What I learnt from ‘volume down’ time
How to be smart with your time and protect what you love
With Holly & Co resident coach
Our resident business psychologist and coach, Kate, is here to help us get smart about how we use our time and the choices we make. In this article we’re going to look at the boundaries we need to protect those things that we don’t want to lose from our everyday lives. We’re also going to look at our habits and shake them up. Kate tells us, ‘Some of this may be really obvious, but when we’re overwhelmed it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. I’m a founder of a small business myself and I’m constantly having this conversation in my own head, I know it’s not easy.’
Let’s start by looking at our week and how we plan it so that it’s not just about work and productivity. Say you want to get back into doing exercise but you’re already overloaded – where’s the time? Or you want to get more hours of sleep? The obvious answer is, ‘Go to bed earlier.’ But what if you’re working late and then can’t settle down into sleep? This is about thinking through how you use your time and where your boundaries need to be to make it work.
There are many forms of a working week, but generally in a day there are at least three Zones of Flexibility: the start of the day, middle of day, and end of the day.
Think about the start of the day, what’s the earliest time you can reasonably start and the latest time you could start? For many people that zone is actually wider than the evening which we sometimes think of as “our time”. But the evening zone is subject to being squashed – by taking care of the kids, tiredness, and just winding down. The morning zone tends to stay open.
Same with lunchtime – what can you do? Can you take time to enjoy the process of making a delicious lunch, or do you play a musical instrument that you never make time for? Can you get back to doing what you really love like doing some freestyle drawing or painting, purely to explore and unwind? Remember what your “thing” is. There’s so much research out there that shows that creative hobbies equal better business performance – they’re a source of energy.
‘I don’t really like the term work-life balance, I prefer harmony, so if you think of your life as an orchestra – you’re looking for this lovely blend of sounds rather than this massively loud trumpet that drowns out everything you love.’
Sketch out your week so you can start to see some Zones of Flexibility you could use. It’s not about changing your hours, it’s just planning your time differently – each week can and will be different, but empower yourself to design your own unique week and make it work for you. Be creative with this, maybe using a planner to block out time in different colours so that you have something visual to remind you.
‘What you’re looking for is a blend,’ Kate explains, ‘not half-work, half-life. I don’t really like the term work-life balance, I prefer harmony, so if you think of your life as an orchestra – you’re looking for this lovely blend of sounds rather than this massively loud trumpet that drowns out everything you love. You also don’t want to cram everything outside of work into your weekends, so re-structuring your week to build some energising activities in is the ideal way to create more harmony.’
Habits vs choices
If we manage our life by our to-do list, we’re never going to win because we can always see that there’s more we could be doing. So we need to put boundaries in place; but what eats these boundaries for breakfast is our habits. If you start using a few hours to work on a Sunday or you work through lunch a few times, it can easily become a habit and become every Sunday or lunchtime. Have a think about what you regularly let slide into your protected time.
Holly is no stranger to this and her view is this, ‘It’s all about calling it out? It’s about saying, “I am going to be working late tonight family,” and then trying not to have them saying, “Well, mummy’s always working late.” What I do is I highlight things on my to-do list that are life-or-death and other things that are then just “to-do” (and can carry over into the next day).’
Kate agrees with this approach, ‘This is ruthless prioritisation. Can you draw a line between what really matters today and everything else that you could do? When you’re feeling overwhelmed you need to tighten that line so that you start your day with absolute clarity on the two or three things you absolutely must do. Everything else is then a bonus.
It also comes down to how you plan. If you use a to-do list, it tends to be a vertical stack of demands which can be overwhelming. A plan spreads things out horizontally offering an overview of today, tomorrow, next week, next month. This gives you more flexibility and a sense of control.’
So, two really important good habits to practise are:
Ruthless prioritisation and making choices
Are you blocking out time to get things done rather than hoping for the best? Our days are full of interruptions – on average, we do 11 minutes of work before being interrupted. So get ruthless:
- Can you question the importance of some of these interruptions?
- Do you need to respond to every email as it comes in?
- Do you need to say yes to all these meetings?
- Can a meeting scheduled for an hour actually be 20 minutes?
‘Can you draw a line between what really matters today and everything else that you could do? When you’re feeling overwhelmed you need to tighten that line so that you start your day with absolute clarity on the two or three things you absolutely must do. Everything else is then a bonus.’
The main reason we don’t delegate is because we like to be in control. Other times it just feels easier to do it yourself or it can also be a great distraction from the more laborious work you really should be doing. None of these things are helping grow your business in the long-term and it can tip you into a sense of overwhelm, so start calling in your team or ask friends and family to help out.
There you have it: start planning your week in a way that suits your needs and practise some good time-management habits. Before you know it, you’ll find your own groove, which not only energises you, but helps build that resilience you need when time is tight.
1. What small changes can you make? If you don’t have a team, who in your life can you delegate to just to ease the load a little bit? Recruit your family, ask people, your friends want to support you!
2. Design your week – what are your preferred Zones of Flexibility? Can you fit some late starts or some early finishes into your day? Create the perfect funny-shaped week for you that includes socialising, relaxation, exercise and family time.
3. What are your bad habits and how can you shake them up? Do you try and cram in a few hours on the laptop after you’ve put the kids to bed? Be honest and think about where you need to break bad habits by creating a boundary and drawing a line.
Kate Downey-Evans is a qualified business psychologist, with over 15 years worth of experience in some of the world’s largest corporations, including Bupa and HSBC. In 2019, Kate launched The Green Door Project to help both individuals and organisations discover the hidden diamonds, unlock their potential and achieve the extraordinary.
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