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5 Practical Tools for Protecting Your Time

pain points philosophy Apr 19, 2024

I once had a coworker who had clearly mastered the art of managing his own workload. He had a really positive way of saying no to new requests that were beyond his capacity. His response would almost magically leave you feeling good, even though he’d just declined to do what you asked.

At the time, as a project manager with a few years of experience but still trying to navigate how I’d support about 75 active projects in a 40-hour week while staying sane, this coworker gave me a living picture of a professional trait I wanted to develop. By his example, he helped convince me that I have power to shape my own workload, and that I’m more likely to get a right-size workload on the job if I master the art of protecting my own time, than if I rely on someone else to shape my workload for me.

Now, a few years later, I struggle much less with overwhelm and burnout. I largely credit the time-protection tools I’ve collected and practiced—some borrowed from the aforementioned coworker; others gathered from elsewhere. With the help of these tools, I hope you'll also be able to evolve your workload toward one that’s the right size for you.

1. Get clear on your work priorities.

“Protecting your time” isn’t code for “figuring out how to slack off.” Quite the opposite: it’s about clarifying in your own mind—and if possible, developing a shared understanding with your boss and coworkers—what the “most valuable actions” are that you, in your role, can and should be doing for your company.

When your most valuable actions (or your priorities) are understood and agreed-upon, it shouldn’t be hard in most healthy work environments to protect the time you need to do a good job on these items, even when this means you need to say no to other work. You should have sufficient time to carry out these actions—and sufficient time to do them well, not to have to rush through them in a stressed manner and feel burned out on the other side. I’m guessing this is something you want, and it is also something your company should want, because it is how they will get the most value out of you sustainably over time.

All the other tools in this blog post will be most effective when you use them to serve this goal: protect the time and energy you need to do a great job on your most valuable actions at a sustainable pace.

2. Use your calendar.

Does your team use an electronic calendar like Microsoft Outlook to manage meetings? If so, don’t just let your calendar “happen to you.” There’s a lot you can do to leverage this tool to make the most of your work time.

Schedule meetings when they work for YOU.

As a project manager, I am fortunate to have a lot of control over my calendar. Yes, I have a lot of meetings—I’d estimate 20-25 per week—but there’s still a lot I can do to protect my time because I’m the one scheduling most of them.

I can cluster them together or spread them out. I can decide how long they are, so we don’t stay on a call too long for no reason. I can schedule them during the part of the day my brain is an ideal state for meetings or avoid the part of the day when my brain is in an ideal state for focused work. I can give myself meeting-heavy and meeting-light days if it helps my brain stay in the mode of one type of work for a whole day. I have some influence over whether meetings are virtual or in-person.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of scheduling most of your meetings, don’t be shy to sometimes request that a meeting happen on a more ideal day and time for you. You don’t need to explain yourself—just propose the time you want, or add a simple comment like, “Meeting at this time would really help me out.”

Block your calendar.

But if some or most of your meetings are scheduled by others, blocking will be your most powerful calendar tool. Just block out times on your calendar when you don’t want meetings! You could mark yourself as busy first thing in the morning if you want quiet time to get organized for your day, block a half-day every other week for focused work (I just started doing this), block short periods before or after meetings so you aren’t in meetings back-to-back, or any other approach that gets you what you need.

The only caveat is that the amount of time you block should be tempered by the needs of your team. If your team needs you to be available for a certain volume of meetings, make sure there is sufficient room on your calendar for those meetings to happen, keeping in mind that your team also has schedule limitations.

But as long as coworkers get what they need from you, they don’t need access to you whenever they want. You don’t need to be available, or available in the same ways, for your whole workday or work week.

If your scheduling tool allows, I particularly like blocking my calendar with the “tentative” setting rather than the “busy” setting. It sends the message “I’d prefer not to meet during this time, but I can if necessary.” People avoid inviting me to meetings during these times unless they don’t have another option, in which case they to ask if scheduling me at that time is okay. It’s ideal for catering to both your own needs and your coworker’s needs.

3. Leverage timelines.

At what pace do you expect to get your work done? At what pace do others expect you to get your work done? There’s a lot you can do to shape your own and others’ expectations of how much you’ll get done, how quickly.

Leverage project timelines.

As a project manager, do you—or does a scheduler who reports to you—draft project timelines? Timelines are typically one of our major areas of influence. Just like you strive to leave adequate, realistic periods of time for the tasks of others, do the same for your own tasks on your projects. You are deserving of the same courtesy.

Leverage timelines on your own tasks.

What about your tasks that aren’t directly parts of project—when you check in on projects, when you kick off or open projects, when you work on improving project processes, etc.? I work hard to put an achievable number of tasks on my own list each day, and often I do this by rescheduling my tasks that aren’t directly tied to project timelines or that don’t have meaningful deadlines—they just need to get done “at some point.”

Bonus points if you set completion date expectations with people affected by these tasks, even if it’s later than they prefer. This will help cement the timelines you've set and reduce anxious check-in messages from those people.

4. Use your words.

Often you will be able to use the tools above to shape your workload without ever having to use words or to explain to people what you are doing. Not having to defend yourself is nice! But sometimes the need to explain will arise. This is where the language of most valuable actions is useful:

  1. State your priority task and how much time you need to do it well.
  2. Use this as the reason you can’t fulfill a new request or why it must wait until later.
  3. Say all this calmly and with a smile.

There’s not much people will be able to do other than accept your response.

Here are some other specific situations you might encounter, and how words can help you defend a realistic workload.

De-escalate “emergencies.”

How often does somebody come to us as project managers with a task or project or bug fix that needs to be done “NOW!”? It might feel urgent to them, but when viewed through a bigger-picture lens after a deep breath, it may not be urgent after all. You can be like a calm pool of water to extinguish the fire of their “emergency.” The key is to avoid acting immediately despite the feeling of urgency created by their heightened emotional state. Help them or let them calm down (and calm yourself down if needed), then determine and explain the best place for their item to fit among all the other active company priorities.

Acknowledge constraints but state what’s realistic.

Sometimes coworker needs, company goals, or project deadlines will create a situation where it seems like everybody has to work faster or work longer hours to achieve everything on time. Occasionally this may actually need to happen, but don’t accept the situation blindly. Can you go to a boss, a team, or a project sponsor and say, “We’re trying to meet all three of these deadlines, but it’s not going to be realistic given the working hours of everyone on the team. What can we do?” Maybe a contractor can be hired to help. Maybe a seemingly “immovable” deadline can be moved after all. The boundaries affecting your project can sometimes be changed with a little communication and creativity…restoring the ability of you and your team to work at a sustainable pace.

5. Sometimes, ignore messages.

I cover this idea in more depth in my blog post “3 Reasons to Wait to Respond,” but not every work email, phone call, or instant message needs an immediate response. Prioritize those that are genuinely urgent; the others can wait. Try and see what happens if you respond at a pace that works for you, rather than the pace at which messages come to you. You may find the number of messages people send you will decrease over time to match your response rate. You may even end up empowering team members by putting them in a situation where they solve more of their own problems.

Protecting your time to work at a sustainable pace, whatever approaches help you achieve that, is good for both you and your company. You are your projects’ most valuable resource because you are the one who will adapt the project to changing conditions that current plans and software automations can’t account for. Your time and capacity are worth protecting, so you can do this very important job well, and for a long time.

 

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