I used to be that person. One of the first in the office, one of the first to put my hand up for the extra project, getting behind office networks, new initiatives, committees — you name it, I was the ‘go-to’.
A very conservative workday was 11 hours (7:30am — 6:30pm) but that didn’t include evenings spent side-by-side on the sofa with my husband, both of us laptops in lap, networking events, or weekends squeezing some extra work in. And it certainly didn’t include peak work times either. At the time I was working in a team responsible for leading the pursuit of my firm’s biggest sales opportunities and when we were against a deadline, an early finish was any time before 9pm and a late one ran well into the next morning.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain the same approach and the same hours – but it wasn’t the kind of job that was 9-5. I wanted to stay at work — I still felt as ambitious as ever — but I also wanted to be a present parent and if my child was going to be in childcare all day, the evenings and weekends would be sacred.
Something had to give.
In the end, what gave was not my career or my parenting. What gave was the length of my working week. I halved my working hours almost overnight when I returned to full-time work after having a baby and my reputation — and the impact of my work — was not affected at all. In fact, I got a bigger job opportunity within that first year and eventually went on to launch my own business.
1. Know and protect your peak period
This was the single most transformational thing I did. The reason I had always been in the office by 7:30am was to get a solid 60–90 minutes in without distraction, it’s when I did my chunkiest work. Now I was doing childcare drop-off, the earliest I could be in the office was 9am when the office would be busy and full of distractions and potential meetings. I knew my peak was still the first 60–90 mins of my working day and so I just went ahead and protected it. It was bold but I put a meeting in my diary with myself every single morning from 09:30–11am. Yes, I was senior enough to manage my time to a certain extent and yes it did get cancelled occasionally, but it’s surprising what colleagues will accommodate and get used to if you’re clear and transparent. Know when you’re at your productivity peak and protect it as fiercely as you can.
2. Be transparent and consistent with your ‘non-negotiables’
Your non-negotiables are those things that are essential for your wellbeing. Those things that if you compromised, you’d feel resentful. Maybe it’s going to the gym or your morning jog, maybe it’s Rock Choir on a Tuesday or Hot Yoga after work on Friday. For me it’s protecting my mornings for work and evenings for my family. I once worked with a very senior partner who had date night with his wife in his calendar every single Thursday night. That was non-negotiable and we worked around it.
I’ve seen people earlier in their career manage it too. One of my biggest role models was a graphic designer in our team who (wait for it) actually took his lunch break every day. He would leave the office too, get outside for a walk and enjoy his lunch.
What both of them did, which was absolutely fundamental, was act with transparency and consistency. They weren’t apologetic or secretive about their commitments and they stuck to them. Not only did this manage expectations, it also role-modelled the behaviour to others. Win/Win.
3. Audit your diary
I colour-coded my diary so I could see exactly where I was spending my time. What I discovered was that about 50% of my time was spent on work that was not directly related to my day-job. I wanted to do sensible hours and there it was in black and white — I was doubling my hours on stuff that wasn’t my job.
Audit your diary and get really honest about where you spend (and lose) your time, there will be hidden time-sucks everywhere. Make sure you do not spend significant amounts of your time doing other people’s work. Helping colleagues out is important but not at the expense of your own work. Be sure that if you do decide to help on a project outside of your remit, it’s because you really want to, not because you feel you should.
Practice saying “No” and if you find that uncomfortable, try “No, but…” The ‘but’ is where you insert your negotiation or compromise, for example “No, but I know someone who may know/have capacity”, or “No, not right now but I might have some time next month if it can wait.”, or “No, but I could if you can take this project off my hands.” Key word: Boundaries.People respect you for them, even if they push back a little at first.
Get really clear with yourself about the consequences of saying ‘yes’. What are you saying ‘no’ to elsewhere? For me, I was a very active member of a network which took a lot my time. Pre-children I was happy to spend some of my weekends dedicating time to it, it meant a lot to me. After becoming a parent ‘yes’ to that network immediately become ‘no’ to my son so it had to go.
4. Stop passive email checking
Email: other people’s ‘to-do’ lists, impossible to get a handle on, where you spend hours of the day. In auditing my diary, I noticed that time could literally disappear without me doing any meaningful work and often the culprit was passive email checking. This is the biggest hidden time-suck in your diary.
For most of us, email is an essential way we communicate at work. I’m not going to tell you to call or pop by your colleagues desk instead (although you should) and I’m not going to tell you to only check your email twice a day (although it’s something to aspire to) but what I will say is, if you’re going to check your email — do it actively. Make checking your email something you do consciously, intentionally and purposefully. Deal with them, delete them, forward them on, file them. Do not — under any circumstances — skim through passively, reading them and leaving them. You’ll save hours of time (not to mention your sanity).
5. Leave (or log off) on time
If your workday finishes at 5pm and you have nothing pressing, leave. It’s that simple. Presenteeism serves no one, not even our employers. Longer hours don’t make us more productive, they make us more tired and more resentful.
That same senior partner I mentioned above (Thursday night, date night) said to me just before I went on maternity leave “Monique, staying after 5pm is going to take on a whole new meaning for you when you have this baby. All of a sudden just finishing that one last thing will mean missing evenings with your family.” Evenings with your family, your Rock Choir, that Hot Yoga class — whatever your thing is, the to-do list will always be there so if it isn’t urgent, just leave. Not only will it feed your wellbeing, it feeds your colleagues’ wellbeing too. Role-modelling saying ‘no’ to presenteeism gives other people permission to say ‘no’ too (doubly important if you’re in a leadership position).
6. Flex when you need to
This is absolutely essential. There will be times when you do miss that Hot Yoga class, when you can’t have a walk at lunch time, when you can’t leave at 5pm and a two-hour meeting goes into your diary at 9am. You will have to flex, that’s life. The key is to clearly, consistently and transparently protect your peak period, your non-negotiables and your time as best you can and then be reasonable enough to tweak it when you need to.
I eventually did leave full-time work in the corporate world, designing a life and launching a business that felt more in line with what I wanted to achieve professionally, personally and creatively. But I still apply those same principles to my working days. It allows me to get the most out of my time, feel fulfilled and have the energy and headspace for everything else.
It’s finite so use your time wisely (whatever that means for you).