Five questions to ask yourself before you say 'yes'


There's a big thing in librarianship about the importance of saying 'no'. On Twitter especially I see it discussed a lot (and I take part in those discussions sometimes): it's really, really hard to say no to exciting opportunities, or even, frankly, unexciting ones, for all sorts of reasons. But if you say yes to everything you can end up burnt out. So how do you strike the balance? Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when weighing up a decision. I'd be very interested if anyone wants to leave a comment offering more advice on this.

(ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM KLAXON: it's hard to write about saying no to CPD offers without it sounding like one big humblebrag. Oh man, all these people want me to do these cool things but I'm so busy doing cool things already! Nightmare!

That's not what this is intended to be so I hope it doesn't come across that way.)

Is this going to add to *MY* professional development specifically?

By which I mean, does it feed into your specific goals and interests, or does it fall into the category of 'generic CPD'? I think a lot of stuff we feel like we should do actually turns out not to be something we can USE in our professional development. Job applications in our profession are all about tailoring your experience and skills to the specific role being offered - there's little room, in most cases (not all) for general experiences which sound quite nice but won't be used in the job itself. So if you get asked to chair or take part in a conference panel on The Future of Libraries, for example, does that help you tick off an essential personal specification on a job application? If so, great; if not, even if the conference is prestigious, it might not actually turn out to mean much, in real terms, that you were on the panel.

So ask yourself, where do I want to go next? And does this thing I've been asked to do potentially help me get there, or not?

Do I have the emotional energy to throw myself into this?

I really put my all into each workshop I run or talk I give. It's not just the time spent preparing, it's the emotional energy of being 'on' all day, as an introvert. I can't do this 50 times a year, it would stop it being fun. So even if something is on the surface a really exciting opportunity, you have to ask yourself if you have enough in the tank to do it justice given the number of other things you may already be doing.

Where does this fit with my wider calendar?

This is so obvious, but easy to ignore. It's not just about whether there are things the day before or after the event you're being offered; it's more about your professional life-cycle. If you're coming to the end of a massive project on a Friday, chances are doing a talk the following Monday will cause you stress about both activities because you need the emotional space to focus on each one individually.

Are there big events in your personal life going on? Sometimes they can be all consuming and the last thing you need is to plan a talk. Other times planning a talk can be the escape you need.

Does this have the potential to lead to other exciting things?

Are you going to find a new or extended network, or audience, by taking this opportunity? Or is it a no-through-road in terms of what might happen next?

Sometimes it can be worth finding a way to say yes to something if you can see more opportunities opening up as a result - as long as those opportunities are specifically relevant to your interests and goals, of course. I wrote an entire book mostly for that exact reason - it was a nightmare to do, too... But worth it for the doors it opened. 

Is this something new, or more of the same?

One of the best ways to eliminate an opportunity which seems like it will be great but you know you simply don't have time to do, is to ask what it offers that nothing else does. And if, for all its excitingness, it's not going to introduce you to new people or force you to do research into an area you don't know as much about as you'd like or make you explore new ways of presenting, or whatever, that can be enough of a reason to say no.

I don't want to give the same talk over and over again. Laura Woods and I did that with the echo chamber thing back in 2010 / 2011 and we felt really spent after a while - even though we varied the content, we felt we'd said all we had to say. So we stopped saying it.

Bonus question: would it be fun?

I added this one after asking my friend Céline on Twitter what advice she'd give. As she says, "you're allowed to say yes to things just because they'd be fun" which is very, very true. Fun is important! Sometimes it can trump all of the considerations above, because a fun experience leaves you fizzing with energy and motivation.

Extra bonus question for white males

Something I've just started doing with conferences invites is finding out a little bit about the other speakers. I'm giving a Keynote at LIANZA in New Zealand this year, and I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be the all-too-common library conference situation where all the keynotes are male and white. Thankfully that was definitely not the case for this event, they have it covered. 

I'm not trying to preach that if you're white and male like I am you should turn down your dream conference talk because the other two speakers are both white blokes too - but I do think it's important to ask the question and ensure the organisers have considered it.

Of course, it's not just you who features in this equation, it's the people or body who are asking you to do something in the first place. If you can, as well doing the obvious helpful things like replying promptly, recommend someone else. If I know enough about the event from the description I've been given, I'll always try and match it with a name who I know would be great. Often the organisers are really pleased to have a new lead to pursue. 

It feels GREAT to say no. Knowing you're not adding additional pressure to your work-life balance. In my experience, opportunities still come up. It's not like saying no once forever puts the CPD genie back in the bottle.

There's a lot of rhetoric around the idea of being the best you can be, making the best of all the opportunities you have, and how you only regret the things you don't do. I can see the merit in all of that but I treat it all with caution. I keep a list of things I've said no to (partly because I want to show my employer that when I do ask to attend a conference in work time, it's for a good, considered reason, and not just  something I do at every opportunity) and honestly there's some pretty cool stuff on there which it would have been fun to be a part of. But I don't for a minute sit around wishing I'd said 'yes'. Because if I had, who knows how much I'd've been able to enjoy the things I DID agree to - maybe I would have been too busy to prepare properly (I HATE being under-prepared for a talk, even by a tiny amount) or I would have been so exhausted by All The Things that I wouldn't have truly enjoyed any of them.

So to maintain a healthy relationship between work, life, day job, CPD, creativity, energy reserves and all of that, learning to say no is a genuinely important skill. Don't always say no! But at least ask yourself some questions before you say yes...