I worked in the retail and service industry for most of my early professional career. Every day, I would clock into my job and typically receive some form of direction on how my time would be spent for the majority of my shift. In many cases, that would be mapped out by the hour, leaving little room for me to influence my routine. I held full-time positions throughout most of college, so a lot of my life was pretty well scheduled for me. Secondary education often creates an environment for people to explore and adjust to more autonomy, but between my courses and shifts at the campus coffee shop, I, like many, took a cold plunge into the deep end when I got my first nine-to-five. My very first realization? Not only is “nine-to-five” a misnomer because most corporate days start at eight, but I digress; it is also, generally, a passé way to describe the actual schedule of a salaried office job. My seven-hundredth realization? “Eight-Nine-to-five” can be a vital guideline for an otherwise open canvas.
Many working professionals, especially those in marketing, sales, customer success, and more, are given very simple parameters: get the job done on time. On paper, that seems amazing, and I am not going to tell you it is not. Companies have adopted a mindset that people work best on their own terms, within reason. The recent pandemic exposed many to the idea that there are ways to balance personal and professional responsibilities without sacrificing the quality of work. In most cases, a service-level agreement (SLA) will define parameters of the expectations and urgency of the responsibility: guaranteed response timeframes, standardized task durations, etc., but provide the beholder with the ability to create their own path to execution.
I have worked with many people who are most productive outside of the standard eight-or-nine-to-five business hours, whether that is due to being an early bird/night owl, fewer distractions, or simply personal preference. There was a dramatic difference between their output on and off this emblematic clock, but their customers and internal project stakeholders were always satisfied because deadlines were ultimately met, often even ahead of schedule. They got the job done on time, and they did so on their terms. What is important to understand is that these personal terms vary and often require sacrifice, regardless of the structure you build for yourself, and are not always necessary. I leaned into off-hour work very early in my post-retail career. I was a leader in a revenue organization, so my days were typically filled with non-flexible meetings to ensure that I was properly supporting my teams of people from multiple time zones and that we were achieving our goals. This left little room for my ongoing tasks with similarly non-flexible deadlines. My gut response was to figure out how to make it work while leaving room for things as they came up throughout my day, meaning a lot of my projects were handled late into the evening or on weekends – I fall under the night owl category. I felt as though I found a system that worked for me, but in doing so, I ran myself ragged.
I was getting my work done on time, definitely fitting the template that I previously described. My clients and internal stakeholders were not suffering. My deadlines were being met, but I was making sacrifices to my time that were unnecessary in the process. Instead of creating proper parameters between eight and five to account for the time spent outside of that window, I was maximizing my perceived availability, putting in 10, sometimes 12-hour days. It was not good for my health, it was not good for my relationships, but it was entirely avoidable and, thus, my fault. It was also helpful that this over-rotation of availability was not a problem unique to me, which called for a more urgent solution. The pandemic brought about a collective mindset that the lack of daily commutes and mid-day drives to the sandwich shop near the office for lunch left more room for productivity. In a way, I think it was a virtuous distraction during an otherwise bleak period of time, but one that quickly led to burnout for millions. People struggled to set proper boundaries for themselves and recognize opportunities to optimize their use of time, so I took it upon myself to conduct extensive research.
My first step was getting to the root cause of these circumstances. How did we get here? I knew that the desired outcome was to get things done on time, and I knew that the process in place was accomplishing that. In my mind, I was making it work on my terms, but I did not recognize that those terms that I set for myself were more malleable than I initially understood. Complacency is a real autonomy killer when it comes to building and iterating an efficient routine. I kept a tight schedule during the day out of necessity but was not spending enough time thinking about ways to maximize my availability between meetings. I left open windows but never had a real plan for how to utilize them to my advantage, so my default was to catch up on emails and messages that I may have missed while I was occupied, thus creating a growing list of outstanding tasks that I would take care of at the end of the day.
As I mentioned, the meetings that I participated in throughout each day were mostly concrete commitments. In many cases, I was the host, whether that be for team-wide meetings, one-on-ones with my direct reports, or escalated circumstances with clients. I had to be dialed into these conversations leaving little room to multitask. I could not afford to divert my attention from the people I spoke with because doing so would only create more work for me to be effective for them. I leveraged my autonomy to a degree, but not in ways that served me or the people I was working with. I found myself constantly rescheduling meetings, often out of necessity for unexpected situations, but in a lot of cases, simply to give myself moments to come up for air. It took a while for me to recognize that there were ways to still adhere to my SLAs with customers and provide timely responses to my team without leaving little-to-no room to work on projects being pushed outside of the workday. Once I did, however, I noticed a real change in my ability to execute.
I started looking at my open availability as room to set more meetings, each with very specific purposes, with myself. I set daily time blocks on my calendar, typically at the beginning and end of standard business hours, to work through my replies instead of rushing to my inbox whenever I had gaps. The specific times varied with my daily responsibilities, but I made sure that I dedicated at least two hours every day to working through these outstanding requests. Internal messages were treated similarly. I implemented a system with my team in order to communicate situational urgency, so there were always opportunities for me to jump into things that needed my immediate attention, but otherwise offered office hours to address one-off questions that were not as pressing. Refining my desktop notifications and multiple monitors helped me keep an eye on requests as they came in, but I would limit that inspection process to a simple yes or no question: is this something that requires my attention right now? I held myself accountable to same-day SLAs to acknowledge and complete requests but otherwise had direct control over my execution on my terms while still being timely. This provided even more ability to multitask effectively as well, but only when truly appropriate. I deliberately set these blocks based on what I perceived as the most possible time I would need to thoroughly complete the task, but I did not always need all of it, so I would use that intermittent additional time to work on other projects.
This exposed me to the real power of an intentional schedule, so I quickly scaled this practice beyond just time blocks for responding to inquiries. I have always been one to keep an ongoing to-do list to keep myself on track, which was a major informant of my use of downtime. However, I found that even the most comprehensive lists of tasks with clearly defined deadlines were not enough to keep me properly organized and operating efficiently. Even with the margins that I created for myself during response blocks, or the inevitable downtime during web-conference office hours, my lack of planning beyond, I need to get this stuff done on time, was a detriment. Rather than using generic “admin” blocks on my calendar, or as I like to describe them, recess, I began looking at each item on my to-do list as another chance to set up a meeting with myself. I quickly realized that I was treating my working sessions outside of business hours without much tact, like recess, due to the limited distractions, and that I actually did have time during the day to balance most of my responsibilities without sacrificing too much of my personal life. This is not to say that I stopped working outside of “standard” hours altogether. The reality is that many jobs in this space require the sacrifice of time, especially the further you climb up the ladder, but it can be managed with compromise.
Today, I analyze two very important variables whenever I am assigned to a new task: time to completion (deadline) and time to complete (hours that I need to allocate to execute), and I use that information to standardize my processes. I use tools like OneNote and Monday.com to track my progress against these tasks, which help with that standardization. Take this blog, for example. I defined a clear deadline with my supervisors that left room for flexibility based on other priorities, and I know through experience to date that it takes me roughly 6 hours to plan, research, prepare a treatment, and write a blog. I define that SLA using a similar approach to my email and internal communication monitoring strategy by determining the most amount of time possible that it should take to effectively complete the task, often leaving margins for multi-tasking and opportunities to start other projects ahead of schedule. The latter piece is not always a necessity because those tasks are typically scheduled with their own dedicated blocks, so I am ultimately given more opportunities to recharge instead of leaving that to when I sign off or take a lunch break. I map the time to complete and time to completion on my calendar at the onset of my assignments to avoid the risk of running out of space during my standard eight-to-five working hours, and now rarely find myself working into my evenings, which my wife and dogs are quite pleased with. Keep in mind that I was originally confident that my “night owl” personality was conducive to my performance, and sometimes that does still enable my ability to stay on track, but only on my terms.