If you, like me, are a person alive in the world with an email address, you probably get asked to do things fairly often: Moderate panels, help with fundraisers, attend parties for people you know and people you don’t. Early in your career, it can feel flattering just to be asked for anything, like a shy kid at a school dance. But soon enough, you realize that the math isn’t in your favor. For every useful networking event or friend’s thing you want to be supportive of, you’ve been invited to 14 pointless “opportunities” you end up going to and regretting.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because I recently tweeted the secret weapon I use to protect myself from overcommitting, and the internet went bonkers over it.
My partner and I are both writers. I run a boutique speaking agency for poets. We both travel for speaking engagements ourselves. So while we often attend events and conferences we enjoy, we also frequently find ourselves in the car ride home from the airport, repeating a lot of the same things: That three-day trip could have been one day. I wish I’d known what was actually being asked of me. It wasn’t worth it. Only this part was worth it. I should have stayed home.
At dinner one night, after a three-hour drive home from another non-paying gig organized by a stranger in an unfamiliar place, I asked my partner what makes a commitment worth doing, an invitation worth accepting. As we ate, we came up with a rubric, one that we’ve used ever since to help take some of the emotion and guesswork out of these decisions. Here are the questions we came up with (in our household, answering yes to four out of these seven means the invitation is worth accepting):
Does this make financial sense?
If it’s work-related, am I being compensated for my time? Am I spending my own money to go (i.e. for travel, admission fees, hotel, meals)? If someone else is paying my way, do I have expenses at home that need to be paid (babysitter, dog-sitter, house-sitter, all the sitters)?
Yes: You are invited to give a talk at a two-day conference on how to decide if you should commit to something and will be paid $3,000 plus expenses (travel, lodging, meals).
No: You are invited to give a talk at a two-day conference on how to decide if you should commit to something and will be paid $50. No expenses will be covered.
Is this a good use of my time?
This can mean lots of things. Can I imagine myself having fun there? Will doing this help me grow in my career, expand my network, or deepen my friendships? Could I be doing something else with this time that would help me achieve my goals more effectively?
Yes: You have colleagues going to this party, and you know that other guests include people in your field who you would love to meet.
No: You’re not sure how fun or useful the party is going to be. But you are sure that you’re on deadline for three projects due the following day.
Do I trust the people putting this on?
Have I had previous positive interactions with the organization or organizers of the event? Are they strangers? Do they have a good reputation within my field? Do I know others who’ve worked with them in the past, and if so, what was their experience like?
Yes: You’ve worked with this organization in the past and have a solid rapport with the event organizer.
No: You have never met the organizer of this event and can’t learn much about the sponsoring organization from the website. A colleague told you their last event was a disaster.
A rubric like this can take some of the emotion and guesswork out of decisions.
Does this disrupt my time at home?
Am I excited enough about this event that I’m okay being gone for ___ hours/days/weeks? Is there something important happening at home that I’ll miss?
Yes: This networking cocktail party is during a workweek when you have no other commitments.
No: This networking cocktail party is on the same weekend as your cousin’s wedding. Going will mean your entire weekend is booked, and you’ll probably have to miss your kid’s soccer game. Not to mention that you won’t have time to relax at all, and you know the week ahead will be a doozy at work.
Is a fair amount of labor being asked of me?
Am I being paid what I believe my time is worth? If I’m not being paid (with actual money), am I getting anything out of this (emotionally, socially, professionally)?
Yes: The fundraiser is paying you your standard rate for this presentation, which is your only commitment for the duration of the conference.
No: The ask also includes a Q&A at the end of your presentation and three one-on-one meetings with attendees who wish to “pick your brain” about the presentation. You must also attend dinner with the conference committee and be on a panel. But you’ll only be paid your standard rate, and it’s not for a cause you’re super passionate about.
Geographically, does this work for me?
Does this require a full day of travel? Is this accessible via public transportation? If you’re coming from something else, is this event easy enough to get to from wherever you’ll be beforehand?
Yes: This alumni association dinner takes place in a city that offers nonstop flights from where you live and has solid public transportation for use during your time there.
No: You have to fly to one city, then rent a car and drive five hours because there is no airport near the location. Or, you have 30 minutes between work and the start of the event to get all the way across the city, a journey that usually takes over an hour.
Am I serving a community I want to serve with this?
Will the audience/participants of the event be people I am trying to reach with my work? Will the event be accessible/free/open to the public? If not, who is being denied access? Am I okay with that? Is this a group of people I want to identify with?
Yes: The conference is free for attendees and is held in an accessible building, on a topic you’re passionate about. Or, it’s a fundraiser supporting a cause you care about for a community you have ties to.
No: The conference registration fee is $500 and it is held on a sprawling campus with no sidewalks. The conference is being marketed to wealthy people, who you don’t feel like need your help.
Of course, most invitations won’t yield all yea or all nay responses. And even the 4/7 rule won’t always be a hard and fast one. For example, maybe it’s a financial opportunity lucrative enough to outweigh everything else. Or your next-door neighbor is having a barbecue, and there’s no reason you can’t make the two-minute journey out of politeness, even if you’d rather not. But for me, using this framework has simplified the decision-making process and lightened my mental load. Use it to gauge whether accepting that next offer or invitation is the best thing for you.