Learning to say no

Probably the biggest problem I’ve had in my “early career mathematician” life is that I do too many things. I wrote a bit already about my over-functioning issues in an older post. In part, this is how I have always been. I was the kid who tried to get A’s in school at the same time as taking piano, ballet, and musical theory lessons and playing (poorly) in the volleyball team. Sometimes, doing all these things keeps me activated, like knowing I don’t have much time is good for getting things done. The problem with math research is that it is not something you can just get done. It requires creativity and long periods of time where your full attention is devoted to a problem. Today, a friend of mine shared a blog post that made me think a bit harder about something I suspect needs to be done more often (at least in my case), which is to say no.

The post, published in March by Kevin Ashton, is simply titled Creative People Say No. I guess it’s not a surprise that people who are very dedicated to their work are less willing to take time away from it. Ashton’s post is more about the fact that these people can only be as good at their job as they are precisely because they say no to things unrelated to their creative work. I don’t think I will do his post any justice by paraphrasing, especially since it features many quotes by other people, so I highly recommend you take some time to read it. Here I mostly want to ponder how this can be interpreted in the context of mathematics research.

Like I said above, math research is not something you can just put on your to-do list (although I must admit it often makes it into my to-do list, mostly as a “work on this problem” kind of item) and check off. We can plan on working on a problem, but we can’t plan on solving it. I do my best work when I have long chunks of uninterrupted time. A lot of that time is spent staring at the blackboard or the piece of paper where I scribbled something. But this “staring into space” time is still extremely important! Stuff is happening. (This process is hilariously represented in this  clip from the Big Bang Theory.) At any rate, sometimes it’s hard to do research because we have only small chunks of time here or there, like a few hours in between classes, in between office hours, in between committee meetings. Something I have tried to do at Bates is to leave one whole day a week (besides weekends) in which I don’t have anything planned. This way, I know I can spend all day working on research. Many times that has been sacrificed for grading or lesson planning, so I still need to learn how to make “research day” sacred. For research day to happen successfully (which I already mentioned I’m yet to accomplish), one must be very good at saying no. No to students who want to meet that day, no to committees that might want to meet (although those are more difficult to refuse), no to doing errands, etc. This is another reason sabbaticals are such a great idea. They are exactly designed so that you have an extended period intended only for research. Unfortunately, sabbaticals happen only every few years (the frequency depends a lot on the institution, as does the length of the sabbatical).

A long time ago, during a Project NExT panel, Colin Adams gave the following advice to people who want to balance teaching and research: stop watching TV. Clearly, as evidenced by my knowledge of Big Bang Theory clips, you can see I haven’t followed this advice very well. But I think there’s something to the spirit of this advice, which is to just use your time more fruitfully and mindfully. We don’t have a lot of free time (and many of us cannot swing “research day”), and so we might as well use it for the important stuff. However, I do think idle time is important for creativity and just general sanity (and this New York Times blog post from last year agrees with me). We must be careful not to fall into the “busy trap”. If you feel inspired by math and want to work on your problem all through the night, by all means do. But don’t spend all night working on math because it’s the only free time you have all week. That’s a recipe for disaster I think.  I also think that shunning social interaction might be what the creative geniuses do (as Ashton mentions), but I am not interested in emulating this behavior myself.

There is a famous address by Joe Gallian at the end of every first Project NExT workshop the fellows attend, called “Finding your Niche in the Profession” but that we all dub the “Just Say Yes” speech. Gallian’s point is more that you need to find a way to be indispensable to your institution and to adjust to the institution you’re at rather than pine for the institution you wish you were at (I’m paraphrasing from an article by Aparna Higgins here). The way you do this, Gallian says, is to try new things and say yes to anything you’re invited to do. This is how he says he became so successful at his own institution. And to some extent I agree with him. I myself have benefited from saying yes to some time-consuming but rewarding and fun opportunities (this blog being one of them!).

So, as an early-career mathematician, the problem is balancing everything just right. You want to protect your time so you can be creative and do research (just say no). But you also want to be indispensable to your institution, which requires that you participate in lots of things (just say yes). You definitely don’t want to fall into the “busy trap” or end up over-functioning. So what is one to do? I certainly don’t have the answer. I tend to be the sort of person who does a lot of course-correction and not so much planning. I started out at Bates saying yes to lots of things, inspired by Gallian but also driven by my multi-tasking personality. Then I started feeling run-down and tired (over-functioning and falling into the busy trap), and my colleagues started mentioning that I was doing too much (a sign that you are NOT in fact doing what other people expect from you). So I started saying no to some conferences, talks, and other new things. Recently, I decided I would only go to math conferences that were directly linked to my research, and I think that will help. Like I said in another previous post, I find it hard to say no when someone invites me to give a talk, because that has been so good for my career in the past. However, if you don’t have any new research, then people will stop wanting to hear you talk!

I haven’t talked about teaching at all, but I think it’s worth mentioning that many of us try to be creative about our teaching, and thus need plenty of time to think about that too. The grading and day to day stuff can be accomplished during those short chunks of free time since these are things you can just DO, but the course design and planning is much more difficult. This is why some institutions will give you a course reduction so you can spend more time designing a new course (this is at least true for Bates).

In the end, this blog post seems to mention many issues, and provide few answers. How to balance saying no and saying yes is very tricky. So, dear readers, do you have advice for early career mathematicians? Have you found this as difficult as I, or am I making this too complicated of an issue? Do you say no a lot? Yes a lot? Should there be different proportions of yes/no depending on the type of institution you’re at? Sound off in the comments section below!

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yyy5 Responses to Learning to say no

  1. Jorge Palacios (@pctroll) says:

    Hi Adriana.

    I really understand what you’re going through. I’m pursuing a masters degree and it’s been very difficult for me to work on my thesis and subjects because I was like you. I was in a band, I was learning French, I blog, I have a couple of personal projects in game development, a part-time job and the masters degree subjects. Oh boy… It’s sad I didn’t understand earlier the importance of being focused.

    As you already said, there’s no easy answer for that. It’s just by trial and error that we find our balance, because there are so many variables involved in our lives and each one of us has assigned different values… I think it’s half hunch and half logic+pragmatism.

    Hope you do well on your research and find your balance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject and I think we, your readers, will try to do the same: find our own balance.

    Cheers!

    PS: I think you know Spanish, so here’s what I wrote earlier this year

  2. Jason Starr says:

    I am a regular reader (perhaps lurker), but this is the first time I felt moved to reply. I completely agree that young mathematicians need to learn to say no. My impression is that senior faculty do not even recognize when they are overloading their junior colleagues. Of course our undergraduate students do not recognize this either, and probably would not care even if they did recognize this: is not the purpose of every faculty member to be on 24-hour call for all course concerns, no matter how trivial? So saying no is a crucial survival skill. If you really feel uncomfortable saying no outright, a good automatic response is, “I cannot agree to that right now, but let me think about it.” Again, the way many senior faculty think about these chores, they are as likely to try to find another junior colleague for the task than to get back to you. Of course if they do get back to you, perhaps the task is worth considering seriously.

  3. Matilde says:

    There is another variable that should be considered, namely, when you say “yes”, how seriously are you going to commit? For example, I have no problem in saying “no”, but when I say “yes”, it means that I’ll do my best in the task. It is a mistake to act like this with any task. There are things that we shouldn’t take that seriously… I’d say, for example, take seriously research and teaching, but be more relax about committee work.

  4. Daniel Díaz says:

    Lastly, I have been feeling like doing too many things. Involved in too many things. But I really wanted to do everything I did. It’s an issue when all the opportunities show up at the same time, or when you have different ideas and don’t want to leave any of them. Also, I thought that, perhaps, I was going to miss a sort of chances that in the future I will not have again.

    All I want to say is: it is difficult sometimes to say “no”, regardless if it’s convenient for you or not.

    And, yes, I would like to find that time to just think about a problem, approach it in different ways, write about it, sort my ideas and share them. And I hope you can find that time too. Hopefully, very soon.

  5. Luís Borges says:

    Hi :)

    The question of this post of yours has got me wondering, how many surprises life may have, for me, as a (sometimes) “say yes” kind of person.
    Recently (in the last couple or triple of years) I said “yes” two times (I mean, an important “yes”):
    The first one, led me to fully dedicate myself to produce some quite unusual kind of materials for my students (high school students). Statistics stuff. Actually, in a sense, I was saying “yes” just to myself, as no one demanded me to go as far as I went. From a college perspective, just some trivial things, nothing special, but a lot of work (and some coding).
    The second one, led me to lend my full support and dedication (also, in the statistics field) to a child psychiatrist that I had the good chance to meet last year. She is doing her PhD research and she asked for my help in order to manage some data. This time, I had to write some more code, to read quite a bit, to think a lot and to work even more.
    In both cases, my work was elementary, if not very basic (even if time consuming). But then, the surprise came (and life “happened”):
    Changing needles, so to speak, I decided to use the codes written, in order to validate one diagnostic of some dynamical objects that I have been studying, in the last few years. These are ninth degree polynomials, defined on the 3-adic integer ring, whose dynamics I am trying to connect with some interesting L functions.
    To make things short: doing the proper tests, I came up to an “astronomical” p value, of the order of magnitude of ten to minus sixty eight (which I’m still to digest what it means; remember: applied statisticians are usually glad to find values like ten to minus three).
    Summing up: I did say “no” to many, many things in life, in order to advance in my freelancer research (involving the connection between p-adic dynamics and the semi stable elliptic curves with the interesting L functions); however, this last advance of mine (a quite important one, for me, I suspect) was achieved – as it was – only because I did say those two “yes”.

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