Is It Time You Were Reliably Unreliable?

by Kelle on October 26, 2010

Is It Time You Were Reliably Unreliable? | ProfHacker

I stopped being the person who tried to please everyone and instead became someone who kept my responsibilities but was not always everyone’s good boy. It actually took some effort on my part. There were times I would say out loud, “Wait. Not now. It’s not your responsibility.”

Be a responsible adult without always being the one who can be counted on for anything at anytime, unless that is something that fits your lifestyle and makes you truly happy.

Being reliable is important, but living your life based on your own priority list is more important. This idea of not being so reliable goes right along with learning to say no. It’s not easy, it takes practice, but life is so much better once you start putting yourself and your goals ahead of other people’s demands (or polite requests) on your time.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wayne Schlingman October 26, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I completely agree with this but I have a hard time knowing where the appropriate boundaries are. I fight the instinct to always be available by not having internet at home so I am always unable to respond to email after work hours. People who do need my attention know that my cell is always on me.

As graduate student and underling fresh on the job market, where is the line in the sand? To move up in the world we need to be ambitious and take charge of things to show our employers / evaluators that we are worth keeping around. How do you do enough but not TOO much?


2 Kelle October 26, 2010 at 11:42 pm

I think the first step in avoiding doing too much is to identify the things that are less important to you, your adviser, and potential employers. Basically, do some soul searching and identify your own line in the sand. And then practice saying no to those less important things. I have to be honest that one of the first things I said no to as a graduate student was an invitation to speak at the local amateur astronomy club. I thought, do I care about this? A little, but not a lot. Does my adviser care about this? No. Does anyone reading my fellowship applications care about this? No. Thanks so much for the invitation, but I regret that I have to decline….

Reliability is similar…Will anything bad happen if I don’t respond to this email right now? No. Will the person be likely to think I’m doing something important instead of responding to this email? Probably. Do I value whatever it is I’m doing right now more than spending time on this request from someone else? Maybe, maybe not.

Another way to think about it is if you respond immediately, that effectively communicates that at that particular moment, you weren’t doing anything very important…cause if you were, you wouldn’t have been so easily distracted. Immediate responses don’t signal ambition or reliability, it actually could be read more as lack of focus and self-direction.


3 Lisa October 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I certainly have a hard time saying no as well. As Wayne points out, you need to be extremely careful in drawing the line. Sometimes, things that you might not consider important now may be very important later (like requests from your advisor to work on proposals even though your thesis is eminent).

I completely disagree about Kelle’s comments on e-mail. You should always let people know whether you’ve read their e-mail/request and at least let them know that you are too busy at the moment. I think it would reflect very poorly to just ignore people’s e-mails on a regular basis, and not just say that you are busy. Not responding can send the message that you are forgetful or think that you are too important to respond. Of course, if you occasionally forget to reply, I don’t think anyone would take that negatively. I have worked with many people who would be unreliable in responding to e-mails. It can be extremely frustrating!


4 Kelle October 27, 2010 at 5:31 pm

ooo, sorry, I wasn’t clear at all. I didn’t mean not respond ever, I meant respond on Monday or Tuesday instead of on Friday afternoon. I think a 2-3 working-day response time is a reasonable goal…both for those who respond too fast and for those who respond too slow! I totally agree that ignoring emails and never responding is a terrible idea.


5 Jessica October 27, 2010 at 10:00 pm

I would have one recommendation that runs somewhat contrary to some of the other comments. Graduate students (myself included) rarely experience the kind of intense work-overload that postdocs (to some extent) and faculty/staff (to a much larger degree) will experience. If you get too good at “saying no” early on, even to semi-optional requests (help with a proposal, advisor casually mentions how great it would be to have astro-ph discussions, making figures for someone else’s exploratory research, following up casual comments from informal discussions unrelated to your research with literature searches) you will never learn the critical time-management skills that will serve you well in the future. Just remember that as a junior researcher, your idea of “busy” is far different from a senior researcher’s idea of “busy”.

That being said, saying no is a useful skill!


6 Scot November 2, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Indeed! This is one of the issues I often raise when talking to (young) scientists working in support roles and is part of what I ofter refer to as the Scientist Dilemma. Basically, support facilties (labs, observatories, etc.) want scientists to fulfill support roles because their scientific background gives them both the necessary tools and focus to do the job right. But once hired, it’s often left up to the employee to protect time for science. In all the observatories I’ve worked, no one has ever come up to me and said “You know, Scot. I don’t think you’re taking your full research time these days, so why don’t you put aside that task i asked you to do yesterday and work on your research instead?” Nope, it never happened. On the other hand, whenever I stood up for myself and promised to get to the new task, but maybe not until next Tuesday, when I finished research sub-task X, not only did I never get any push back, but my respect within the organization rose. Scientists don’t really respect support staff- they respect scientists. Having the courage to say no to new tasks and say yes to keeping up your research not only helps your research career, it also helps your support duties and raises your value in your institution!



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