What does your typical day look like? Do you get to your desk, work through repetitive tasks to get them out of the way, then push through the remainder of your to-do list? Do you end the day with a clear desk and a sense of accomplishment? Or do you, like so many others, spend the day desperately trying to get through your work, only to be distracted by emails, phone calls, people dropping by, and meetings that could have been emails, until five p.m. arrives and your to-do list has only grown?
Distractions and interruptions are serious productivity killers, and the only way to get around them is to set clear, defined boundaries that will work for you. If you ever want to accomplish your goals and achieve the success you envision, boundaries are the key to making it happen.
The urgency factor
I’m not going to tell you this is a new thing, but it certainly has become worse in the last couple of decades. It’s the prevailing attitude that someone else’s time is not as important as your own. It’s someone being on a coffee break and deciding that you need to spend five minutes talking to them about their mom’s hip replacement. It’s a colleague calling a meeting to discuss something that you have no interest in, no authority over, and nothing relevant to contribute to. It’s a friend sending hundreds of pictures of their children, their dog, their lunch… and becoming annoyed when you don’t immediately respond. We’ve developed a culture of instant gratification, where everyone needs to drop everything and focus on things that just aren’t that important.
There’s too much of a sense of urgency placed on meaningless, time-consuming and unimportant things, and all these distractions and interruptions are causing you to become less efficient, less productive, and less successful. The world wants your attention, and it’s up to you to say, “No, I have things that are important to me that I need to get done. If I let myself get distracted, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
Leaving the office behind
In my business, I spent a great deal of time working hard, long hours, growing and expanding, and putting in a ton of energy to achieve the goals I had set for myself. Over the years, I went from being a one-man operation to having numerous employees and many clients, all of whom wanted a slice of my time. It grew so distracting that I came to a decision — I wasn’t going into the office anymore unless there was a specific meeting already planned. I knew that if I walked into that office, everyone would have a hundred questions, things they felt it critical for me to look at right now, even if it was something they really could make their own decision on, so I made a choice to step away.
I would conduct all my business during scheduled phone calls or meet with my assistant at a local restaurant to go over important documents. I kept my office visits to a minimum and set those up for times when I knew I could handle being in demand all day. It was the only way I was going to get things done, so I set those boundaries and stuck to them.
Believe in your own goals
One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that the people who struggle to define clear boundaries are usually those who struggle to accept their value. Whether they’re a member of staff in an organization, or running their own business, somewhere along the way they got the idea that everyone else’s time and demands are more important than their own.
Maxwell Maltz said it best: “Self-image sets the boundaries of individual accomplishment.” To me, that says, if you believe that what you are doing is worthwhile, worthy of your time and energy, if you believe that you have a right to pursue your goals and accomplish them, then you will understand the value of setting boundaries. Because if you don’t set those boundaries, you have nobody to blame for failing to be productive and successful but yourself.
It isn’t someone else’s job to keep up with your schedule and your priorities. People are too busy focusing on their own. When someone comes along and interrupts you while you’re working, most of the time, they have no idea that they’re intruding into your space at a bad time. It isn’t that they don’t respect boundaries, it’s just that they feel they need to speak to you right now, and if you haven’t made your boundaries clear, they won’t see any reason why you can’t be disturbed. This will happen again and again until you figure out a way to isolate yourself when you need to get things done.
There are fewer emergencies than you think
It doesn’t matter if you work in a multinational corporate company, or if you’re a solo entrepreneur working from your guest bedroom; you are not going to achieve your goals as long as you allow other people to treat their time and needs as more important than your own. We often convince ourselves that, in order to be successful, we must always be available to put out everyone else’s fires and make ourselves indispensable — but, this just isn’t true.
When you make it clear that you have defined boundaries, the vast majority of people, from clients to co-workers, family to friends, are going to accept and understand that, and are only going to interrupt you if it’s vitally important. Believe me, when I say, there are a lot fewer fires that need your help to extinguish them than you think. But how do you go about setting boundaries?
Protecting your boundaries
“Boundaries are to protect life, not to limit pleasures.” – Edwin Louis Cole
Not everyone is going to be able to decide that they’re working from home from now on. I got to do that because it was my company and I could set that kind of boundary. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries that work within your context. It is up to you to figure out what your boundaries need to be and to enforce them effectively. That said, there are a few ways you can go about setting those boundaries that work for just about everyone. And, if your goal is to be your own boss and work from home one day, you’ll be glad you learned how to set boundaries.
Evaluate your distractions and determine how to deal with them.
Make it easy by starting with the things and the people, as well as the places where you spend the most time. For example, we’ve already talked about taking control of your smartphone. Then let those around you know when you need your space. Believe it or not, the world is not conspiring to make life miserable for you. Most people have a lot of things to do themselves and, they are not thinking about your schedule and whether or not they are intruding into your space. Make it easy for them to know when you need to be left alone. Take a look at your workspace and see what adjustments can be done to eliminate the most frequent interruptions. In all of these areas start with the things closest to you, simplest to fix and work out from there. Little changes can give you BIG benefits.
Set a precedent. Ideally, you want to set precedents as early as possible, because it’s easier to set boundaries from the start than to change them later. Unfortunately, we don’t all have that option, so start setting precedents right now. If your coworkers are under the impression that it’s fine to walk into your office anytime and talk about unimportant things, set a precedent by stopping them and telling them that you are busy and can’t talk. Alternatively, you can set the precedent that when your door is closed, or there’s a specific sign on your desk, that you are not to be disturbed, but when the door is open or, the sign is put away, you are free to talk. Create precedents that suit your circumstances. If you’re a parent who runs their own business from home, make it clear to your kids and spouse that they can’t disturb you when you’re at your desk.
Define boundaries clearly. Like I said before, there are fewer emergencies than you think, but they do exist, and it helps to have clear definitions of what counts as an emergency and how to deal with those circumstances. If your children think that “Susie stole my candy bar” is an emergency, you need to explain to them why it isn’t. Likewise, if a colleague believes that a coffee maker malfunction in the break room is an emergency that you have to deal with, you need to make it clear to them why it isn’t, and when you are willing to deal with these things. Most people are perfectly capable of handling these so-called emergencies on their own, rather than passing them off onto you, and it should be understood they are only to disturb you if it’s essential.
Don’t break your own rules. If you are unavailable, you are unavailable. Especially at the beginning, when you’re setting your boundaries politely, people will test them, and you need to be as firm with them as necessary. If someone interrupts you with something you have already made it clear you won’t deal with right now, then refuse to do it, and make it clear that that is your boundary. Your boundary is your layer of protection against unnecessary distractions and interruptions, and it is what makes you capable of reaching your goals.
Too many people think of boundaries as something restricting, something to break through to set you free from the confines of whatever. I disagree. Boundaries are there to give you a clear, defined space in which to develop, grow and achieve your goals. When you learn how to set those boundaries and free yourself from the endless cycle of distractions and interruptions, you are going to discover that you have more time to finish your work, more energy to get things done and, as a bonus, more free time. What boundaries do you need to set to give yourself room to achieve your goals? Let me know in the comments below.<< Previous Post Being Busy vs. Being Productive Next Post >>