Manage Your Time Better with Just One Word

Learning how to manage your time effectively is one of the most valuable skills for remote workers. But there is a strange phenomenon that takes place when you make the transition from working in an office to working from home. Others often get the impression that you’re not working as hard, as long, or with as much focus as when you were in the office. People who would never think of calling you up at the office to make demands for your time do not hesitate to do so when you work from home.

I’ve found that requests can run the gamut: Some are more personal tasks, for instance, spouses, partners and family members often assume that you can take care on the household chores “since you’re there,” or they believe that you have the time to conduct online errands for them, like making travel arrangements, comparison shopping, tech support and fact-finding tasks. Others are professional favors and often come from current and former colleagues — for instance, asking for your time to review, proofread, research, write, make connections, or to spend some time so that they can “pick your brain” for free advice.

While no one wants to appear unwilling to help a loved one, friend or colleague, protecting your time, energy and daily schedule is the only way to stay productive, meet your work obligations and maintain that all-important balance between your workload and your personal life. And let’s be honest — many times, you’ll find that there are a handful of individuals in your network who repeatedly make demands for your time. Often, these are the people who feel that delegating their tasks to others is how they can be most productive. Yet, the underlying belief here is that their time is more valuable than yours. They will happily disregard the burden they place on others if it means that they can ease their workload.

We all have hectic schedules. Keep in mind that your time and the way you manage it is one of your most valuable assets as a remote worker. Whether you’re an employee, entrepreneur or a freelancer, efficiency and productivity is key to your success. To protect your time and energy, try to recognize the patterns in those who frequently make demands of you, and be firm in your response.

Who Is Making the Demand?

A needy or lazy coworker. Everyone has had to deal with a needy or lazy coworker at some point — you know, that person who is constantly coming to you for ideas, resources or for help solving problems. We’re not referring to a mentoring partnership in which there is a transfer of knowledge and experience from mentor to trainee. Rather, this is a colleague who simply finds it easier and quicker to call, text or email you for information rather than attempting to find it on their own. Turning down requests for help can be difficult if this person has been leaning on your for some time, but if he or she regularly presses you to use your time and effort so that they don’t have to, you’ll need to be straightforward and firm to set boundaries.

How to respond: Decline their request, but offer an alternate source where they can find the information. For instance, let’s say a teammate frequently asks you to resend past emails containing project notes. Consider: “I can’t get to that right now, but you can find all of the notes stored in the project campfire on Basecamp.” Don’t enable the behavior. Instead, offer a resource and eventually they will learn to look up the information on their own.

A demanding boss. If your boss frequently overloads your schedule with last-minute tasks that require a quick turnaround, you’re probably not in a position to decline. When we’re not working in the office, managers are often unaware of all of our daily responsibilities and commitments, or they underestimate the time required to complete a task (e.g., “It should only take you a few minutes,” “When you have a free hour…”).

How to respond: Be positive and proactive. Ask him or her to clarify the priorities of your current (and new) tasks to ensure that you have adequate time to complete them. For instance, “I would be happy to. This will take me a few hours, and I have three other assignments that are due tomorrow: [list them]. How should I prioritize this assignment with the ones I listed?” Once your manager realizes how your time is being spent, he or she may decide to assign the task to someone else, revise the deadlines, or may drop or reassign a low-priority task from your list.

A former colleague or someone in your professional network. There are some former colleagues who will turn to you for the same type of help that you provided them with when you worked together. Recognize that a valuable professional relationship is a two-way street. If an individual only communicates with you when they want something from you, and never reciprocates when you need help, advice or an introduction, then reassess whether this relationship is worth your time and effort.

How to respond: A quick but firm “no.” Obviously, there needs to be some context so that you don’t appear rude, but leave out the details because aggressive delegators will use that information to counter your response. For instance, “I’m sorry, but my schedule is absolutely packed.” Details like “this week,” or “today,” will often bring the response, “That’s OK. I don’t need this until next week.” Even if you leave out the details, they still may reply with something like: “As soon as your schedule opens up, I’d appreciate it if you would…” Be friendly, but firm. For instance: “To be honest, I’m treading water to keep on top of my workload.” If they persist, then respond with a frank: “I’m sorry. I truly don’t have the time.”

A friend or family member. With friends and family, it’s more about setting expectations than declining their requests. Those who are close to us may feel like they have more access to us when we’re working at home. They often don’t realize that our workloads, schedules and responsibilities are the same — only the location where we accomplish them has changed.

How to respond: Set expectations for your “office hours” or work schedule. Let them know that you want to help, but that you will need to address their request “after work” or on the weekend. Be consistent, and eventually they will understand that even though you’re at home, your working hours must be off limits.

It may take some practice to get to the point where you can decline demands on your time without feeling guilty. But the alternative is overtaxing your schedule, while draining your energy on other people’s tasks and not your own. Time is an invaluable resource — use it wisely!