Establish time boundaries

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Try these 3 steps to stop the ‘got-a-minute’ people from stealing your time.

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January 6, 2021

If you work remotely either part-time or full-time, temporarily, or permanently, you have probably discovered that you are a lot more productive when you are not in the office. The main reason for the increase in productivity is that people aren’t inviting you to ‘got-a-minute’ meetings. ‘Got-a-minute’ meetings are those unannounced drop-ins that always take more than a minute and result in people stealing your time — unintentionally or not.

These ‘got-a-minute’ meetings can be frustrating and time consuming. You may wonder why so many people want to steal your time. This happens for a variety of reasons, including:

  • It makes their job easier. Some people are stealing your time because they know you will say yes to their requests. They know they can get out of doing their work because you’ll do it for them. This is sometimes called ‘reverse delegation’ and can happen when you delegate a task to a team member or co-worker. When they ask you a question about it, you take the task back from them instead of helping them find the answer.
  • They’ve been conditioned. Have you unintentionally trained your team to check in with you before taking action? If you catch yourself saying things like “Run that by me…” or “Let me know...” you could be micro-managing (gasp!) your team without realizing it.
  • You feel responsible. Leaders sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that they aren’t doing their job if they aren’t always available. Banish that thought. You could actually be depriving someone the opportunity to develop their skills if you are too available. Give people the chance to figure things out on their own.

So, how do you protect your time and establish boundaries without being bossy or getting a reputation of being unapproachable or missing-in-action? It starts with being preactive. Preactive means anticipating what will happen and taking actions to prevent that thing from happening. For example, it’s not hard to anticipate that you will be interrupted when you sit down at your desk and try to work, especially if any of the scenarios above sound familiar.

Follow these three steps to stop people from stealing your time:

1) Designate time. When you have to focus on a specific task that takes all your brain power, don’t try to multi-task. Studies reveal that multi-tasking does not make people more productive. According to a University of Utah study, only 2% of people can actually multitask and the other 98% of us are overestimating our abilities. This means that we might not be producing the highest quality work or as much work as we think.

The antidote to multi-tasking is to focus on one task at a time. Do this by designating time on your calendar to focus on those tasks that require a high level of concentration.

2) Communicate your plans. While many people agree with the idea of time blocking in theory, they fear that other people won’t respect their time. Whether it’s your team, your co-workers or your boss, people will typically respect your wishes if you tell them in advance what you are trying to do. Some people react to this idea by saying “I can’t do that. Someone might need something from me.”

If you said to your boss, “Hey boss, I’m going to block off an hour on Friday to get these reports done. Do you need anything from me before then?” Do you think your boss will say, “That’s a terrible idea, stop trying to be so productive”? Of course not! They will probably say “Great idea. I should try that too.” Your team and co-workers will respect your wishes as well if you communicate your plans ahead of time.

If you are in a leadership position, you are modeling good communication techniques for your team when you take this approach. When you tell your team in advance that you will be unavailable, you are demonstrating that you trust them to make good decisions.

3) Hold your ground. Despite your best efforts, you should be prepared for people who will try to steal your time. When this happens, not if, hold firm. If you have a previous pattern of accepting ‘got-a-minute’ meetings then you should expect that it will take time for people to get used to the new you. When you get interrupted, simply say “I’m in the middle of something. I’ll be free at 11 a.m. Come back then and I can help you out.” If they persist and say “But it will just take a second.” You say, “I can’t stop what I’m working on. I’ll be free at 11.”

This is called the broken record technique. Yes, you could have answered their question in the time it took you to repeatedly say no but that isn’t the point. The point is you are establishing new expectations. Don’t give up a long-term win for short-term relief.

To recap, the cornerstone of communicating like a boss is to be clear, direct, concise and nice. When you develop these skills and learn to be assertive when it comes to protecting your time, you will quickly realize the tangible benefits of higher quality work and increased productivity. Don’t lose sight of the bigger, and maybe more important, benefits of increased trust and respect you will earn from others and the feeling of confidence you will experience when you set boundaries and learn to protect your time.

Liz Uram is a nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author. She equips leaders with the tools they need to communicate like a boss so they can make a bigger impact, achieve better results and motivate others to do their best. www.lizuram.com