She said: “I never get to do the work that is my actual job.” I nodded because having worked out of my house for the last several years with kids around, I very much know that feeling. I can’t count the number of times I thought: “I’m working ALL the time, but how much of that work has been the work that I believe I am supposed to be doing, that I want to do, that I believe I most need to do?” Those are some tricky questions.
Because I’ve faced this in my self-employed phase, I believed this was just a problem for the self-employed, particularly those of us who work out of our homes: the tendency for so many problems, needs and concerns to sneak onto our radars and block out everything else, the insistence of the phone call we’ve been waiting for or the last-minute opportunity that we really shouldn’t miss, the call from the nurse’s office, the dog who needs to go to the vet, the colleague who wants to meet and can only do it today, the deadline someone else has that suddenly impacts YOUR schedule, the mixup at the bank, the broken AC, the laptop crash that interferes with progress, the impromptu staff meeting, the crisis that must be addressed pronto. For many of us, there is no real inviolable time.
When I started thinking about this problem, I was surprised that I thought it was just applicable to self-employed folks, because I used to teach. Teachers have no inviolable time. Most of the workday is doled out in very specific ways, and as such, the behind the scenes work is left for “planning,” which seems like inviolable time that each staff member gets to plan lessons, grade papers, prepare for the coming days weeks and months. In reality, “planning” in my experience often meant “copy making time,” filling out paperwork for someone else’s deadline, going to the bathroom (the struggle is real y’all), subbing for an absent colleague, OR meeting time (my personal fave). The part of the day where a teacher is supposed to do the heavy lifting brain work that creates long term success for students and job satisfaction for teachers is far from sacred; the behind the scenes work of planning classes and grading papers usually happens after school, when the line between work and home becomes impossibly blurred.
I’ve come to understand that inviolable time is hard to come by in many professions, and our technology has perhaps made the problem even worse with the wonders of the shared calendar. It is now possible for other people to schedule you for a meeting without even talking to you, with no knowledge of what your professional priorities might be for that day, with no knowledge of what deadlines you might be facing. “Bing,” there it is, your little time box filled in by somebody else. And before you know it, you’re not doing the work you are there to do.
My suggestion? It’s shockingly simple. Create your own inviolable time. Now, don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you to “make time,” because personally, I really hated when people said that to me when I felt stuffed to the gills with tasks. What I am suggesting is that you CLAIM time. On whatever you use to plan your time (ESPECIALLY if it is a shared mechanism like an online calendar), make meetings with yourself for the tasks that you need to accomplish in order to do the thing you are supposed to be doing. And then, attend those meetings.
I know, it sounds too simple. But really, on shared calendars, people just look for those blocks that are empty on your calendar. The assumption is that if your block is empty, you are available. If you have work that NEEDS to be done at that time, you are NOT available. You do not need another person in the room to be unavailable. You are busy with yourself. You just need to say so. When you don’t do this, YOU are the one left looking for those empty blocks on your own schedule so you can squeeze your work in, assuming nobody calls a meeting at the last minute.
I implement this strategy on my own calendar. I make sure I have time every morning to begin with a meeting with myself. What are my goals and priorities today? What do I NEED to get done? What do I want to get done? What are the tasks that will get me there? This helps shape the non-client part of my day. I share my appointment calendar with clients so they can schedule time with me. I have to make sure that time for my morning meeting is in there. When my husband’s out of town and I’m on solo duty for morning drill, I make my client hours start an hour later so I can be sure not to miss my morning meeting in the bus stop rush. I build time into my calendar for writing, for creating programs, for all of the tasks that I do. Those blocks of time are as inviolable as my sessions with clients, as inviolable as a meeting with my principal would have been. And I get my stuff done. I create inviolable time to do the tasks that are necessary for my work.
How about that? The really great thing is it works in our personal lives too. We can claim inviolable time for the things we need: time alone, a coffee date with a friend, a walk, a phone call. We can make meetings with ourselves for our deepest needs and desires. We can claim those things, without explanation or apology. The time is there. If you don’t claim it, don’t be surprised if someone else tries to. After all, you just left it sitting there.