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  • Writer's pictureKate Tapper

How to say No and beat the demons of overcommitment

Overwhelm is rife in academia because there is always way too much to do. The wonderful Kate Tapper from Bud Development is back in this month's guest blog, giving us all some fantastic advice on how to say no.


Overcommit / oh-ver-kuh-mit / verb

to allocate in excess of capacity for replenishment or fulfilment


Too much to do and too much to think about. We may be longing to slow down and find balance, but there are lists – so many lists – of things demanding our attention. We are tired and running on adrenaline and caffeine. So why do we keep saying yes?

When we are frenetically busy, we often say yes without thinking. Or we end up stewing on decisions to say no, spending ages crafting replies in our head. How to say no in a way that doesn’t sound rude or harm a working relationship? How to say no without apologising or implying that we ought to be saying yes?

Meet the twin demons

First of all, if you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s not your fault. You are not missing a character trait, strategy, or a new app. It’s a systemic problem. There really is too much to do and too little time to do it in. While you may not be able to fix the entire academic system, you can get to know a couple of the demons lurking within and resist their tempting voices.

The FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) demon

The FOMO demon thrives in academia where your career evolves from all sorts of serendipitous connections. There is always the possibility that this thing could lead to the next thing. This grant application could lead to a new research area. Going to this conference could land you your next job. It’s not surprising that many academics feel anxious about saying no. But saying yes to everything leads to overwork, burnout, family disharmony and unhappiness. Saying no to a few things now allows you to say yes to better opportunities later.


The guilt demon

The guilt demon drives many a reluctant yes and it turns up in different forms. It sneaks up when someone asks you for something and whispers that you are letting people down. You feel guilty saying no to requests for help, to meetings, to collaborations. Your own writing, reading, and research feels self-indulgent. The guilt demon makes us feel so deeply uncomfortable that we will ditch our plans and type ‘yes’ to requests that make our stomach churn and heart sink.


Beating the demons

Forewarned is forearmed. Know that you are going to feel that urge to say yes, and your stomach is going to churn if you contemplate saying no and it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. Keep telling yourself what you are making time for and why. Stick a reminder somewhere you can remember it, make it your screen saver, put a note in your calendar for the start of every day.


The No Thank You email

So here you are with your post-it on the wall, clear that you will say no to the next request for you to co-author a paper on your least favourite topic. The snag is the actual saying of the word no to the person asking – this is the hardest part. Your moment of clarity passes and your mind is beset by thoughts such as ‘what if collaborating on this dull paper turns out to be the pivotal career changing moment of my life?’ and ‘I really like this person and if I don’t help them now our working relationship will be damaged forever’ and ‘I know I said my workload was full, but I do really need another paper’ and ‘maybe it would actually be fine to get up at 430am to write every day’. Having a head full of such thoughts is not at all conducive to writing a nice straightforward email to say ‘thanks but no’. What happens instead is that:


a. you avoid replying for ages, feeling more and more guilty and horrible about it

b. you spend ages drafting a reply full of apologies and over-complicated explanations

Requests mount up and your brain gets full of pending email drafts until it just feels easier to say yes, or worse, maybe. (Maybe leaves the door cracked open just enough for a more forceful person to take that as a yes and barge on through.)


So here comes the thank-you-but-no email. This is a simple idea. Instead of spending ages agonising every time you need to say no, you write a good ‘thank you but no’ email, send it and then save it for next time.


Here is an example:

Dear X

Thank you for.....

thinking of me/sharing this/including me..

I would be grateful for the opportunity to....

work with you on/meet these people/develop this area..


However, I have checked my current commitments and, at this time...

I can offer....X amount of time/these contacts/this information OR

I can't offer the time/commitment this needs


I would love to hear how it goes


I look forward to seeing you at/Best of luck with...


Best wishes


And if someone puts you on the spot in person just say “thank you, let me check a few things and get back to you” – then use this template for an email or a conversation later.


Avoiding Sorry

Do you know you apologise too much? Here are some phrases that you could use instead of ‘sorry’ when you are saying no:


“Thank you for including me, but I’m unable to commit to this”

"I appreciate your offer, but I won't be able to."

"I have prior commitments and can't take on anything else right now."

"I'm afraid I can't make it work at this time."

"I need to prioritize other projects."

"I've got a full plate, so I can't take this on at the moment."

"I have to decline, as it doesn't align with my current schedule."

"I'm not in a position to accommodate that request."

"I'm not available for this right now."

"I'm respectfully declining your offer."

"I'm going to have to pass on this opportunity."


Remember it doesn’t always have to be you that says yes. Saying no opens other opportunities for you and gives others a chance to step forward.

Kate Tapper is a career coach and Founder of Your Research Matters You can contact Kate directly at or access her ‘no checklist’ and newsletter here.

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