Every time I’m on a plane, I listen to the flight attendants provide some crucial, potentially life-saving information. Seatbelts, flotation devices, emergency exit rows: we’re glad that they exist but hope we’ll never need them.
When talking about oxygen masks, they always instruct us to secure our own masks first before helping others.
I think of this often when I have to say “no” to things. I like to be generous with my time, responsive to others, and available when people need me. I want to be helpful.
Unfortunately, time is a finite resource. The more we give of it to other people, the less we have for ourselves.
Once JotForm started growing, my time became more valuable. I had more demands on my schedule. Trying to do it all was stressful, and I started to worry I wasn’t giving 100% to my commitments. Something had to change. I had to put on my own oxygen mask first.
At first, I felt selfish for declining meetings and letting time pass before returning a non-urgent email. But, over time, I realized guarding your time is a critical part of being a leader. You can’t work to your full capacity if you’re spread too thin. Being protective of your schedule allows you to be more fully present, more productive, and strategic about how you’re spending your time.
Set expectations from the start
Everyone has different expectations for communication. The people who are constantly on their email often expect others to be the same way. Being available 24/7 has become the new normal, but it’s not good for us. Constant notifications get in the way of our stress recovery and can affect sleep patterns.
Email is a critical part of how we work. I believe it makes us more productive. But, checking email during critical creative times, during another meeting, or while you’re spending time with your family is splitting your attention, making you less present in the given moment.
That’s why I set aside time to attend to my email. As a proponent of Inbox Zero, I dedicate a block of time to my email and attend to all of them in the order they were received. When I’m not specifically working on my email, I close it. I’ve turned off the notifications on my phone and don’t check my inbox until I have time to devote my full attention.
I try to lead my team by example. By immediately responding to an email, I’d be sending a message that they can expect an instantaneous response from me and that I expect one in return. By setting a regular cadence of response, I’m setting the expectation that I will respond in a timely fashion while not being chained to my inbox. I have more control over my time, and the quality of communication is better.
Avoid unnecessary meetings
As CEO, I receive a lot of meeting invitations. Executives on average spend 40–50% of their workday in meetings, 33.91% of which are poorly run, wasting two months of working time per year. Bad meetings account for $37 billion a year wasted in the US.
Good meetings are an opportunity to make decisions quickly, to shorten the feedback loop, and to collaborate and build camaraderie with colleagues. But a bad meeting will ruin my day. Of all the time wasters, it’s the most frustrating to me. Even if they are well-intentioned, bad meetings feel disrespectful of my team’s time.
To make sure I’m in the meetings I should be and avoiding the ones I shouldn’t, I ask for an agenda. I’ll know what’s being covered and whether I can provide helpful input or if I should invite someone else on my team. More than that, though, writing an agenda shows that the person who invited me to the meeting knows why we are meeting and what they want to get out of it. That indicates to me that they will be thoughtful and focused with the time they’re asking for.
This is particularly important for regular meetings. Standing check-ins aren’t inherently bad. They’re scheduled to work toward a long-term goal. But, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where the meetings stay on the schedule even though nothing really gets done in them. By defining goals for each meeting, you’ll make better progress toward the long-term goal.
Most importantly, start and end on time. This may seem like a basic tip, but it shows that you respect the time of everyone else in the room. By setting the precedent at the management level, your team will follow suit.
Use tools to help you get out of your own way
As much as I have to protect my time from other people, I also have to protect it from myself. I’m not immune from distractions, and my will-power is as limited as everyone else’s, though it has gotten better with practice. Instead of relying on self-control to stay focused, I use tools to help me. They run in the background so I don’t have to think about it and can keep my focus on work.
- Remove the temptation: Apps like Freedom block your access to specific websites (or all websites except the ones you specify) and apps. By making the choice ahead of time, you no longer have to stay strong in the moment.
- Optimize your communication: Gmail and other email services allow you to organize your emails, write templated messages for quick responses, and automatically send and archive. By spending some time upfront on the right setup, you can be organized without even thinking about it.
- Be intentional with the time you do have: Methods like the Pomodoro technique can help you be more focused by working in sprints with short breaks. There are many apps that can help, or you can use the original: a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
- Block time: Use your calendar app to block off time to do your own creative work. I protect my prime time by scheduling it the way I would with any important meeting.