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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

"No for it" and set your boundaries (plus a work-life harmony resource sheet)

Updated: Nov 24

NOTE: 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, those of us who are able to must create and protect space for people who can't as readily (due to career stage, identity, socioeconomic and caregiving constraints, etc.). At the same time, those of us who can should also hold accountable the people who have said no for too long and who owe a debt of collective effort and service to our professional and personal spheres.


This is installment three in what has become my "No for it" series [1]. At the end of this post, I'm going to share a resource sheet that I've been handing out for at least a year now. My goal is for folks to have ready access to some of the resources that have helped me (and a lot of folks I've consulted with [2]) to figure out what a good no is.

But first, I'll note that I talk a lot about saying no and work-life balance (blech) versus work-life integration or harmony (especially on the Meteor scicomm podcast; start with this episode or this one). And yeah, the semantics of balance, integration, and harmony can sound trendy and irrelevant. But, I'm a person who makes a living with words, and I've found the concept of harmony most helpful for saying no when I need to.

I'm still thinking and posting about saying no for two reasons.

Reason 1

Last week, I did a guest talk/workshop in an undergrad science class. Initially, the professor who invited me wanted me to help the students to get oriented core concepts in scicomm. That was the goal because the students will do a major project that involves sharing science. But, the longer I teach, train/coach, consult on, and study scicomm, the more certain I have become that we have to start by acknowledging our own values and priorities. Without that, we can't hope to recognize and connect to the values of the people that we hope to work and share science with.

So, instead of just doing a scicomm 101 workshop and talking about the deficit model and how there's no general public, etc., I asked the students to focus on why they enrolled in this course, why they are pursuing training in science, and how sharing science effectively and inclusively ties into that. And, all that was nested inside the frame of their big "why": what do they actually hope to do, be, or change in the world?

After the class period ended, I talked for a while with a student who is pursuing several science majors. During class, they'd said my workshop got them thinking: if they were not one semester away from graduating, they would drop out completely. They put it this way:

"This [workshop] make me realize I don't care about science. I mean, I do care about science, but I don't want to do it."

Now, that might not seem like evidence that my workshop is accomplishing what I hope it is, but hoooodeeedoody, yeah! 🤩 That's actually exactly the kind of revelation that could positively change that student's life. Now, they can think about why they may have struggled with motivation, sustained focus, etc., through some or all of their coursework. Now, they can think about what's next, and how they can still leverage their considerable training to do things and spend their time in ways that do matter to them. And they have almost an entire academic year to think about how their coursework can prepare them for what they really do want their next professional step to be.

Put another way, I was once that student. I am a first-generation student and the oldest in my immediate family. I had no real role models for going to college, choosing a career path, or making life decisions in that context. As I've talked about elsewhere, I felt desperately stuck during my freshman year. Ultimately, I attended two different universities and changed my major seven times, on paper, with the Registrar, before I graduated with a bachelor's degree. In the past 20 years, I've also worked 14+ jobs, most in distinct-from-one-another sectors. Some of those jobs I did because of constraints in my life circumstances, some were opportunities, and others tied into my wide-ranging interests. But, with hindsight (and thanks to some therapy and a lot of work to articulate my own priorities now), I suspect that a fair bit of my meandering career path was due to me not knowing how to leverage my life-long priorities to drive what I did next.

Today, I can tell you a compelling (and true) story of my career path(s) that makes it all sound coherent -- as if it was leading toward where I am today. But, honestly, where I am is a happy accident. My professional, civic, and personal past have equipped me to be fantastic at the work I do now. But it wasn't until quite recently (<8 years ago) that working in a university even occurred to me. It was even more recently that it seemed possible. I'm still navigating the complex reality of being a nontraditional, first-gen academic in an atypical faculty role.

If my time with those students last week can help even one of them approach their next professional and academic decisions with a bit more clarity or discernment than I had at their life stage, that's a win.

Reason 2

I am driving my husband up the wall with all my celebration of and reporting on all the things I've managed to say no to. 😼 As I've pondered why, I've realized: I've been focused more on what I'm not doing, rather than articulating or celebrating with him the things that all my "no, nope, not that eithers" have enabled me to do, say yes to, pitch, or even - marvel of marvels - complete.

While that distinction matters for our dinner conversations, it's actually still very important that people put some focus on the nos. That we discuss, share, and even celebrate the boundaries that we set. These boundaries, these nos, do some really important things that merit the light of day.

I've learned that setting boundaries and using them to say no can:

  • help me feel balanced in the world (or, to put it another way, help me respect my own self enough to have boundaries, to say no);

  • compel me to define for myself the terms of my work (and what success looks like), relationships, state of mind, and uses of my time (at least as much as I have agency to);

  • carve out real space in my life for spending time with the companions, communities, and activities that I most value - like this book I'm writing! (get updates here)

  • help me re-orient to a relationship with myself that acknowledges my worth is not determined by productivity (so many wise people have said this!!!), and thus, just resting, opting out, or doing less "productive" things can feel like great permission;

  • support my efforts to accept myself (and my skills and interests) with less guilt about what others expect from me (especially when those expectations are unsustainable or toxic).

Reckoning with boundaries

Of course, all this sounds nice, I discussed (and cited) in the first piece in this series, there are so many reasons why saying no can be hard. Those are real reasons.

All the same, today I'm thinking about what happens when we focus on aspects of our life where we do have the agency to say no. In these cases, for me, one of the major complications of setting real boundaries [3] is that I hate disappointing people. (I internalized so much socialization on this front when I was younger that it's just built-in.) But, I have a counterpoint to my personality which is that in fight-or-flight situations, I'm all fight. And, as the big sister, I read a lot of situations like that when someone else is being oppressed. So, I'm entirely capable of disappointing people by holding them (or the systems they work in/for) accountable. And, I'm getting better at standing up for myself, too. But, it still feels terrible to draw that line and see/feel how negatively people react.

I finally got a tool to help me articulate this dilemma just last weekend. I needed to paint our basement stairwell (part of a 3-months-and-counting renovation due to sewage flooding this summer 🤢😭). To try to make that painting feel less like drudgery, I listened to an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast hosted by Dr. Tressie MacMillan Cottom: Boundaries, Burnout and the 'Goopification' of Self-Care [4]. In that episode, research and clinical psychologist Dr. Pooja Lakshmin said this about the negative, relational side of boundaries:

"...the crux is that the person you’re setting the boundary with cannot make you feel better. Like, they can’t take care of your feelings. If you keep going back to them to try and feel better, that doesn’t work."

That hit me right in the feels. And, it's already come in handy, as I've been sorting through some areas of my work where I've been wanting people to feel okay with the boundaries I've set. That's work I need to do, not necessarily work I can look to them to do.

Work-life harmony resource sheet

With all that in mind, here's where you can find my resource sheet. This resource sheet pulls together some of the key activities and materials I've used to get my head around what I say yes and no to.

Feel free to share it and/or share how you get your head around these things.


The "No for it" series

My “No for it” collection of resources and blog posts emphasizes the importance of recognizing your priorities and making professional (and personal) decisions based on them. You'll find takes on my to-don't list, and the necessary, urgent even, it has become for me to prioritize saying no. You'll also find resources such as 10 ways I've been able to say no (loose scripts you're welcome to borrow) and both productivity and boundary-setting tools.



1 Jokes and puns aren't as funny or engaging when they are explained. But, my inspiration here is a counterpoint to "go for it" or Nike's "just do it." But "just don't it" didn't have quite the same lyricism, so I'm rolling with the other thematic idea.

2 I've facilitated trainings that leverage these mindsets and resources for entities ranging from major EPSCoR Track 2 research programs to executive teams in higher ed (e.g., Student Affairs). I also embed some aspect of these same topics in all my scicomm trainings and courses now.

3 By real boundaries, I mean: articulating my priorities, having those priorities define my decisions, and then actually sticking by them (which usually means making myself say no to something or someone).

4 I'm telling you, the universe is leaning hard into this theme of saying no and setting boundaries. It is popping up everywhere, including randomly in podcasts and various social media posts and so on.

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