Know and Honor Your Priorities

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.  

Below are two steps to take to work around this conundrum. 

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. The following brief exercise may 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 summer, review and revise them. 

The following example illustrates what this might 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.

Step 2: Honor Your Priorities

Make Conscious Choices: Once you have set your priorities, follow them with intention. The point of identifying your priorities is to save time and resources for the things that matter to you, so you can achieve your goals -- both short- and long-term. See Plan Your Time for guidance on managing your short-term goals. 

Learn How 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.  

Once you know your priorities and are making conscious choices, you need to know how say “no” with grace. Here are a few tips:

  • 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.
  • Make sure you have the time and resources to deliver on your promise.  See Plan Your Time for help with mapping out your other commitments to determine if you have time to accomplish anything else.
  • As appropriate, you can say:
    • I am honored to be offered the opportunity or responsibility;
    • I wish I could say yes;
    • I already have another commitment (it’s usually ok not to explain further);
    • 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 hope I will be able to say “yes” another time; or
    • I don’t think I am the right person for the job.

Three short articles related to honoring priorities that other students have found useful are linked below:
Greg McKeown, If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will 
Bronnie Ware, Regrets of the Dying 
Radhika Naidpaul, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life