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1) Change Your Mindset.

It’s hard to say no when you feel like work is the most important thing in your life. The first step to gaining a healthy work-life balance is getting yourself out of that mindset. Here’s how.

First, reassess your values.

Your work may be a priority, but what else is important and meaningful to you? If you aren’t clear about what you value and the other ways you want to spend your time, it will be hard for you to say no with conviction.

Ask yourself: If I had a completely free day or week, with no tasks to check off my list, how would I spend the time? Is there something I enjoyed in the past that I’m no longer doing now because I’m too busy? Are there people I don’t see enough of, and would love to?

Reflecting on these questions can help you realize how many previously fulfilling activities and relationships you might have let fall by the wayside. When you think about them intentionally, you’ll be more motivated to carve out time to take them up again. Even if after completing this exercise, you find your work more fulfilling than your hobbies, remember that to bring your best self to your job, you need to stop doing it from time to time. If this is the case for you, challenge yourself to make your personal life an equal priority. It will pay off.

Next, schedule those priorities into your calendar.

Your Outlook and Google calendars showcase a vast expanse of 24 hours each weekday, giving you the false impression that you have a ton of free time. What is not explicit is the time that you need to sleep, care for yourself, and tend to your meaningful relationships. In a way, your calendar is tricking you.

To better align your time with your full set of priorities and gain a truer picture of the time you have available, add all your engagements (personal and work) to your calendar. Whether it’s your yoga class, time to walk the dog, or a dinner with your family or friends — make sure to plug it into your calendar, as well as a few hours during which you can focus, uninterrupted, on important job tasks. I’d personally go one step further and add your sleep hours in there too.

This will give you a more wholesome picture of your availability and help you assess your bandwidth more accurately before agreeing to take on more work.

2) Identify the opportunity costs of saying yes.

Too often, we say yes without giving enough consideration to what that yes entails. Here’s how to figure that out.

Ask yourself three questions.

What’s in it for me? Before quickly agreeing to the next request or opportunity that comes your way, ask questions to uncover the full commitment required. If your manager asks you to take on another project while your plate is full, for example, assess if saying yes would truly benefit you. Is this a task you definitely shouldn’t pass on as it could help expand your knowledge or skills and benefit your career? Can this task help you show your newly acquired skills or those that your manager may not have noticed?

Do I have the bandwidth? We often underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks. This is known as planning fallacy — a cognitive bias that leads us to consistently underestimate timelines, despite knowing that similar tasks have taken longer in the past. This prediction bias springs from our sense of optimism, but events don’t usually unfold as we imagine. Instead, we tend to run into unexpected obstacles, delays, and interruptions. To limit the effects of this mental error, I suggest adding a buffer of 20% to whatever you think the time required will be. If you determine that a project is important enough for you to participate in, ask your manager if your other priorities can be juggled or offloaded to accommodate the time you will need to complete their request.

What will I have to give up to take this on? Despite our efforts to pile more onto our plates without subtracting, there is always an opportunity cost. If you say yes to joining a new committee, what is the tradeoff? For example, will you need to miss your evening gym class because the team is based in another time zone? Or will you need to attend calls late into the night that could disrupt your sleep schedule? With a fuller understanding of the commitment and a little padding in the schedule, you’re better positioned to consider the trade-offs.

Create a checklist.

As an executive coach who loves her job, I can relate to how easy it is to get consumed by your work. In addition to thinking about the opportunity costs, a short checklist of questions helps me more rigorously evaluate the requests I receive and checks my tendency to say yes.

Questions I ask myself include:

  • Am I the only person who can do this?
  • Will this project move me closer to achieving my top priorities and longer-term goals?
  • If I don’t do this, will it matter in a week, a month, or a year from now?

If I answer any of these questions in the negative, I know that a strategic no is likely in order.

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