There are a lot of tasks that when done well no one even notices. They are essential to the smooth running of your department, institution, and scholarly association, and yet they are often invisible. Even if doing the actual tasks gets some recognition, thinking about what needs to be done and ensuring someone does it remains unseen and undervalued. Some have called these the tasks of academic citizenship or academic housekeeping (a term that implicitly acknowledges the gendered dynamics).
You keep taking on these tasks not because you are weak and unable to say no, but because you recognize their importance. Those advising you to get better at saying no seem to be encouraging to care less about the collective and focus more on your own priorities. This feels selfish.
Incompetent or overwhelmed?
You can’t do a good job of the things you’ve said yes to unless you have enough time and energy. Research shows that if you are routinely working more than 40 hours a week, your productivity drops and you don’t actually accomplish any more than you would if you regularly limited your working hours.
Fatigue impairs cognitive function. You take longer to do things. You have more difficulty focusing. You make more mistakes. You spend more time fixing mistakes. The adrenaline and cortisol you produce (not to mention the caffeine & sugar you consume) to keep moving when you are tired makes it harder for you to sleep, making you more tired. It’s a vicious circle.
While some of your colleagues are being strategically incompetent, a lot of late and poor quality work is not strategic at all. Colleagues who mean well are often doing the tasks they’ve been assigned late or to a low standard because they’ve taken on too much. They aren’t replying to email because it’s lost in an overflowing in-box. They are sometimes creating more work for others chasing them up or fixing the problems. They are not incompetent. They are overwhelmed. They feel bad about that but that doesn’t fix the problem. You might be one of them.
Serving the collective by being more selective
Academic citizenship (or administration or service) is not one thing. It is a category. There are many different tasks and projects that fall within this category. While everyone should have something in this category in their workload most of the time (with the exception of sabbatical leave), you can be selective about exactly what that looks like for you right now.
You need to be better at saying no, and more selective about what you say yes to, in order to do the things you say yes to well. Getting better at saying no doesn’t mean never doing the tasks of academic citizenship. It means being selective about which tasks of academic citizenship you take on and how many of those things you take on at any given time.
Being selective means taking time to make decisions. It means considering carefully specific options for academic citizenship in relation to your knowledge, skills, and values. Meaningfulness makes a difference. Sometimes you will take something on for a defined period of time because you value everyone doing their share. Most of the time you should be able to do your share by taking on something that also aligns with other values you want to prioritize. Most of the time, you can do your share by taking on something you know you already know how to do or want to learn how to do for other reasons.
You aren’t being selfish. You are being realistic about what you can commit to and prioritizing quality over quantity. Sometimes being selective means setting limits on how well you will do the assigned task. It isn’t your personal responsibility to compensate for what your colleagues aren’t doing or for what your institution isn’t allocating enough resources for. What is the best way for you to contribute to these important collective projects?
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan outlines the principles that underpin all of my advice about how to manage your workload.
Before you can say no… on strategies for taking time to make decisions.
Permission to refuse service/admin requests an earlier take on this topic which has some useful questions to ask yourself when choosing which tasks/projects to take on.