How to stop others from hacking your schedule and to take back your time.

By Corinne Nicolas, PhD, ACC

Late September is generally the point in the semester when my coaching clients want to talk about reclaiming their time. “There are just not enough hours in the day to make a dent in my to-do list, let alone make tangible progress on manuscripts and projects,” one of them recently confided. Among the culprits? Spending time on tasks and problems that could have been easily taken care of by someone else.

Looking back over the past few weeks, how much time have you spent doing just that? Answering grad students’ “urgent” questions about administrative lab matters, ordering your own equipment because your admin. may not know how to, helping a colleague whose mentor is a no-show…

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with supporting students and colleagues or helping the unit’s admin. when they ask for help that you can provide. That is, until doing so starts interfering with your ability to do work that advances your career goals.

If you too feel like the urgent needs of some and the perceived inabilities or unwillingness of others have hacked your schedule, the time has come to take it back! Here are 4 questions to get you on the way:

Question 1: What problems am I solving for others that someone without my expertise could solve?

Thinking about the last 2 weeks, make a list, preferably not just in your head, so you can take stock of the issue. Include interruptions by students or colleagues who need help, small “should-be-quick” service tasks you volunteered for,…  Look for patterns in the problems and tasks you take on, and whom you do it for.

Question 2: Why am I doing it?

Like it or not, taking over equipment ordering from your unit’s admin., or interrupting your work to answer questions covered in an easy-to-access lab manual is a choice. Get clear about the reasons behind your choices, and verify them.

Are you really taking on extra service work you have no time for because “no-one else will”? Or is yoru willingness to step in feeding a personal self-worth narrative? What do you get from being “available” and “saving” students from making a mistake on a purchase order?

Ask yourself: What beliefs drive my choice to spend time on tasks that serve others’ needs to the detriment of my own goals?  Are these beliefs true or false?

Question 3: What is it costing me?

On the surface, the cost of doing work that does not belong to you is time. And it is a cost that can be shrugged off. “What can I do? There are only so many hours in the day!”

But blaming time alone hides other serious costs: reduced energy, lower productivity, stress and, not to be ignored, the toll it takes on how we engage with loved ones.

Step 4: What is one change I can make?

Get back your time for work that matters to you and the advancement of your goals now. Commit to one choice you can make this week to stop doing work that does not belong to you. Perhaps it is as simple as putting a “Do not disturb/ I am writing” sign on your office door. Or perhaps it is creating a lab FAQS sheet so that you are no longer students any-time-of-the-day, go-to person.

Whatever it is, be clear about what will be different for you once you make that choice. Then commit to it and get to work – work that matters to you!