“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” – Why scientists need to learn to say “no” to themselves


Earlier this week I had to write an email to some potential collaborators that I really wasn’t looking forward to sending.  I’ve been doing some hard thinking since Christmas and had decided not to go ahead with a grant submission for a project that was my idea, that I had initiated.  I was now pulling back from that and feeling as though I was letting people down.

The fundamental reason is lack of time, of being really over-stretched at the moment.  Just before the Christmas break I received word that two grants that I’m involved with, one funded by NERC, the other by the Australian Research Council (ARC), were both successful. This is on top of four existing projects, funded by NERC, BBSRC, Heritage Lottery Fund and Butterfly Conservation. Plus the non-funded work I’m doing.  One of my tasks this week was to add a Current Projects and Collaborations page to this blog, so I can keep track of what I’m doing as much as anything!  Although I’m a minor partner in many of these projects, it’s still a lot of work to keep on top of everything, plus teaching,  the Research Excellence Framework for which I’m departmental lead, etc.  I’m also trying to complete a book which I’ve promised to deliver to the publisher soon.  And blogging of course….

There’s a line in the Lord of Rings in which Bilbo tells Gandalf that “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Intellectually that’s how I’m feeling at the moment.

It’s my own fault, I say “yes” to things too readily, something which a lot of academics do and which is being widely discussed on Twitter and in other blogs.  Most of this discussion focuses on saying “no” to other people, to manuscript and grant reviews, to offers of collaborations, and so forth.

But I think it’s just as important that we learn to say “no” to ourselves.  We need to realise that, however great an idea that we’ve had is or however enthusiastic we are about a project or a paper or a book or organising a conference, if we don’t have the time and energy to follow through and do it properly, we are selling ourselves and our collaborators short.

Of course this is easy to say but not so easy to put into practice.  There are a lot of external pressures on academics to write more grant proposals and papers, to do more work on the impact of their research, to take on tasks within and without their institutions, and thus spread themselves too thin.  Being a scientist and teacher in a university is a great job and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I do.  But in the long term we’re doing no one any favours, not least our employers and our families, if we burn out early.

9 thoughts on ““I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” – Why scientists need to learn to say “no” to themselves

  1. Marco Mello

    Wow, that resonated strongly with me. In grad school and also in the first years after getting my PhD, I used to say “yes” to a lot of invitations. Only after I’ve lost some close friends to burnout, and also lost my own health a few years ago, life taught me the wisdom of “no”. Since then, I’ve restructured my whole life and started cultivating healthier habits, aiming at reuniting body, mind, and spirit. The most important lesson I’ve learned is not to succumb to the competition paranoia in Academia. Did I lose opportunities and status? Yes. Do I hear gossip about how I’m failing? Yes. But I improved my life considerably and that is priceless. To surf your wave, I’ll also quote Tolkien: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”.

  2. Guy George

    As a senior leader in a large private sector company I had many years of personally being overstretched but more critically managing teams who were overstretched. The corporate hunger for demanding more and more initiatives is insatiable put together with priorities that shift from one week to the next can result not only in personal stress but organisational chaos making it difficult to achieve anything significant. The most effective way to deal with this was to define a list of initiatives that had the buy in of upper management and peer departments including clear priorities. Any attempt to add to the list had to be met with a question of what should we take off the list. It sounds counter intuitive but making the difficult decision of what to remove from work lists is the best way to get the important things done properly and with a more contented more effective team.

  3. naturalistoncall

    The sometimes disheartening truth is that the issue extends into retirement, and may even worsen. Western civilization seems infected by productivity. We seem to be more of Human DOings than Human BEings. And we have pretty much passed the infection to most of the world. We Westerners (especially) possess Puritanical pride in purposefully NOT taking pride in our accomplishments.- after all, we could better use the time to accomplish some new thing we will also fail to appreciate. And since our own accomplishments are of little value, that of others…. The wonder is that we only as driven as we are.

  4. philipstrange

    When I had been working in academia for some years, I took a conscious decision to never say yes when I was asked to do something until I had thought about the ramifications. It worked sometimes!

  5. Peter Bernhardt

    Now let me get this straight. You continue to pick up all these grants, including grants from foreign countries, and you feel, what,… overextended? My heart bleeds for you.

  6. Pingback: Am I frantically juggling when I should be letting things go off the edge of a cliff? | Dynamic Ecology

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