Consider these three scenarios:

  • You’ve had a busy day at work and you decide to take a breather. After a one minute of sitting down with a cup of coffee, your boss calls your name and says, “Hey, do you have a minute?”
  • You are ready to spend a moment with your favorite book when all of a sudden you get distracted by a phone: someone is trying to sell you a magazine subscription.
  • You are about to make finishing touches to a project at work, but you get interrupted by the constant noise in the cubicle.

These scenarios are very common and very annoying.

You are tired of distraction and of the fact that others are defining your rhythm and productivity. With constant distractions and requests, you are not getting enough time for recovery or for getting things done.

Your time usage is dictated by others. It’s no wonder that you want to change the situation and get your stolen time back!

Are you too accessible and helpful?

The main reason why people let others dictate their productivity and steal their time is being too helpful.

For instance, when someone comes to you and makes a request, you want to be help. Also, you don’t want to let down their expectations by saying “no” to them.

Another thing that “helps” time thieves to steal your time is being too accessible. You want to be reachable and open towards others as much as possible. This gives you the reputation of being a nice and trustworthy person.

However, both of these traits have their downsides too.

In a work environment, you get bombarded with requests whenever possible, thus interrupting your productive time.

At home, you might have a problem with focusing on your own personal projects or finding time to relax in a middle of a hectic work week.

Obviously, there is one crucial thing that is missing in this picture. Do you know what it is?

The negative effects of missing boundaries

Yes, you got it right. The missing thing is boundaries.

Boundaries can be set as physical or non-physical ones and they define the rules you operate by and the way that others should operate as well.

If you haven’t defined boundaries, you are potentially jeopardizing your productivity and it makes easier for others to steal your time.

First, boundaries define how to handle the situation when something unexpected comes up. For instance, this could be the case when your boss comes to you and gives you an extra assignment.

Second, boundaries help you to protect your time. However, when the boundaries are missing, then people think it’s OK to interrupt you with their requests. They expect that you are accessible whenever they wish.

Third, the lack of using the word “no.” Now, it’s not always easy to say “no,” but it can be done firmly, while still leaving the other person with a good impression of you.

Fourth, an important part of the boundaries is communication. This can be divided into either verbal or written communication and depending on its clearness, that’s how strong or weak your boundaries are.

With proper communication, you are able to block requests that would otherwise make your already busy schedule busier.

Finally, understand that the word “no” is essential too when it comes to defending your personal boundaries. Instead, saying the word “yes” is an open request for time thieves to grab the piece of your time.

Although the word “no” is part of the communication point #4, I wanted to mention it separately, as I think it’s the cornerstone setting your boundaries on a daily basis

Sorry thieves, the police is here!

To catch the time thieves and give you back the stolen time, follow this plan:

First and foremost, it’s important to set your expectations straight – whether it’s at work or at your home. When people know that you are working on something important, it helps them to respect your time too.

For instance, when someone comes to you at the cubicle, let the person know that you are working on something important and cannot be disturbed. Also, let people know about your phone and e-mail answering policies.

At home, communication is the key as well. For instance, I’m building my  online business on the side (on top of my day job), so I’ll let my family know when I work and when I shouldn’t be interrupted.

When everyone is on the line, no false expectations are set and everyone knows the rules to follow.

It’s a good idea to “isolate” yourself too. By isolation, I’m not talking about disappearing for hours without telling anyone where you are. Instead, I’m talking about controlled isolation, which doesn’t make everyone else concerned.

At work, this isolation could be done by booking a meeting room and working there, at home this could be done by going to work outside (nature, coffee shop, and library) and communicating to your spouse that you’ll be away for a certain amount of time.

There is one thing to note: You should take a phone with you, so that your spouse can contact you in case of a family emergency. Naturally, you want to be with your family if something notable happens.

Finally, reduce your commitments that aren’t necessary. The more commitments you have, the more probable it is that you will have to give up your time for something you don’t like.

For instance, I belonged to a local computer club in my town and I was asked to be a board member for the club. At first I said yes, but eventually I gave up on the position even though others wanted me to stay.

Eventually I stopped participating in the club’s activities, because I wanted to focus on other things in my life instead. This eliminated some of my commitments and my personal schedules became simpler.

Let’s define your anti-theft alarm system

Follow these four steps to defend yourself from time thieves:

  1. Set your communication policies.If you are at work and feel that you get interrupted a lot, set the auto-responder message telling others when you process your e-mails. This way others are not expecting you to get back to them as soon as possible.It’s also a good idea to mute your phone when you work and also let others know about this too (and also, when you do answer the phone).
  2. Isolate yourself.Book a meeting room at the office if you want to get work done. If possible, you can also work remotely from home if it’s quiet and peaceful there (for instance when kids are at school).At home, if you feel interrupted constantly, try to find a spot in the nature, a coffee shop or a library to do the work. Let your spouse know where you are, how long you are going to be away and at which number he/she can call you in the case of emergency.
  3. Communicate clearly.Make sure other people truly understand your rules and that they don’t assume anything.Also, have a mutual understanding with your boss when it comes to work assignments. Let him/her know that sudden assignments are weakening your working productivity.The same clear communication works with your family too. You can even create a document showing  your working schedule and put it in your refrigerator door, so that it’s easily available and other family members can see it.
  4. Learn to say no. Finally, learn to say no. Although it can be challenging, it’s doable. What matters the most is how you do it.

Conclusion

Time thieves are everywhere and in most of the cases they are not even aware that they are taking your time away.

That’s why it’s important to define boundaries and let everyone know about them. This way, you can focus on your work or for recharging your batteries.

Over to you: Have you defined boundaries towards time thieves?

(Photo credit: hand holding stopwatch via Shutterstock)

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