Busy is not the same as productive.
Here’s the key difference: Busy people take on everything and offer unfettered access to their time, expertise, and attention; productive people set boundaries.
Even when we don’t have the time for or interest in something, we often feel guilty about saying no or aren’t sure how to decline a request, so we accept requests we shouldn’t. And the longer we do this, the more asks come our way. It’s a vicious cycle because what we allow is what will continue.
If you’ve ever fudged about wanting to do something (or your time to do it), only to regret it later, you need to establish boundaries. Here are five ways to do that and be more productive:
1. Don’t answer emails when you should be sleeping.
As anyone with an overflowing inbox will tell you, it’s a never-ending battle to keep up. It’s tempting to extend your work into the wee hours of the night (or morning), but you’ll deprive yourself of the break and rest you need. Worse, you’ll teach them that you’re accessible 24/7, so they’ll start sending you emails (and expecting responses) round the clock. Instead, set a cut-off time for emails and stick to it; most things can wait until morning. And if you’re worried about something important falling through the cracks, let your boss, peers, and clients know they can call you if it’s an urgent matter.
One note: if you’re *that* boss sending emails at 3:00 am, please stop. Seeing an email from your superior with a middle-of-the-night time stamp is jarring enough, but you’re also modeling unhealthy behavior that your team will feel compelled to copy, which will lead to burnout and resentment. And before you claim to be a night owl/early bird, remember that you can compose an email at any time and then schedule its delivery for the beginning of the workday.
2. Ask if your focus should be on this or that.
You’re one person, so you have a finite amount of bandwidth. If you’re already swamped with projects and get hit up with another to-do, it’s fair to ask how this new request ranks with current responsibilities. Ask your boss or client what the priority of their new ask is so that you can focus on it now. And be sure to communicate how this will impact the delivery and completion of other things they’ve asked you to do so that you can manage expectations and your time.
3. Do, Decide, Delegate, or Delete
Establishing priorities is also an easy way to impose boundaries on yourself. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of to-dos and requests, believing that everything is urgent and important, which seldom is the case. Instead, realize that not all tasks are created equal. Utilize a simple decision-making tool like the Eisenhower Matrix, in which you place your to-dos in four boxes: Do it now for urgent and important items, Decide to schedule a time to do it for non-urgent but important tasks, Delegate it to someone else for urgent but unimportant things, and Delete items that are neither urgent nor important.
4. Take back your calendar.
The first step in establishing boundaries is taking control of your calendar. You are not obligated to be available at all times, so carve out pockets of non-negotiable time for what’s important for you: your family, working out, meditation, reading, personal development, creative endeavors, or uninterrupted blocks of time to think and strategize. Protect your time by treating it like the valuable and precious commodity it is.
5. Learn how to say no
Saying yes to every request can rob you of the time and attention you need for those people and things that matter most. But how can you say no nicely? With practice and a few scripts.
You don’t need to be in every meeting/project/initiative. I saw this response from someone I follow and thought it was brilliant:
“I love what you’re doing. While my priorities will preclude me from assisting or participating, please keep me in mind for future endeavors.”
Feel like you’re constantly hit up for a freebie (a speaking opportunity that “pays” in exposure, a potential client who has no budget, etc.)? Or maybe someone is asking for your expert opinion via direct messages? You’re not obligated to accept or offer it. Try one of these responses to decline politely:
“Thanks for reaching out and considering me for this. Unfortunately, I’m unable to take on any unpaid projects at the moment, but I wish you much success with ______.”
“Thanks so much for your inquiry! Out of respect for my paying clients, I’m unable to give detailed advice via DMs, but here’s where you can book a consultation, and I have a wealth of free resources at _____.”
When you learn how to say no to things that don’t serve you, you can say yes to those that do.