Blog Post

Saying "yes," learning to say "no," and setting up beneficial boundaries

How do I create work/life balance? This is a question that many graduate students at my institution (and I’m sure many other institutions, as well) debate. It’s hard to find the right balance, especially as new obligations (or, as they’re often presented to us, “opportunities”) continue to creep in from every corner: serving on committees, teaching and grading, preparing publications, working on portfolios and job materials, working on one’s dissertation. This is not to mention the added pressure to make yourself increasingly marketable in an “alt-ac” environment. How does one do all of these things and finish a dissertation and find time for self care?

I have always been a person who gets a rush from saying “yes.” I love to swoop up all of the opportunities and I love to feel like I am able to master them all.  I respond to emails instantly. I get graded papers back within a week. I work a week ahead of time. Recently, though, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that requires me to say no more often in order to really succeed at the things I say yes to. This has been a difficult adjustment for me.

When given my diagnosis four months ago, I worried that my system of over-achieving and chronic yes-saying would crumble. I was not physically able to say yes as often. I worried that this would make me a bad student, a bad academic. I learned, though, that there’s a certain power in being able to say no. In some ways, my illness has empowered me to shake off the guilt that has driven my constant people-pleasing yes-saying. This doesn’t mean that I don’t say yes. This means I say yes more judiciously and am slightly more protective of my time.

Contrary to my fears, my illness has not made me a bad student or a bad academic. In fact, it has given me the opportunity to focus in on a couple key things and do them really well. In doing so, I am able to let my work speak for itself. I think that I might have said yes so often because I was afraid to let my work stand on its own. I felt like it needed to be padded with the successful completion of a wealth of extra “opportunities.” This is not to say that I don’t find the extras fulfilling. The face-to-face interaction of teaching and grading helps keep me grounded. Serving on a search committee last year was one of the most informative acts of service I have done as a graduate student. Going to conferences stimulates my ideas and revivifies the excitement I feel about my project. What I have taken away from this new stage of (forced) reflection is that it’s okay to have control over how you spend your time. It’s okay to say no and it’s okay to say yes. What sort of pressures do you feel to say yes and how does an over-worked, under-paid graduate student learn to set appropriate boundaries? What strategies have worked for you in setting those boundaries?  

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