Learning to Say 'No' to Medical, Family Opportunities

May 23, 2011
Jennifer Frank, MD

I have a hard time saying no. I do feel guilty and I wonder at lost opportunities. In my transition from academia to private practice, I’ve had to start saying no a lot more often

I think just about every article or book on the subject of work-life balance, stress reduction, finding joy, or emotional decluttering advises the reader to “just say no.” It is not mean, it is not even unkind. You don’t need to offer a reason why and you certainly don’t need to feel guilty. In order to gain more time while shedding unwelcome stress, say no to the PTA, the neighbor’s request, the extra project from your boss, or your extended family’s demands to spend your entire summer vacation with them.

I have a hard time saying no. I do feel guilty and I wonder at lost opportunities. In my transition from academia to private practice, I’ve had to start saying no a lot more often. Okay, in all honesty, I’m still not saying “no” much but I’m closer to it than before. In academia, I had the time as well as the professional incentive to peer review papers, present at conferences, teach medical students, and conduct research. In private practice, none of these things have value, so I am neither compensated nor allotted time to pursue them.

I did all these academic type things because I genuinely enjoyed doing them, so it is hard to think about giving them up. I often have to remind myself that conducting a new research study or starting a review article will come out of my own precious and limited personal time. However, because I love these things and because I see the value in them, I often still accept the invitations.

We’re facing the same thing at home. Our kids are at that age when their afterschool activities are actually dinner-time activities. Soccer games, Girl Scout meetings, music lessons, and all other forms of lessons, clubs, and sports seem to meet at the golden hours between dinner time and bed time. We overcommitted this year. So, my husband and I decided that we will not schedule any more kids’ activities during dinner time unless they have a burning, all-consuming passion to play soccer, be a Cub Scout, or learn Spanish. Like most grade-school kids, our childrens’ passions mainly revolve around ice-cream, Halloween, and video games, so we’re feeling pretty safe about our limited commitments next year.

I’ve spent a lot of time, often the pre-deadline regret time, trying to figure out why I don’t say no more often. I think it boils down to the potential for lost opportunities. Am I passing up the opportunity to participate in a project that will be fun or interesting or important? If I don’t push my child to play basketball or learn to play the flute, am I shutting the door on their innate talents? But, saying yes comes with its own price tag - lost sleep, lost peace, lost time, lost opportunities to eat dinner together. So, I will continue to try to just say no.

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