Your time is your life. So when you surrender control of your calendar to other people, you put them in control of your destiny. Our digital world has broken down the natural boundaries on how and when people can tell you what they think you should be doing.
And with shared calendars, others can literally spend your time for you—if you let them. This means, it’s essential that you maintain a vigilant and active role in protecting and allocating your time in alignment with your priorities.
This may seem improbable if you’ve lived at the mercy of other people’s whims for years. But as a time coach, I’ve seen that you can take back control by carefully setting expectations. Try out these tactics to avoid being overbooked.
1. Say "no" early and often.
The best way to have more time to work on projects that matter to you, like updating your portfolio or finishing a series, is to spend less time doing everything else. This will require saying “No” early and often. (If you’re looking for some tips on how to do this nicely, 99U has you covered.)
If you really don’t want to do something at all, it’s unlikely your desire to do it will increase by delaying the activity. Saying “Not now” when you should say “No” leads to you carrying around the emotional burden of the task until you complete it and a huge amount of resentment when you finally do the work. (Plus, you run a high risk of turning it in late due to your resistance to the project, so you probably will annoy the person on the receiving end, too.) When in doubt, just say, “No.”
2. Balance structured and unstructured work.
As a creative individual, you need to have a regular influx of fresh ideas and opportunity for experimentation to achieve peak performance. Companies like Google, with its 20 percent time, give employees the freedom to devote part of their paid hours to special “unstructured” projects to encourage innovation. But too much time meeting with other creatives, tinkering with pet projects, and reading about new concepts can lead to a misallocation of your time resources, i.e. you don’t get your core “structured” work done.
To make sure you don’t spend 80 percent of your time on the new and novel, you need a structured approach. For example, I enjoy networking meetings and consider them a priority. However, I purposely limit myself to a couple of networking meetings or calls a week because if I take on any more, I will have insufficient time to serve my clients and run my business well. If you participate in a shared calendar system, you can control the pacing of unstructured activities by blocking in time to do different elements of your work, which then forces people to schedule around your top priorities. If someone else does your scheduling for you, let him or her know that you can only take on a certain number of calls or meetings in a day or a week so you don’t end up with insufficient time to complete critical structured tasks.
3. Make progress, not deadlines.
Sometimes finishing a project by a certain time really does matter, say when you need a presentation ready for an upcoming conference. But often times, it doesn’t. When you unnecessarily place deadlines on non-urgent work, you create loads of avoidable pressure.
On a micro-level, this means stopping yourself from giving precise completion times for requests. I’m not advocating procrastinating. Instead, I’m advocating giving yourself breathing room. For example, instead of saying that you’ll return something by tomorrow, say that you’ll return it “soon” or “by next week.”
That way, if you have an unexpected issue come up tomorrow, you’ll have the flexibility to get the task to them by the following day and still meet the expectations you set. To ensure that this ambiguity doesn’t lead to stress and procrastination, block in a time on your calendar to get the work done. You should have a clear idea in your mind—and your schedule—of when you want to do the activity. But by not sharing this level of detail with others, you leave yourself the option to make necessary adjustments without disappointing anyone.
On a macro-level, this could look like restructuring your client relationships. So instead of simply setting an end deadline for the finished project, you could give progress reports on regular intervals. For example, instead of stating, “Your website will be running by April 1,” you could say, “Every two weeks, I’ll e-mail you with an update on our progress and items for you to review.” This gives you the ability to consistently move forward on a project without having to perfectly estimate the end point.
4. Take off the cape and lose the tights.
You can “take one for the team” every once in a while. But if you pride yourself on being the person who kills herself or himself to make up for other people’s delays, you’re on track for burnout. You also encourage those around you to not push themselves to deliver their part on time because you’ve trained them that you will pick up the slack.
To overcome your superhero complex and help the entire team operate more effectively, focus on clear expectations and consistent follow up. For example, when you pass a file off to a colleague, you can say to him, “Jim, I’ll need this back from you by Friday to have everything ready for production on Tuesday.” If this person has a tendency toward missing deadlines, set a reminder to touch base with him on Wednesday afternoon and then Friday morning to check in on the work. Then if he still doesn’t complete the work by Friday evening, it still leaves Jim the weekend to get everything wrapped up and ready for you by Monday morning.
If you struggle not with a colleague but with a client, you can use a similar strategy. For example, if in the above scenario Jim was a client, not a colleague, you could use the same system of setting expectations and following up. Additionally, you could explain to him that a delay in his approval could lead to either rush printing charges or a later shipment.
You teach people how to treat you, so respect others and respect yourself enough to take back control of your schedule.
This post was originally published on 99u.com.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management life coach who empowers clients around the world to go from feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and guilty to feeling peaceful, confident and accomplished with how they invest their time. Find out more at www.ScheduleMakeover.com.
Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco