The art of saying no…

My week could’ve known a better start… I had to go searching for a lost key, which isn’t fun on a Monday morning. And when I finally got to work, the coffee machine was waiting for me with a note “out of coffee”. Ehm. How about instead of writing notes, you go get some coffee?

Anyway, that was not the point of this post. Much worse, is the fact that I’ve forgotten my headphones. Apparently my brain is still in weekend zombie modus, losing keys and forgetting things… Why is it so bad to do without headphones, you may wonder?

For me, my headphones have become a LEAVE ME IN PEACE shout to the world. I wear them in the lab when doing complicated experiments that I need to focus on. Same goes for reading papers that I need to concentrate on.

The problem is, that I’ve grown from junior student to longest-around post-doc in the almost 5 years I’ve spent in this institute. And generally, I’m fine with answering questions and helping people out. Which is not a problem at all, until the entire lab, with the exception of 2 assistants, is newer than you are and keeps asking questions.

I’ve found a few solutions for this:

First, I made sure that when I instruct people, I do it right. Take time for it and explain things carefully. The next time someone asks, I have the option to redirect them to this person just in case I don’t have time.

Second, I prefer making appointments with the students I’m directly supervising. May sound formal, but that way they make sure to “prepare” and know what they want to talk about. And I can make sure I have plenty of time to really help them out without feeling under pressure to rush it off in able to continue some important experiment.

Third and most important: my headphones! Like indicated before, my headphones signal to the world that I am busy and do not wish to be disturbed. In a way you can thus read my state of availability: headphones, don’t even bother, I may bite your head off. No headphones, feel free to try but no guarantees… Setting a time: I’m all yours!

I’m actually very bad at saying no to people. So today, I’ll probably be swamped by people who don’t see headphones and thus feel free to ask away. Either I decide to do a few experiments less, or I could try practice saying no to people… I guess saying no is an important “skill” for anyone, but maybe especially so for researchers with lots on their plates. Might be good to develop during one’s PhD project or as post-doc, as it’ll become increasingly important later on…



  1. When I started as a new faculty several years ago I had to attend an orientation. One of the best sessions was on the topic of learning to say “no.” I still advise young faculty that this is one of the best skills to learn. Otherwise the job can become overwhelming.

  2. On the bus in to work this morning I was considering this exact “saying no” issue. My supervisor is very keen to have me help out on a lot of projects as a result of my statistical experience. If I’m not already totally overwhelmed with work stuff I am fast approaching it. I was going to do the headphones trick today but it just ends up with people talking to my back and then getting frustrated when they don’t get a response from me. Perhaps I need a phone on the back of my chair that says “Send me an email”.

  3. I some how use the same headphones trick, but not for sayying no, but in order to be able to concentrate, especially that i study in the library, and it gets a bit noisy in there

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