Feel like email and social media are stealing your time? Great news: your communications technologies can give time back, too. I’m not talking about productivity boosters or clever ways of getting even more work done in even less time. I’m talking about protecting your time from the many incursions (many of them brought to you by email, twitter, facebook or linkedin) that can take your time away from your work altogether.
As I wrote in a recent blog post that is featured today on BlogHer, it takes work for an entrepreneur — or any other busy, successful person — to protect her time from the many (often legitimate) requests for time and attention. When you are dealing with a request for a freebie (as in, let me take 2 hours of billable time to pick your brain for free), it can be hard to know whether or even how to say no.
Here are 4 ways your computer can help you fend off some of the requests it streams to your desktop:
- The life wireframe: In web development, a wireframe is a bare bones mockup that shows the different elements you want to include in your web page. In time management, a life wireframe is a calendar that maps out your ideal week, allocating your time as you would ideally spend it. Create a separate life wireframe calendar in your calendaring program, blocking out every minute in your perfect week: wake-up time, hours for focused work, email time, meeting time, family time, workouts — the whole nine yards. Include business development and pro bono time in those time blocks, and be realistic about how much time you need to devote to those kinds of first meetings. Set all the items in your life wireframe to recur on a weekly basis, and set that calendar to visible — as a layer over or under your real-life calendar — at least once a week. Use it to remind yourself of how much of your time to allocate to meeting requests, and how much you need to protect ferociously so that you have time to get work done, or even (horrors!) to regenerate.
- The “no” signature: A good rule of thumb that I picked up in my travels is to never say yes to a meeting in 2 weeks (or 3 weeks, or six months) that you wouldn’t book into your calendar this week. Of course, you will often schedule things 2 or 3 weeks out because you don’t have a free block this week, or you are out of town, or on a deadline. But if you simply wouldn’t fit this appointment into a free block in this week’s calendar, you probably won’t feel any happier to see it pop up during a busy week in your future.
The corollary of this rule is to avoid sending emails that encourage people to ask for your time at a later date. This is usually just a way for you to escape the awkardness of a definitive no. Write a few “no” emails that simply decline a meeting request without offering any ray of hope, and you will toughen up. Turn the best of these into two or three re-usable email signatures (most email clients let you save multiple signature files). When you’re faced with an email you know you need to say no to, use one of your pre-fab “no” signatures (adapting as needed) so you don’t fall prey to the temptation to say yes.
- The “maybe” folder: Let’s agree right now that anytime we hesitate before saying yes to a meeting request, it’s a sign that we probably need to say no. But sometimes it’s hard to bring yourself to send that “no” right away, and in the urge to clear out your inbox, you end up saying yes instead. So create a separate email folder for “maybe” requests, and use it as a short-term parking lot for emails asking you for meetings you may or may not want to take. Go through that request pile every couple of days and decide which one or two you’ll say yes to, and say no to all the rest. (My bet: once you look at them as a pile, you’ll want to say no to all of them.) If you find yourself shirking the job of sending those “no” messages, set a mail rule to send a politely declining auto-response to any message that is sitting in your “maybe” folder for more than three days.
- Blog your FAQs: If you receive a lot of requests for your time, it’s probably because people see you as a key source of wisdom on one or more topics. Distill that wisdom into written form, and you’ll be able to help many of the people who reach out to you without actually scheduling a meeting. If you find yourself answering the same question from more than a couple of people, or dispensing the same advice on a repeated basis, you can convert your standard-issue answer into a blog post. That’s how I ended up writing my posts on getting into grad school, or more recently, my series on blogging essentials. Point future inquiries to the relevant blog post; this is even easier if you create memorable links to your FAQs (e.g. http://bit.ly/alexblog). If you don’t have a blog, you can do something similar by creating documents that you email in response to recurring questions, but remember: if people keep asking you for your wise answer to a question or questions, it’s a sign that you have valued knowledge that would be the basis for a terrific blog.
Of course, none of these techniques can make you bulletproof. Even people with a zealous regard for the value of their own time will occasionally take meetings that go nowhere. And of course, many of us are less than zealous: we let our fear of awkwardness, desire to please or anxiety about missing a potential opportunity goad us into saying yes to meetings we really can’t afford to take.
Your computer will inevitably stoke those anxieties by feeding you requests and opportunities that challenge your resolve to say no. Turn your online life into an ally in the job of safeguarding your time, and you will find that resolve steadily growing.