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Easy Yes, Graceful No

As hard as it is to believe, the summer is drawing to a close and the new school year is upon us. With its arrival will come many opportunities to use your talents for the greater good of others and for your own satisfaction.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get in my workshops is how to say “No” to many of the opportunities. The question is really a two part question, with the first part being about how to figure out which opportunities to take on and the second part being about how to turn down the other opportunities gracefully.

Deciding on Opportunities - Part 1

A couple of points to consider:

  • You will always have more opportunities present themselves than you can do in a lifetime. If you wish to lead a happy and satisfied life, you need to chose the best projects for you at the right times.

  • No one but you can decide which projects to accept. The people around you may recognize your talents but they don’t know just what you need at this time in your life, nor do they know what else you are working on. That is your job to figure it out.

  • Very seldom is anything a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. If you continue your good work, another version of an opportunity will present itself. I speak from experience. The book I am currently working on was an interesting idea to one publisher six years ago but the timing was not right for me. When the time was right, another publisher expressed interest.

Since you, and only you, can decide what opportunities to say yes and no to, you need a method for making decisions so that the fabric of your life doesn’t feel like a random patchwork of projects. When professors ask me how to decide, I recommend that they develop a life management system that has some criteria built in for accepting and initiating projects. If you have attended any of my workshops, you have seen how the Pyramid of Power can become a lens through which opportunities are filtered until some turn into commitments and the rest are turned away. Just in case you have not yet set up your life management system, I run through the steps in a one hour complementary webinar which I offer every two months or so. If you are not already on the webinar mailing list, hit reply to this newsletter email and type Webinar. You will get periodic invitations as they are scheduled.

There are commercially available systems with fancy computer programs but don’t be misled. The computer program does not make decisions for you. It only gives prompts for you to make the decisions. Here are a set of low tech prompts to help you discern which opportunities are right for you.

  1. Does this opportunity fit my long term goals (Pyramid of Power & Dream Book)?

    If you have attended a Peak Performing Professor workshop at a conference or on your campus, you wrote your life purpose statement, your mission statement (perhaps two, one for your professional life and the other for your personal life), and 6-8 vision statements. Then you collected all of your many goals both present and future into your Dream Book in the categories of your vision statements. Use this life management system tool as a lens through which to filter this current opportunity to see how it fits with your long and short term goals.

    Warning: sometimes an opportunity is so interesting and worthy of your time and talents that it might cause you to rewrite parts of your vision statements. An example might be if a book contract were to be offered to you in your research area.

  2. What resources and commitment (time, money, energy, space, and attention) do I need to manage this opportunity?

    Think through the implication of the opportunity both in the present and in the future. Don’t commit the future planning fallacy, a universal human peculiarity, in which we overestimate future available time. If I ask you to join a committee requiring about five hours of work a week during next week, you will say, “No way, classes have just started and I’m trying to finish some projects that I was overcommitted to this summer and didn’t get done.” But if I ask for the same commitment on your time and energy for next February, you might consider it forgetting that you will also have the same constraints on your schedule at the start of the second semester. To counter the future planning fallacy, pretend the opportunity is for this week and ask yourself how you would fit it in now. If you jump at the chance and start clearing everything off your calendar, then accept it and clear the calendar for that point in the future when the projects has the most intense work.

  3. What is the opportunity cost – the loss/gain (time, money, energy, and attention) and risks of this and other opportunities I won’t do if I do this?

    Even professors who are a bit more realistic about their time use forget to think through the snowball effect of how a possible commitment bumps out other opportunities once you commit. Taking on a course overload may mean you can’t coach your son’s soccer team. This could actually be a good thing if you were looking for an opportunity to get out of the coaching duty but if you love sharing that experience with your son and his friends, you have to calculate the cost of sacrificing it for the extra course.

    It is ok to be healthily selfish about how an opportunity fits in with your overall career plan. Too many associate professors without tenure take department chairmanships only to find that those responsibilities prevent them from focusing on the teaching and scholarship goals that position them for promotion and tenure.

  4. Is this the right time in terms of my vision given other professional and person projects I am also committed to?

    Some opportunities are so tempting but the timing is off. The first time I was asked to submit a book proposal on my current project, I agonized over the lost opportunity if I said no to that publisher. But then I asked myself, “Is this something I want to do someday? If so, what would it take to get there?” Then I outlined a specific strategic plan to develop material, road test it in workshops for five years, and then write a proposal. When the next opportunity came to submit a proposal, I was ready.

  5. How do I get the time to do this project: get rid of other tasks or say “No” to other opportunities?

    For this step you need to have an approximate idea how long the opportunity will take. One way to guesstimate this is to review similar projects you have done and recall how much time they took. Another way is to ask someone who works on similar projects. Multiply whatever time commitment you guess by a factor of two. Things always take longer than you think.

Deciding on Opportunities - Part II

Many times you will create ideas for opportunities. You might get excited about a research idea you would like to work on or a course revision that would make your class so much more interesting. You will be making that decision mostly on your own except for talking to others who have done similar projects to find out what their experience was. For example, if you are considering writing a book, you might ask colleagues who have written books how they managed to do so without taking a sabbatical. You might find out about time lines for research submissions.

In addition to your own ideas, invitations to participate in projects will come from others. The second part of the discernment process is about how to interact with the opportunity giver (the O.G.) Your goal is to say “Yes” with conviction or “No” without feeling guilty.

Here are the stages of how to interact with and O.G about an opportunity.

  1. The invitation

    An opportunity giver (O.G.) approaches you to invite you to write, teach, serve _______ (fill in the blank). The first thing you say is, “Thank you for the honor of asking me. Tell me more about this opportunity.” Ask specific questions such as how much time the project will take, what standard the final product should be in, with whom you will be working, what support you will have?” After you have gotten the information you need to consider the opportunity say, “I need about ___ (24 or 48 hours) to decide. I will get back to you at______.”

  2. The discernment

    Using the questions listed in Part I above, compare the opportunity with your Pyramid of Power.

    If you are leaning towards accepting the opportunity, consider what you are giving up to do it and what resources it will take (time, people, equipment) to support its completion.

    If you are leaning towards rejecting the opportunity, consider what you are losing by not doing it. Start to consider whom you know who might be good at the skills needed. You do not have to know whether those people are available.

  3. The action plan

    If your answer is yes, start to plan a sample day in the life of this opportunity and think through how you will integrate it with your other responsibilities.

    If your answer is no, contact some people who have the skills and ask if you can suggest their name for the opportunity. Reassure them that that does not constitute a commitment on their part but that the O.G. might be contacting them.

    If the answer is that you can do part of the project but not the full opportunity, figure out what you are willing to do, for example, co-chairing a committee instead of chairing it. Get clear on what you will and won’t do and what kind of support you might need.

  4. The encounter

    If the answer is yes, go back to the O.G. and say you would be happy to take the opportunity as long as you have proper support such as lab space, student assistants, or whatever else you need. Get clear about deadlines, standards, reporting schedules, final outcomes and the consequences if those are not met.

    If the answer is no, go back to the O.G. and say, “Thank you again for your confidence in me about this opportunity. I will not be able to do it at this time (or that is not something I ever want to do). However, Peggy, Jose, and Bryan have those skills. I don’t know what their availability is but I let them know that you might be contacting them.”

    If the answer is a partial yes, discuss and negotiate what you need and how you want the opportunity to unfold. Listen to what the O.G. wants and look for overlapping areas of expectations. Get clear about the items listed above under a yes answer. When the timing is not right now but you anticipate it being right in the future, offer your service for a future date. You might say, “I can’t chair that committee for this two year term but I would be willing to be considered again for the next term.”

A Few Caveats

If you decide not to take an opportunity offered by O.G.s, don’t give reasons why you can’t do the project. As soon as you do, they will try to solve the time management conflict. If you say, “The children are home on spring break that week,” O.G.s offer to have their teens babysit. If you have an infirmed mother-in-law moving in with you, O.G.s will arrange Senior Ride to take her to the senior center. All you have to say is, “I won’t be able to take this opportunity but thank you for having the confidence in my skills to ask me.”

If the O.G. is your boss, you might not have the complete freedom to pick the projects you work on. Instead you will need to negotiate tradeoffs on projects, for example, you might ask to be assigned to only one new teaching preparation a semester so that you can continue with a research agenda which brings grant money into the department.


Appling the above guidelines will help you say easy yes’s to a few opportunities and graceful no’s to many others. Your college will get great service from you as you enjoy working on projects that challenge you and develop your skills.

© Copyright 2010 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without the publisher’s permission.

CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3725 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Website:

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