5 Steps To Protect Your Time

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It’s our most valuable commodity. But to safeguard your time—and amp up your productivity—you need to get comfortable saying ‘no.’ Here’s how.

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”—Warren Buffett

Working with C-level executives, I’ve learned that as humans, we don’t like to say no. We prefer not to say no. We associate more pain with saying no today than we do with having too much to do later.

It is easy to make lists. The missing link in today’s productivity systems is that there is no process to decide what we put on our plate in the first place. Existing systems teach how to manage what is on our overflowing plate—the most effective way to get too many things done. No one talks about selectively eating from the buffet of projects, but that is exactly what I am suggesting. I have created a five-step process to protect your time. Before you say yes to another thing, ask yourself these five questions first.

1. Does it align with my roadmap? The most productive people ensure that requests for their time align with their goals. Think about your roadmap as a list of milestones on your way to achieving something. Just like getting from Boston to Los Angeles, a map tells you which direction to go, how far you must go to reach your destination and how long it will take. Make sure you have a life roadmap so that you can match requests for your time to it.

2. Who is asking? Is it your boss, or someone you know only casually who thinks you’d be a great pro-bono accountant for the baseball league? The most productive people create a relationship hierarchy that helps them decide whether or not to accept a request. For some, the hierarchy is conscious and clear, for others it is subconscious.

3. Is it a quality request for your time? The most productive people expect requests for their time to be fully thought through and crystal clear, otherwise they will refer it. A quality request for your time is necessary, respectful of your schedule, thoughtful, concise and includes possible solutions. Have you been accepting inferior requests for your time? If so, you are training people to give you half-baked requests. Raise your standards and you will get higher quality requests for your time. Also, think about the requests you are making. Are they quality requests for others’ time?

4. Where does it fit on your priority list? In my time leading global software development teams, the most effective leaders were the ones who responded to a new project request with the question, “Where does that fit on my priority list?” We would review the priority list together and decide where it fit, if at all.

If you’re reading this article, your plate is likely already full. So, you may need to make a decision to reprioritize or refuse the request. Think about your time as a financial investment. It’s finite and you can only buyso many things. If you want to buy a new stock, you may need to sell another. If you want to take on a new project, you may have to stop another.

5. To whom can I delegate? When the first four steps align, you still may not be the only person hired to do this work. The most productive people delegate for two reasons: to get something off their plate, and to create a development opportunity for others. Often, it is the former reason they think about. I urge you to consider the second. How can you create an opportunity for someone to grow?

With this decision framework for when to say yes and how to protect your time, you will feel in control once again, have clarity on your goals, make progress on your roadmap and enjoy the process. You will turn busy and overwhelmed into purposely productive with ease.

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