You are smart and competent. You work in an environment that values autonomy. You value autonomy. You feel like you should be able to do things yourself.
However, you are also part of a complex division of labour in which other people’s work supports your daily existence. You probably don’t grow all of your own food, build your own house, find your own fuel to heat that house, get your water from a natural water source and purify it to make it safe to drink.
In your working life, someone else recruits the students, deals with the administrative issues around registering them and making sure that their studies will be recognized by others. Someone else has provided facilities for you to work in, with the appropriate technical equipment (even if that equipment is just a whiteboard at the front of the room).
There are powerful cultural narratives that tend to downplay or even obfuscate the extent to which we are interdependent. You are not a cultural dupe. But these narratives have influenced your own core beliefs. Your gremlins whisper them to you. They sometimes shout them when it looks like you are doing something that doesn’t fit.
Asking for and accepting help is hard
Don’t beat yourself up for valuing autonomy and independence. Don’t think it should be easy to ask for or accept help.
Do remind yourself that you are part of a complex division of labour. A university is a large, complex organization with professional staff that have a wide variety of skills and knowledge. The work that you aren’t so good at and don’t like doing might be exactly the thing someone else loves and excels at.
For example, paying someone to clean your house does not mean that you don’t value that work highly enough to do it yourself. It means you value it enough to ensure it gets done regularly and well, and that you are willing to prioritize (financial) resources for that task.
The same can be said for research tasks you assign to a research assistant, teaching tasks you assign to a teaching assistant, administrative tasks, editing tasks, or any number of other things. When you break you work (paid work, household work, whatever) down into tasks, you will begin to see that you can accomplish more with the right team.
Sometimes there are people already there willing and able to do some of those tasks. For example, if you have taken on a leadership role, there may an administrator who will manage your calendar and help you with a range of tasks that make your life easier. If you feel guilty for asking her to do this and insist on continuing to do these things for yourself, not only are you adding to your own workload but you are also implicitly denigrating your administrator’s skills and knowledge.
How do you get better at asking for and accepting help?
Experiment! Treat every occasion where you ask for and/or accept help as a learning experience.
- You are learning about how to ask for/accept help.
- You are learning about what kinds of things you can ask for/accept help with.
- You are learning about what kinds of things you are better off doing yourself.
Start with something that you find relatively easy to let go. Something that you aren’t going to want to micro-manage if someone else is doing it for you. Something that needs to be done but you aren’t very invested in doing for yourself.
You are a unique individual. The things you will find most helpful to get other people to do will not be the same as those your friend, your colleague, your mother, or your neighbour gets other people to do. Don’t start with something that feels like you should be able to get help with because other people don’t seem to find it weird.
Take notes. This is an experiment and experimental method requires you to record your observations so you can make informed decisions based on those observations. If it helps, get a notebook especially for help experiments.
- What went well?
- What didn’t work?
- What did your gremlins not like about particular help requests.
Be specific. Remember, it might be that the person you asked for help wasn’t the right person, not that the task wasn’t the right one to delegate. Only experimentation will give you the answers.
You are a researcher. You can do this.
You have time to figure this out
The point of these experiments is to make your life less stressful. You are trying to figure out how to do your job well and enjoy other things in life. Your capacity is finite. You are trying to figure out how to do more of the stuff that you really value and also get enough rest, eat well, etc.
You will always be experimenting with this in some way. The experiments will just get more complex, like levels in a game. You will get better at figuring out what you need to do yourself, what you can delegate to others, and how to delegate more effectively.
The point of doing this is that by asking for and accepting help you can do more of the things only you can do, the things you are really good at and love doing. You will be able to achieve more (for yourself and for others) by harnessing the power of the division of labour.
A version of this post was originally published Aug 31, 2010.