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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Saying NO is how you can make the world a better place (plus 10 ways to say no)

Updated: 6 days ago

NOTES: Suicide is mentioned briefly in this post. Also, I realize there's great privilege in even being able to say/feel like one can say no. But, still, many of us need to. And, we need to create and protect space for people who can't as readily (due to career stage, identity, socioeconomic and caregiving constraints, etc.).

On lined journal paper, a heading reads: Things I've said no to. January 2022. Bullet points below list three items: applying for Kavli training contract (1/22). Solo goals workshop for Meteor (1/22). LIFE search committee (1/22).
Snapshot of the first page of my 'no"-tebook | Credit: BGMerkle, © 2023

My social purpose these days is helping other people enhance their capacity to make the world a better place. [1]

But, there's a(t least one) big, basic problem. So many people I know who are actively making the world a better place are too busy to have lunch, desperately need a bathroom break, and show up even when they are jittery with lack of sleep. Even when the work feels invisible. Even when our work is actively obstructed.

This is vital work in the world. And, it means a lot to us to do this work. But, if we can't keep it up, we can't keep doing it (as so many people have already wisely and adamantly pointed out). That's not okay.

I've more recently come to understand that saying yes to this work also does not mean that the work we do is actually making the world a better place. Even though that's why we're staying up late. Even though that's why we're overworking and overwhelmed and still replying to emails asking for help and also dropping what we're doing when someone walks in our office door looking for advice or commiseration.

The honest truth is that I know, admire, and collaborate with so many (too many) people working for change who grapple with deep burnout (and resentment). And, in this state of mind, we get reactionary. Folks have long documented and tried to address the imbalances between who does the emotional and "housekeeping" labor in a workplace and who does the "promotable" work like writing papers and grant applications. [2]

There's also the acute dilemma of having lots of ideas about how to make the world, our workplaces, and our communities, a better place. This is a particularly sticky patch of mud when we are in the company of like-minded, motivated people who collectively know how to plan programs, secure funding, and run the kinds of activities, trainings, and research that make a difference. That gumbo on our feet is heavy because it is the accumulation of all. the. things. we are trying to do at the same time. Because somebody's gotta, or some poor soul (or an opportunity for real change) will fall through the cracks.

I'm not being sarcastic; high-stakes FOMO can be the guts of the dilemma. If that risk has been resolved, then there's also the pressure of "this is probably the only time this internal funding opportunity will happen." Or, we keep adding to our load because we love working with each other. And so on.

But, here's what I can tell you after nearly 20 years of working in community development and change management: in our state of too-deep commitment to world-bettering, we actually help maintain that disparity.

What I'm saying is that saying yes can lead to not enough of us (individually or collectively) to go around. (I'm not saying anything new here.) And being strapped out like that can fuel fatigue that spirals into cynicism. (Again, not a new point.) When cynicism creeps in, it shades out what used to be hope. [3] (Even that isn't a new point.)

But, it seems to be new for a lot of early-career folks I mentor, and devastatingly too many of my experienced colleagues. So, I'll say it straight up: standing in that cynical, burnt-out shadow is not a sustainable, effective position from which we can make any positive difference in the world.

I've known people who left their careers, moved out of state, or even considered the ultimate, utterly devastating escape route because they couldn't or didn't say no when they needed to. They didn't say no when they felt that visceral vibe that says, "I don't like this" or "This isn't right" or "I don't want to be doing this" or "I'm just too exhausted to care again/more/still."

We don't listen to that vibe. So many women I talk with tamp it down, bury it under more commitments, flush it with another shot of espresso, tuck it into a corner with a potluck dinner where we wine and rightfully whine.

I'm not pointing fingers here. I didn't listen to that "should say no" vibe for years. (Let's be honest, I still have trouble saying no. Why else would I care about it so much?!?)

I've said yes to things that:

  • seemed like good opportunities;

  • felt like an honor;

  • I couldn't figure out how to decline;

  • I didn't think I could (or was allowed to) decline;

  • might, just maybe, be the ticket to a full-time job where I work now; [4]

  • I was especially good at;

  • clearly needed someone with strategic planning/management expertise;

  • were proposed by friends or preferred collaborators;

  • shone the shiny sheen of ✨publications✨ and 💫grants💸;

  • could help students who felt lost, abandoned, no self-confidence, etc.;

  • and so on.

  • This list is genuinely endless.

And, of course, as someone who develops and runs programs, seeks funding for ideas at all scales, and does not specialize in data analysis, I've absolutely been the person who is requesting, inviting, wheedling, and sweet-talking other people into saying yes to me. I've also quietly really hoped that some people wouldn't set a boundary and wouldn't say no to me, because what they did was so important for me and others. For example, I could name at least one vital, now-dormant blog, and three-plus people I just love working with and know we can't finish a certain thing without them. But, they all said no or "I'm done." And to be honest, I'd talk them right back into the work if I could.

It took me a long time to get to where I could see this all for what it was, in my own life and in the settings where I'm working with or recruiting people similarly skilled and over-committed.

Flatly, it took a long time to understand that what I thought was helping was possibly not, and possibly even counterproductive.

In the meantime, I was fried. I was short-tempered from hunger and lack of sleep. I was in the dumps from too little time unplugged and out of doors. I prioritized emails over time with my 90-something grandfather. My teeth hurt (past and present tense) from clenching my jaw, and my neck and shoulder muscles are so tight I get vertigo when the stress ratchets up even higher. I was late to everything (that I remembered to attend!), not understanding I was caught in a vortex of overcommitment and time blindness [5].

None of this was good for my health, my sense of self, my personal or professional relationships, or, importantly, the people, species, places, and organizations I was overworking so hard to help.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I'm guessing it does, not just because you're up too late too. But also, because a swamping lot has been written about academic burnout, the imbalance of who does what in homes, work, and society, and so much more.

So, why am I belaboring this?

I just had another conversation with another brilliant woman who has been sucked into two things she would never prioritize if she gave herself room to say no. And, that's a slippery slope. She's early career, so there's still plenty of time to pile on more and more and more.

It's crucial that we reckon with this. (And, again, I'm not the first or most eloquent to say so. But it's on my mind, and I keep having these conversations. So, here we are.)

If we're not tending to ourselves, and being realistic about what is sustainable [6] (even while we're fabulously and rightfully ambitious), we're going to be a generation of women felled by strokes and major auto-immune illnesses in our 40s and 50s. This spring, I saw another round of tweets from women mourning colleagues who succumbed to exactly this state of extreme stress. It got my attention in a specific, vivid way. I'm not ready to be out of commission, let alone out of circulation entirely, especially not because I agreed to too many meetings. And, I'm devastated by the mere thought that some of the people I lean on, collaborate with, and look-up-to risk the same. That's why René Brooks' advice -- "guard your yes with your life" -- resonates so much. This actually is about our lives and whether the way we live them leaves us healthy and rested enough to help make the world better (starting with ourselves and our loved ones).

But, saying no is really, really, really hard. [2, again] That's why I've been looking for mechanisms to help me say no. [7]

Here are 10 ways to say no that worked for me.

I'm sharing them here (as loose scripts) in case they can help you or someone you know who needs to say no or even back out of something.

A red cloth cover of a journal; embroidery on the cover depicts stereotypes of Asian scenes such as bamboo, people riding camels, and pagodas
The fancy, embroidered cover of my no-tebook relegated it to the too-special-to-use pile for two decades. My 'just say no" efforts liberated it.

  1. Start a no-tebook. This isn't something you tell people when you tell them no, but it can help you actually say no. In 2022, I started using a super-special, old notebook that was my great-grandmother's. I'd carried it around for probably 20 years, never having a good-enough thing to write into it. And then, on January 22, 2022, I found its ultimate purpose as my "no-tebook." Now, I actively seek opportunities to add entries to my no-tebook. To be listed, (a) I said a firm no; not a maybe, not a later. Just straight-up no. And, (b) it was something that would have taken actual time and attention, thus pulling me away from other priorities. (Just ignoring an email doesn't count; declining to be on a committee or serve as an AE for a journal does.) Whether you use a no-tebook, a bulletin or marker board, or some other mechanism, rewarding and documenting your nos is positive reinforcement.

  2. Name the issue/get a no-buddy. You also may not say this out loud to the people you're saying no to. But, when you get that bad feeling (as if you're stuck or face impending doom), say it out loud. The easiest way to do this is to call someone who knows what you care about personally (and/or professionally). You can say, "I just want to say out loud why I'm thinking about doing this." I find that within 2-3 sentences of trying to articulate it, out loud, to someone else, I am usually crystal-clear on why I don't want to do it. If I'm not, my go-to "no-buddy" starts asking questions and probing at my core goals and values. Usually, my responses to those nudges get me to no. Then, my strategizing can shift from talking myself into something to getting myself out of it.

  3. Just say no. So many smart and insightful people [8] have said it very clearly: "No is a complete sentence." You could just say no. In an email. On the phone. By text. Or, horrors (honestly!), in person. (While "just say no" has to be at the top of the list, I confess I find it most difficult, and sometimes just-no is risky [2, again]. Hence the rest of this list.)

  4. Postpone. Maybe you want to do it, but you can't right now. Sometimes, ideas, projects, and opportunities can wait (like an NSF grant proposal with no set due date). Sometimes, you can strategically proceed with the intention to plan the actual activity or work for far enough in the future that it's feasible for you (like a grant that is open for applications at the same time every year). Just keep in mind that the realistic gauge of future availability is not your optimism about what all you'll finish between now and then. The best measure of whether a future project is reasonable is asking yourself: "If I had to do it now, could I? Would I?" [9]

  5. Back out. Find a way to deal with any feelings of guilt, your sense of never wanting to disappoint anyone [10], and all the other ways that women are socialized to say yes. Then, pull out of existing commitments and cancel or postpone meetings, presentations, and projects. Cancel the event(s) on your calendar first. (It's harder to change your mind if it's gone!) Then, say/write something like this: "Since I initially committed, I took on another role/had a basement flood/underestimated my availability this week-semester-year-lifetime. I will no longer be able to attend/participate/lead, etc." You can also just say/write: "Something has come up. I'm going to need to reschedule." (In many cases, no one will ever remind you to do so. They also need lunch and a bathroom break!)

  6. Blame/cite your values via your expertise. Sometimes, I start in on something with great enthusiasm, only to realize that it's not aligned with my values or doesn't actually use my expertise. This one's rough, because it can require being candid (and tactful, if you choose) that you're not jiving with someone else's values or vision. But, saying no/withdrawing is possible, if you connect your no to what you can uniquely do [11]. You might try saying something like: "It looks like this is going in a direction focused on abc. My expertise and job expectations are more in the area of pqrs. I appreciate you initially inviting me into this work, and I wish you all the best moving forward with it." (If you've contributed substantially to the intellectual development of something, like a grant, you should also decide for yourself, and then clearly define to the collaborator(s) you're leaving, what dimensions of the project you're willing to cede and what you're staking a claim to as you withdraw.)

  7. Delegate with an eye for accountability. There are loads of people who do have the time and capacity to do things, if not always the inclination. If it's a service task that doesn't require specific expertise, decline by recommending someone else in your department, program, or workplace take on the task. Ideally, you can recommend someone who does relatively little service. See The No Club [2 again] for fantastic scripts on this one.

  8. Set your terms so high they say no or their yes means you'd be willing to say yes. Ask for the kind of honorarium, summer salary, salary top-up, course release, coverage of travel fees and time (aka day rate), etc., that you ought to receive [12] for the work being requested. If you get it, maybe you'll be willing to reconsider. And if not, they'll probably see the writing on the wall and ask if you can suggest anyone else. Decline to do that if they're offering inadequate terms. And, if you do recommend others, make the initial introduction via email so that you can clearly articulate the terms you asked for that were refused and/or in some way make clear to the person you're recommending that they, too, have full rights to request appropriate compensation.

  9. Share opportunities. If it's a growth opportunity for a junior colleague or mentee and you can in good faith suggest they add more to their plate, you can pass along opportunities that might positively impact their career. Try saying something like: "I appreciate that you thought of me, but I'm at capacity for service/admin/volunteer/committee/new work right now. However, I'm guessing you thought of me for xyz reasons. With that in mind, I'd like to recommend Person M; they have xyz skillset and would be a great addition to this effort." (Doing this also turns the screw a little in case they just asked you thinking you'd say yes, not because they need your specific expertise.)

  10. Get someone else to say no, or blame it on someone else. In more than one instance, my department chair has been my out. I keep getting the same feedback at annual reviews: you're doing too much, we're worried about burnout. So, sometimes, I cite that admonition. You might say, "My recent annual reviews celebrated the significant contributions I'm already making through service/advising/etc., on and beyond campus. At this time, I'm responsible for not adding additional commitments." Other times, I directly ask my chair to intervene and say no for me. These situations might arise when someone approaches him wondering if I'd be willing to do something. Then, I reply, "Well, since we're actively trying to reduce, not just manage, my service/admin load, could you please tell them no?" Alternatively, someone approaches me, but they are high-ranking enough, or the ask would essentially change my job description, and thus my chair should be involved. In these cases, I'll usually email him separately and clarify (fairly candidly) why I don't want to do whatever it is. Then, I'll send an email looping him in. You could say, "Since this is a major responsibility, I'm looping in my department chair so we can discuss the scope and duration of the commitment and consider how that might balance with my existing teaching, research, admin, and service responsibilities." As you can see, I'm fully detailing all the things I'm already supposed to be doing, to make explicit that the scale of the ask is infeasible.

There are certainly a lot of other ways to say "no" or "not anymore." A lot of them are accessible via my notes below. If you're not sure where to start, my top recommendations from a lot of reading on this are two books: The No Club and Happier Hour. (Feel free to tell me no and do something else, though! :))

But, I'd actually really love to hear: if you said no to some things, what would you do with that time instead?

For my part, I'm going to take the time that I've pried back by practicing saying no and:

  • walk my dog;

  • finish revising and send to beta readers the writing support book that was only possible because I said no to so much else;

  • send some emails asking a few folks if they'd like to read a chapter or two of the writing book that my co-author and I have almost ready to send out to beta readers (no doubt, some should say no!);

  • get back into the pottery studio - I've been there only sporadically for the past 3 months;

  • keep revising the book of poetry I have nearly completed.



1 I do this work in several different ways, ranging from teaching and training/consulting to research and more. See more here.

2 See The No Club from Dr. Linda Babcock, Dr. Brenda Peyser, Dr. Lise Vesterlund, and Dr. Laurie Weingart for an exhaustive (and exhausting), yet super-readable review of their own research and related studies on the nature of unpromotable work and how many social factors coalesce to suck women into nonpromotable "service" work that is so vital to social change, justice, and the "mere" workings of academia. See also this paper I co-authored a while back about mentoring specifically. (If you have trouble accessing it, let me know, and I'll send you a PDF.)

3 The most helpful take on hope that I've read in a long time is Rebecca Solnit's book Hope in the Dark. As she puts it, "hope is not [...] the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine [...] hope [...] is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.”

4 I tallied it up once; I've worked something like 10+ different job descriptions at my current employer, topped only by the total number that were considered/negotiated (approaching 20).

5 So-called "time blindess" is an aspect of ADHD that many people with ADHD experience. I describe it as "time is fake, time is not real" to my brain. People with time blindness may not experience/notice time passing, may not effectively predict how long tasks, travel, etc., may take, and thus often struggle to get places on time (among other intersections with "typical" social conventions relating to time).

6 It's a cliche, but there are many reasons why you so often see "just say no" advice coupled with the admonition to "put your own oxygen mask on first."

7 Discerning what to say yes to and what to say no to is a whole different ballgame. Right now, I'm just focusing on actually saying no.

8 According to the ah-maz-ing resource Quote Investigator, some fairly specific people have said this. It has been attributed to several people, including Si Cornell, Shonda Rhimes, Carol Burnett, Anne Lamott, and more have been credited, but actually, no one knows who first said it.

9 I learned this one from Happier Hour by Dr. Cassie Holmes. The whole book is a great resource for double-checking your own sense of priorities, available time, and satisfaction with how you spend your time.

10 I’m an oldest child, and a daughter at that. Coupled with the nuances of my upbringing, one of my greatest weaknesses (and thus risk factors for saying yes) is someone who needs help and/or might be disappointed in me (not by me) if I say no.

11 Dr. Beronda Montgomery has written a lot of essential reading on working from self-determined affirmation, not for external affirmation, as an academic, in order to effect positive change. Here she specifies one of the ways that she maintains focus: "I prioritize work that I can uniquely do."

12 500 Women Scientists has a database that reports out a lot of information about what people get paid for keynotes, consulting, and more. I often cite the database as part of my rationale for (a) asking for a fee at all and (b) asking for the level of fee I ask for.

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