Entrepreneurs and startup team members are often beset by frantic calls for their attention and time. This can result in fragmented work — and it carries a real cost that you and your company ultimately pay.
Every time your attention gets moved by a request from another source — whether that’s a quick email response or a ping from a team member for assistance on a project — it can take you several minutes to get back to the original task. Over time, that kind of chaos leads to high levels of stress and even burnout.
Setting and communicating your boundaries is essential, but only the first step. You have to then protect and defend those boundaries by being just a bit selfish. Here are six tips to do it smoothly without causing offense or confusion.
1. Identify the intruders
First identify the people, tasks and contexts that traditionally try to intrude on your schedule. In a work-from-home context, that might be family, neighbors, pets or household chores, just as much as it might be work colleagues or team members.
An intrusive distraction can also be your own impulses. Writers often joke that their homes are never cleaner than when a deadline approaches. For all of us, the constant siren call of social media and gaming apps lure us from more high-worth activities.
Once you’ve identified your likely distractions, you can create strategies targeted to keep them at bay.
2. Stop being overly helpful
Are you a helicopter worker — someone who spends so much time hovering around new employees, subordinate team members and others who might struggle with particular tasks at which you excel, ready to pounce at the first suggestion that they might need your help?
If that sounds familiar, it’s time to land and put that chopper in the hangar. Remember, your time and energy are finite resources. Every time you give yours away to someone else, those resources are no longer available to you for your own work.
Instead, show your colleagues the courtesy of letting them process and resolve their own problems and obstacles. That helps you focus on your own work, but it also might make you a more valuable team player, somewhat paradoxically. That’s because you have more time and energy to dive into deep work, exercise your creativity and solve bigger problems for the team or company as a whole.
3. Chunk your daily time into context-driven slots
Chunking your schedule by context is a well-known method to help you “get into a groove” with tasks sorted by context. For example, set aside one hour for processing all your email, then don’t look at your email again until the next email chunk. Or set aside two hours after lunch for reading or ideation work.
Make sure your schedule and its chunks of time are visible to your team, so they know when they can and cannot intrude. Then commit yourself to staying on task during those time chunks, and respond to any messages or requests at a free time in your calendar.
4. Get into the habit of previewing your schedule
Setting a schedule isn’t enough. To really help yourself adhere to it and enforce your time boundaries, get in the habit of previewing the day’s schedule the night before or first thing in the morning.
You can also preview on a weekly basis to get a better sense of what lies ahead for you. Previewing your schedule psychologically reinforces the choices you’ve made as commitments, not just “stuff that has to get done some time — whenever no one else needs me.”
5. Check in with your team regularly with better meetings
Regularly scheduled meetings are the most effective way to keep up with every team member’s workload and process, but they also help avoid smaller disruptions during the remainder of work time.
Use the regular meeting time to help each team member overcome sticking points and identify potential future stumbling blocks. Respect everyone’s time by keeping to a strict agenda and rigidly enforcing time limits for each agenda item.
6. Draw a firm line between work and personal life activities
Barring an actual fire or other literal emergency, commit to leaving work behind at the set time and then embrace personal activities such as family time, exercise, pursuing hobbies and creative rest. This is especially important during our new WFH reality when those work/life boundaries get all too blurred, if not erased entirely.
Communicate your “on and off” hours to your team members and employees so they’ll know this is a priority for you. Bonus: It’ll likely become a bonus for them as well, and when they follow your lead, you’ll wind up with a happier, healthier, and more productive team.
Reclaiming your time and defeating burnout
Deep work is crucial for business leaders, owners, and founders. Carving out protected time that’s as distraction-free as possible is necessary for getting that kind of focused, attention-heavy work done. Communicating your time boundaries is the first step, but don’t forget to enforce them consistently, too. Failing to do so leads to confusion, stress, and ultimately burnout.
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