In The Effects of Margin – Part 1, I discussed creating awareness for the need of margin in one’s life. The idea of creating boundaries as a protective moat around the things that really matter is critical to our productivity, success, and well being. In Part 2, I discussed The Four Key Reasons You Need Breathing Room. In it, the difference between being “busy” or being “productive” were defined and how going deeper with fewer things enhances value.
So, just how do we create margin in our life? The good news is that it’s easier than you might think. As we wrap up this series, I want to share Seven Ways to Build Boundaries for Your Life. These are practical, incremental actions that seem small in nature, but have enormous impact.
1. Practice intentional time blocking.
Time blocking is a great way to schedule intentional space in your calendar to dedicate your attention to things that matter most. For example, I purposefully “block” time out on the week for planning time (for me, I have a couple of hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings), as well as blocking my open time for meetings & appointments (Monday afternoon, Tuesday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, all day Thursday, & Friday mornings). This still provides flexibility during the week for drop in meetings, facilitation, etc. Obviously, if I am on the road or if there is more broad company meeting I make exceptions, but this practice allows met to be proactive with my calendar. It also helps my assistant know when to schedule things for me. You can find a great article on time blocking here.
2. Take a social media sabbatical
According to one study, Americans spend 4.7 hours on our phone or tablet accessing the web, most of that time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media outlets. Accounting for 8 hours of sleep, that means while we are awake 15 hours, 1/4 of our time is spent gathering likes or followers. Now, I’m not saying social media is a bad thing – in fact, I believe it can be a great platform and I enjoy using it quite a bit. I’m merely suggesting to take a breath and take a break. If you think you can’t do it for, say a month, try a weekend. No one is asking you to join a monastery.
By the way, when you decide to take your sabbatical…delete your social media apps. It’ll minimize the temptation to cheat and you can always reinstall them later.
3. Batch emails & voice mails
In the late 19th Century, Ivan Pavlov became famous for his famous “Classical Conditioning” experiment. It went something like this: When it was time to eat, an assistant would ring a bell, show the dog food, and the dog would begin to salivate. Later, the dog would begin to salivate simply by hearing the bell or seeing the assistant. The resulting finding was that the dogs were conditioned to a response by learned behavior.
Now, I’m not saying we drool when our emails ping, but how often do you feel compelled to check them one at a time as they come in? How often do you check even though there isn’t a ping? In Part One, I described a situation where a co-worker was angry because he didn’t receive an instantaneous response on email. Quite frankly, we’ve conditioned people for a response just like Pavlov conditioned dogs.
That being said, you can condition yourself as well as others in a better, more productive way. I respond to emails three times a day: First thing in the morning, around lunchtime, and at the end of the day. I admittedly do watch them come in all throughout the day, but my reply time is the key. It allows me to consider my response, minimizes the back and forth chain of emails, and spaces my reactive time out for replying to three times a day vs. every time I receive an email. The same holds true for voice mails.
As a leader, you need to decide “what is it that only I can do?” and “what are the 2-3 strategic things that I need to be working on?”. Then, delegate the rest. Now, delegation is not dumping the parts of your job you like least on other people. The highest form of delegation is empowerment. When you empower others, you are providing them with trust, responsibility, and the chance to perform. I’m very fortunate to have a great team around me and the result is almost always better when I empower them to make decisions and think creatively. By the way, delegation works even if you don’t manage direct reports. Identify subject matter experts and ask for their help. Most people are honored and, as long as you aren’t dumping your entire workload on them, willing to help.
5. Set boundaries on your work day
In a leadership course that I facilitate, one of the questions I ask is, “when do you work?” It’s staggering the answers I receive: “24/7”. “When my customers need me”, “whatever it takes” are common answers. Half the people I ask also
- Work during vacations
- Eat breakfast or lunch at their desk (or skip meals)
- Bring home projects from the office and work until bedtime.
My practice is this: My productivity is highest in the mornings, so I either head to the office early or find a quiet space to concentrate on key work that needs my undivided attention. My cell phone goes on at that time and I’m fully available to my team, business partners, and others at work that may need me, but my availability stops at 7 PM. After that, it’s my time and/or my family’s time. There’s very little that I can or should do for work at that point, and my family needs to know that I am present, not just in the house.
Vacations are also off-limits time from work. I set an out of office note on my email and phone and unplug. I’m not the president, so there is very little risk of my being needed for a national emergency.
Now – just a note: When I’m working, I’m all in. I have a high work ethic and expect others around me to have the same. I’m far more productive, however, when I surround that “all in time” with “all out time.”
6. Say No to Say Yes
This one the hardest for me. I’m a pleaser and hate telling people no. What that has gained me in the past is an overcommitted life and negatively impacted my productivity and, ultimately, my health. I have ulcerative colitis and related health factors that cause my immune system to go wonky from time to time. Overextending myself has, at times, put my well being at risk and I have to guard myself against that.
It took me a long time to learn that I cannot be all things to all people, but if I can be meaningful to a few, I might have a deeper impact. It’s required me to say no to things and people that I would love to say yes to, but simply cannot. It does, however, allow my “yes” to be much more meaningful. The areas of my life that I say “yes” to get a deeper commitment. At work, the things I say “yes” to by saying “no” to others, provide higher value to the organization. Greg Mckeown gives some great advice on how to say no gracefully.
7. Use the Eisenhower / Covey “Urgent/Important” Matrix
I Like Ike. When asked about his process for making decisions, General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that he had to first distinguish between what was “urgent” and what was “important.” In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey translated this into a matrix that combined urgency and importance:
While it’s not absolute, try to put your activities into these quadrants as best you can and spend most of your time in the Urgent/Important or Not Urgent/Important boxes. The common denominator is focusing your time on what’s important. The less time you are fighting fires, the more fire prevention you create.
These are just a few ways to create margin in your life. Remember, it’s not about doing more things, it’s about building boundaries for your life to be more productive.