Establish Boundaries with Time

While there are lots of different kinds of boundaries professionals need and desire to establish related to their work lives, perhaps none are more valuable, both short and long term, than those concerning time. Because I, personally, have found this to be true—as well as most of my clients—I feel compelled to teach you strategies for honoring your finite, precious time. As I consider the problems we tend to have with time, thehow to set boundaries biggest one is that we feel we don’t have enough of it. And that creates a huge amount of stress day after day: that feeling of lack. To reduce or eliminate the burden associated with a feeling of lack we must reign in our priorities, our calendars, our accessibility, and other people. The fact is that none of us lacks time; up until now we’ve lacked the desire or commitment to take charge of the time we have. That, you see, is the real issue, and hearing me say that may make you uncomfortable.

So how can you reign in your priorities in a world that leads us to believe that everything warrants the label of priority? I’m here to tell you that you don’t have too many priorities because not everything is a priority in the first place, much less an urgent priority. In most cases you will know exactly what your real priorities are when you identify your top five personal core, intrinsic values and understand your company’s values—and then look at how they overlap. This above anything else will position you to clarify whether or not a certain task, conversation, project, or decision is a priority.

How do you reign in your calendar? It took me years to learn that my calendar needs only to reflect my real priorities. Calendars often end up being dumping grounds for everything we think we ought to be doing or that other people ask us to do—even if those things don’t mesh with our real priorities. Once you get clear on this, building your calendar suddenly gets a lot easier. Your calendar is not a dumping ground that you don’t respect; it’s a powerful tool for you to honor. Can you honestly say right now that your calendar for the month of March is a document that you respect and honor? If you can say that, then I congratulate you because YOU are in the minority. Most people loathe their calendars because they are nothing but a source of stress and a worksheet to alter as soon as the next breeze blows.

As you review your calendar for 2015, take a look at the meetings plugged in there. Are these meetings that will move both your organization’s mission and your career trajectory forward? Are you crystal clear about the purpose and value of these meetings? And if you’ve planned a vacation, did you enter those dates into your calendar in concrete, or are they merely in a fluid status? Does your calendar reflect your willingness and ability to delegate particular tasks to peers and employees who can handle them responsibly and without struggle? Are you able to pinpoint a commitment you made that you now realize no longer aligns with your personal or business priorities? And before I forget it, do you leave on time at the end of the work day at least two to three days each week? Your leave time should be plugged into your calendar.

How do you reign in your accessibility? The first thing you can do is to stop making yourself available 24/7. Unless you are medical personnel or running a shelter, I have serious doubts about the necessity of you being accessible virtually around the clock. Now this may prickle a bit, but I find that today many folks MAKE themselves more accessible than they need to out of guilt or a desire to feel important and valued. The main problem with constant availability is that you wear yourself out by being “on” nonstop. Human beings are not meant to perform without regular periodic breaks that include adequate sleep, rejuvenating rest, and fun diversion. So you may want to think twice before you give out your cell phone number to the world—or to everybody who asks for it. I also urge you to reconsider the frequency with which you check and respond to emails, phone messages, social media postings, and texts. Instead of doing this every few minutes, train yourself to formally schedule message checks at several designated intervals throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at how much time you seem to save.

How do you reign in other people? You may wonder what I mean by reigning in others. Well, in part I’m talking about staff or colleagues showing up at your office door or work space, tapping on the door, and asking if you have a minute, especially if you’re in the middle of something else. That single minute always morphs into at least ten to fifteen minutes or more, and when this happens multiple times per day, you wind up spending hours with these doorframe tappers. I suggest that you implement and teach a traffic signal approach to your availability when you are in your work area. When you absolutely need focused, quiet time, hang a red sign on your door before you close it tightly for perhaps one hour a day. During that time the people in your environment may interrupt you only in emergency situations. Hang a yellow sign by your half open/half closed when you need to get a lot of things done in short order. This lets people know that you are there for them if they really need you, but otherwise they should wait to talk to you until your door is totally open. Hang a green sign up when you want to leave your door completely open, sending the signal that people may stop in without worrying if they are interrupting you. I used this strategy when I was the E.D. of a 14 county nonprofit organization, and my staff and I grew to like it. I’ve also shared it with private clients who then put it into practice with some great results.

We also ought to talk a little about people who expect YOU to meet their work, personal, and/or political agendas—either subtly or insistently, chronically or on occasion. The more self centered someone is, the more he or she will expect you to drop everything to answer their questions, offer your opinions, provide solutions to their real or perceived problems, and enter into personal chit-chat to meet their emotional needs. You will need to draw lines when you see it coming. Rather than cut somebody off, I recommend that you tell them you have about 2 or 5 or 10 minutes to devote to whatever is on their mind. Remember that you want to preserve relationships, even tedious ones. Ignoring the person or brushing them off nastily isn’t going to serve your current professional image or your overall career. We don’t get away with that behavior.

Discover more about boundaries in my forthcoming book, Learning Leadership Through Loss, which will be available in about a week.

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