Know and Honor Your Priorities

Spiral staircase inside a building at Harvard

There are so many great opportunities and people at Harvard that it can be hard to know what to say “yes” to.  

There are so many great opportunities and people at Harvard that it can be hard to know what to say “no” to. 

Step 1: Know your priorities.

To identify your priorities, you need to be aware of your long-term goals and the values that guide you and keep you motivated.

Here's a brief exercise to help you recognize your goals and values:

  1. Choose three areas of your life that you would like to focus on this semester and write them down. 

  2. Next to each area, write one to three specific actionable items. 

  3. Post your priorities and action items where you will see them every day. At the start of every semester (or the start of summer), review and revise them.

What might these priorities and action items look like?

  • Academia: broaden my network by connecting with people in my field, both inside and outside Harvard.

  • Health: improve my mental and physical health by getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.

  • Relationships: have a date night with my partner every week.

Check out the Time Management page for more guidance on managing your goals.

Step 2: Honor your priorities.

Once you have set your priorities, follow them with intention. The reason for identifying your priorities is to save time and resources for the things that matter to you. The next step is to make conscious choices so you can achieve your goals – both short-term and long-term goals.

When you are presented with an opportunity,

  • Express interest, whether it comes from a desire to please the asker or from the opportunity itself.
  • Take time to think about it. Try to give any big decisions at least a night’s sleep.
  • Before saying yes, make sure you have the time and resources to deliver on your promise. Check out the Scheduling Time page for help with mapping out your other commitments to determine if you have time to accomplish anything else.

If “yes” is not a good choice, accept that it is OK to say “no.”

As a graduate student, you may feel obligated to do everything that is asked of you, and you may fear missing out on the unique opportunities offered to you. However, if you try to do everything, it will be difficult to do your best work. Plus, having other responsibilities and honoring other commitments says good things about your character.

Step 3: It's OK to say "no."

Once you know your priorities and are making conscious choices, you'll need to get comfortable with saying "no."  If you want to keep the door open for additional opportunities and connection, consider using language such as:


    No, I can't today, but I'd love to do this when my schedule is freer.
  • No, but I am honored to be offered the opportunity.
  • No, but I am honored to be offered the responsibility. 
  • No, but I wish I could say yes.
  • No, I already have another commitment (it’s usually OK not to explain further).
  • No, but I hope I will be able to say “yes” another time.
  • I am interested, but I need time to think about it.
  • I can’t commit to all of it right now, but I could do X.
  • I can probably do it if the deadline is Y or later.
  • I don’t think I am the right person for the job.

Accordion style