships with mentors who can help with these decisions.

Organizing experts advise people with overflowing closets that they cannot buy any new clothes without finding an equal number of items to discard.  We can bring the same concept to our overflowing calendars. One of my colleagues made a rule that he couldn’t take on a new activity without choosing a current activity to forgo.  So when he was asked to be on the board of his professional organization, he was pleased to accept, but he was also clear it would mean giving up one of his two choirs, despite it being a joyful part of his life.

A helpful coaching question is, “If I say ‘yes’ to this, what am I saying ‘no’ to?” And its corollary is, “If I say ‘no’ to this, what am I saying ‘yes’ to?” Some of my clients make a computer file that they label “My ‘No’ List,” and each time they find a new “no,” they add it to their list. They periodically review the list and bask in the knowledge that all those “no’s” bought them many hours of research time.  They get excited about finding new items to add, as each one symbolizes more space carved out for their own work.

Into Action

Start a file on your phone or computer labeled “My ‘No’ List.”

This week, find 10 “no’s” and write them down on your list.

Continue to look for more “no’s,” and when you find them, add them to your list.

Review your list periodically and savor all the time you gained by saying “no”!


Another strategy to gain time is delay. One of my clients agreed to check with me before saying “yes” to any requests. Her colleague sent an email asking for someone to cover a hospital shift, and although she wanted to say “yes,” she emailed me first. In the intervening time, another colleague agreed to cover the shift, so my client never had to decline the request. It went away by itself.

Your Own Worst Enemy

Efia, who has a particularly broad network of friends, extended family, and professional contacts, told me that she is constantly asked to do favors such as helping a cousin’s friend from Ghana who is applying to her university or meeting with someone about careers in her field. When I asked her to bring the requests to coaching before responding, she was surprised by what she found. She recounted, “When I started paying attention, I was horrified to realize that sometimes the favors I thought were initiated by others were initiated by me. If I was discussing someone’s work and knew about a relevant article, I was saying, ‘I’ll send it to you.’ This gave me one more thing to keep track of and carry out. Now I say, ‘Probably if you search under this topic, you’ll find it,’ and I give them my best guess of what I’d search under. Or I give them the name of the person at the university who can help them, rather than offering to meet for coffee.”

Positive “No’s”

Language and tone make an important difference when saying “no” to requests. A positive way to say “no” is to grant a request in wish: “I wish I could take on the seminar series, but I just can’t this semester” or “I’d love to speak to your department, but I’m full up for speaking slots this year. Please keep me in mind for the future.” If your boss asks you to do additional work when you already have too much on your plate, a helpful technique is to ask the person making the request to choose what you should let go of.  For example, “I’d love to do that.  Because I’m carrying a full load of service commitments, what should I give up to free up the time to take that on?”

How to Say “No, Never!”

Inez, the chair of the English department at a top East Coast research university, is constantly triaging her schedule to identify activities she can skip or put off in order to find time for her research. Besides teaching, chairing the department, editing a journal, and doing research, she also has a husband and three school-age children.  Inez told me, “Last night I spent two hours giving a talk to a Rotary Club meeting at the home of the owner of a local chain of dry cleaners. I can’t believe I agreed to do that.  But I’ve known the woman who asked me for years, and she asked me last December, and I didn’t feel like I could say, ‘No, I’ll be busy in June. How about never – is never good for you?’ (Have you seen that New Yorker cartoon?) But I’m always busy! I need a way of saying ‘no’ to requests that are for months in the future, where I can’t say my schedule is full.  It’s so crazy. I’m saying no to so many things. I’ve become invisible to the elementary school; the middle school doesn’t even have my email, which has actually caused me to miss knowing that a few things were canceled; I said no to all these talks; and I got out of traveling to Sweden next summer. And here I was giving a two-hour talk at a Rotary Club meeting.”

“It doesn’t sound as if it is central to your mission, to what is most important to you,” I reflected.

“No, I have a meeting for this charity I’m involved in, and I’m helping my bipolar former grad student get his feet on the ground. I have enough ‘do-gooding’ that is personally satisfying and important to me. I don’t need to add anything.”

We brainstormed and came up with this language for future “no’s”:


Dear X,

Thanks so much for thinking of me. With my busy schedule as chair of the department and my family responsibilities, I am not able to fit in outside talks.

“Maybe I should say that my schedule is just too unpredictable to plan something so far in advance,” Inez mused.

“NO!” I countered. “That sounds like an invitation for the requester to come back and ask closer to the time.”

“Oh, that’s right. I don’t want to leave the door open for them to come back to me. Okay, I’ll just say that with everything I need to do at work and home, I can’t take on more.

“Okay, here’s another thing on my plate that’s going to take a ton of time. I have this former student who has been out of school for four years, and now she wants to go to grad school. She asked me to help with her essay, and she doesn’t have anyone else who would do this for her. She’s really bright, and she deserves to get into grad school, but she’s been away from the literature for four years, and if I don’t help her, she won’t get in. But it’s going to take me all this time.”

“Well, this one sounds much more relevant to your mission than speaking to the Rotary group,” I replied, “but I wonder if there is anyone you could assign to assist her? Maybe one of your grad students?”

“That’s great. I do have a grad student who I could ask to talk to the student about what other literature she needs to include. I’ll still need to do some work to help her shape her essay, but my grad student could get her started, and that would save me some time.”