Do this before you say yes to anything

You just got asked to do something new. It might be to join an on-campus committee, or to talk at a fancy university. It might be a one-off request to review a paper, write a letter of recommendation, or serve on a National Science Foundation panel. How do you decide whether to say yes?

Your first response might be to say why yes, I would love to do that. Thank you so much for thinking of me and making me feel that I’m part of this great process of making science and scientists better in the nation and the world. Surely I can fit your very valid request into my day.  And you say yes, and yes, and yes again.

And then you wonder where your time went. You try to count the hours you spend in a day thinking about ideas and find that it is not hours but minutes. Your exercise schedule diminishes. You no longer enjoy chopping the first onion of the evening for dinner. You turn back to the computer after the kids are in bed, or even before.

Do not let this happen to you! Reserve time for research and your family above all else. And of course there will be the commitments of teaching. So how do you find a balance? I have two recommendations.

The first is to stop seeing your life as an empty field onto which you can paint new blooms. See your life instead as a packed prairie where every plant has fought to get there. If you add something, you must take something away. Make yourself name it. Have a chart if that helps. And no, deciding you will magically work harder or more efficiently is not an answer. Are you going to take away sleep? Not a good idea.

It is true you will gradually become more efficient and be able to do more than before. I spent a week writing the first tenure recommendation for someone decades ago. Now I can do it in 3 hours, sometimes less. But this doesn’t happen just because you suddenly got asked to do something new.

Many new things are well worth doing. Serving on an NSF panel early in your career can be insightful. I remember a time when I wondered why I was not on the editorial board of any journal and so was very glad when I was finally asked. I also remember the first time I was asked to give a talk at another university. But as your career advances these and all the rest start piling in. It all glitters, but don’t pick it all up. So how do you decide?

A mentor can be a friend and peer. Me and my college roommate, Nancy Scheer

My second main piece of advice is that you cannot decide alone. You should have a mentor, or even a small committee of mentors that can help. They will know all your other obligations. You can talk it through with them. They can help you see what is in your best interest, help you see how to balance giving back to the community, local and international, with continuing your own career. After all, whoever asked you to do something has no idea what else you have to do, or what your life looks like right now. I once asked the late Ilke Hanski to handle a manuscript for PNAS and he wrote me back that he was busy helping his lab group before dying and could not do it. I still feel bad that I even took enough of his time to get that answer. But your mentor will know. Listen to her because she will listen to you and help you decide.

A couple of mentors might be better because they will have different perspectives. So, as your career grows remember that your day is already full. Some things are still worth adding as others are subtracted. The trick is to figure out what. I am still grateful to my mentors for helping me find balance and forgiving me for saying no, and also for saying yes.



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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