Be OK Saying “no”

A couple of weekends ago, I presented a CE talk.  It was a one-hour talk which I’ve done before.  I enjoyed giving the talk- the attendees laughed in all the right places and I felt like I dispensed some good advice and information.  The talk was preceded by a four hour drive, and followed by a four hour drive.  All told it was ~9.5 hours out of my day- it took up my entire Sunday.  I didn’t get paid for it.  As I was driving down, I thought, “What in the world am I doing?”  I wasn’t OK saying “no”.

A common problem in veterinary medicine is that generally we are giving people.  We want to help.  We want to contribute.  We are all leaders, and the best leaders lead from the front- taking on tasks, solving problems, and making things better.  As a result, a lot of veterinarians end up taking on a lot of responsibilities.  Early career faculty members are especially bombarded with doing things, but even those who get to Associate or full Professor rank often have significant miscellaneous responsibilities.

We chair committees.  We’re on patient review boards.  We do CE for our staff.  We write communication materials and blogs for our clients.  We have hospital director or section chief duties.  We lead interviews.  There’s a whole bunch of Stuff that happens which we take responsibility for, even though it’s largely beyond the scope of responsibilities for our job.  I think it’s because we want to help and we have a hard time saying “no”.

I think saying “no” is hard because we don’t want to let others down.  When someone comes and asks us to help do something, maybe we feel flattered.  “Hey, they asked ME to help!  That means they must think well of me!  I should return that positive regard with a positive answer!”  Maybe we feel we need to have a reason to say “no”, that the default answer should be “yes” unless there’s a “good” reason.  Sometimes we may even feel busy and burdened already and yet say “yes” regardless.

Nearly every email that comes into my inbox I read and think, “Can/should I do that?”  Judge the undergrad poster presentations.  Take on an intern mentee.  Fill out a survey.  Give a CE talk.  Take a locum gig for a few weeks.  Provide feedback to the COE on accreditation standards.  Serve on this regional veterinary symposium subcommittee.  Do an external evaluation for someone’s promotion & tenure.  The asks are nearly endless.

And, until the past year or so, almost all of these I said “yes” to.  They sounded interesting, or I wanted to help, or I felt bad for the organizer because I thought they wouldn’t get many volunteers.  This had several significant effects on my career and life.  One, I had a lot of neat opportunities and interactions and learned a lot of different things.  Two, I kept very busy, with very little downtime.  Three, I sometimes did things that built up my CV and supported my career.  Four, I got a reputation for being someone who is willing to help and take on tasks.

Note that not all of these consequences are bad.  In fact, a lot of them are good.  Perhaps the most important to consider is #2, staying busy.  As a general rule, I’d prefer being more active than more idle.  In contrast, my best friend is unhappy if he has to work more than 20 hours in a week.  So this is something that will differ by person and is worth reflecting on.  I’ve also discovered that it can change.  Early in my career, if I wasn’t in my office most of Saturday and part of Sunday, I don’t know what I would have done with my time.  Nowadays, I like having time for walks or reading or other brain-downtime activities.  So, I have learned to start to say “no” more often.

Now I am being far more selective about the things to which I say “yes”.  I don’t have hard-and-fast rules (those would probably help this process a lot), but now when I look at an email I generally think, “This isn’t my responsibility.  Someone else can do this.”  I don’t think the world will collapse without my participation, but it’s hard telling myself that. Additionally, at this point in my career, I don’t NEED to bolster my education, CV, or reputation. In the example from the beginning of this post, I could have referred the CE opportunity to a junior faculty member who would benefit much more from giving the talk. As we advance in our career, we can say “no” in order to let the newer generation of vets say “yes”.  

It’s OK to say “yes”.  It’s ALSO OK to say “no”.  If you ALWAYS say “no”, I think you may miss out on some cool opportunities.  If you ALWAYS say “yes”, I think you may get burned out.  So, it’s a balance.  But most veterinarians have a harder time saying “no”.  So I encourage you to reflect on that and give yourself permission to say “no”.

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