Obliger Professors: 3 Unconventional Ways to Say Yes to Your Projects

Do you feel like you’ve read every writing and productivity book published for new faculty and scholarly writers, but still struggle to make progress on your projects? Do you make commitments to write at certain times, only to find that something urgent causes you to break your appointment? Do you find yourself taking on too many commitments, yet struggling to say no to new ones?

If you answered “yes,” you may be what Gretchen Rubin calls an “obliger.” Take the free quiz to find out.

In Rubin’s framework, obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to keep the commitments they make to themselves. While obligers make up the majority of the population, they are the most likely to report wishing they were a different type. Obligers have extreme difficulty saying “no” to other people’s requests–sometimes even just perceived requests. The other types do not share this difficulty in saying “no,” and so they might not realize the amount of work their obliger colleagues take on. As time goes on, obligers can burn out easily, or feel resentful that others do not seem to value the sacrifices they make to say “yes” to those requests.

The structure of academic employment in general–and the tenure track, specifically–seems the perfect storm for obligers. You are thrust into a new and unfamiliar and high-stakes environment, where those asking things of you (creating external obligations) will make the ultimate decision about whether you get to keep your job… in 6 years. You are also expected to teach well, which obligers readily do. And then, you are supposed to establish your research pipeline. Because they respond extremely well to external commitments, they tend to do well with scholarly activities with a firm, non-negotiable deadline such as conferences or solicited article submissions, but struggle to write regularly, to establish and maintain a long-term scholarly pipeline and to complete projects with more nebulous deadlines.

If you’re an obliger, you will prioritize your research projects best when you have external accountability like deadlines and other people expecting to see your writing project on a particular date. But that’s not always possible for each project, and it doesn’t help you establish a regular writing routine. Try these three unconventional tips to help you commit to those more nebulous projects you value most.

  1. Anthropomorphize your idea or project. Give it a name, draw a picture of it, or even purchase (or repurpose) a small toy or other physical object to represent that project. Schedule it by name on your calendar, and speak to it as you are committing to it, just as you would scheduling coffee with a friend. You might find that doing so makes the project more “external” than “internal”–you are making a commitment to a tangible thing outside of yourself. If you must decline another request for your time, reframe it as saying “yes” to your anthromorphized project–you’ve already made another commitment, sorry!
  2. Draw a picture of your future, ideal self and describe (in writing) what it will take to become your future self. As above, when you identify a project you’d like to work on, schedule it in as time you’re putting toward your future self (thereby externalizing it). Reframe outer requests as saying “yes” to your future self.
  3. Make someone else dependent on you doing the thing you want to do. In the book The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin tells of two gym partners who exchange one shoe at the end of each workout. The partner gets herself to the gym the next day not because she wants to fulfill her inner commitment, but because she knows her partner cannot work out unless she is there! Consider a similar arrangement if you are trying to start a writing habit. You could either swap a valuable item, or you could offer to be the transportation for the other person–she will be counting on you to be there!

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