If you’ve always felt a compulsion to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, it’s hard to imagine being different. People-pleasing is not only what you do, but a strong part of who you believe you are. If this sounds like you, before you can move forward in your time management habits, you need to realize you don’t have to be so vulnerable to these attacks on your schedule. You can maintain appropriate boundaries.
In some jobs, immediate responsiveness comes with the territory (just think of fire fighters). In others a quick reply is preferable, such as with customer service reps or publicists. But in many other work situations, this cycle of responsiveness leads to neglect of the most important activities. Either they don’t happen at all, or you end up filling your nights and weekends doing your “real” work with the last fumes of energy you can summon.
I’m intimately aware of this struggle because as the owner of a time coaching and training company, I’ve worked with clients on six different continents who come to me feeling like victims of their circumstances. This leads them to resist doing the activities that could let them have a more sane work life, such as blocking out time for key activities, because “someone will just mess up my schedule anyway.”
Wanting to make people happy is not an intrinsically negative quality. You are not a bad or flawed or inadequate person if serving others and receiving affirmation just fills you with joy. (I know because I’m one of those people!) It’s just that if you feel compelled to always help people—even at the expense of other higher priorities—you need to condition yourself to be less sensitive to other people’s needs and more aware of your own so you can stay in balance.
Speaking of balance, if you’re never helpful, always insistent on having your way, never wanting to go the extra mile, this article doesn’t apply to you either. It’s good to work as a team, to help others, and to give as much or more than you take. What I outline below applies to those who work themselves like crazy and are feeling exhausted, resentful, and frustrated because they’re not making headway on their own goals.
If you’re ready to start investing your time, instead of letting other people spend it for you, I’ve outlined three common scenarios that can trigger your people-pleaser tendencies and how you can think and act differently:
The Unrealistic Standards Scenario
Many [workers] feel guilty about the fact that they’re in so many meetings so they develop the mindset that “I’m a bad [employee] if I don’t always keep my door open when I’m in my office.” But this can lead to every spare minute between appointments being filled by people walking through their door eager for attention. In turn, all of their own work needs to happen in the evenings and weekends, which then leads to a cycle of guilt about being a bad spouse, parent, or friend.
If this sounds like you, the escape route is to change your standards for what it means to be a good [employee]. This then frees you to set better boundaries and get more work done at work. For instance your mindset could be: “Part of being a good [employee] is demonstrating the importance of focusing on high priority work. I can keep my door closed during certain times of the week when I need to get things done without guilt.”
In instances like this, you’ve set up strict rules about what someone in a role should or shouldn’t do; but in fact, these rules are negotiable. By changing your standards for what it means to be a good friend, significant other, employee, or committee member, you can keep better boundaries without feeling guilty.
You don’t always need to explain why you’re setting those boundaries, either. You can simply say, “I have to go,” or “I’m so sorry but I can’t come help you at this moment, please send me an e-mail with your request.”
The “Yes!” Man or Woman Scenario
If you’re an energetic, service-oriented person, your tendency is to always respond to any request by saying, “Sure, I can do that.” Or when you’re sitting in a meeting and someone asks for volunteers to help, you always raise your hand. Or even when no one asks for help—but you know they need it—you offer to assist. In and of itself, a strong desire to take action isn’t bad. But if this attitude means that you’re completely overloaded with work and unfocused on your top priorities, you are failing to keep the commitments that truly should fall under your ownership.
A way you can retrain yourself to not take on too much is to ask the question: “Do I actually have excess time to spend on this activity?” If yes, then it’s fine to take it on. If not— and you’re not prepared to let go of something that currently occupies your time—you need to refrain from offering your services.
In many instances, there are other people who can step up. If you can’t resist the urge to jump in, disconnect yourself when you’re off hours so that you’re not even aware of every crisis.
Even if it seems like a can’t-miss opportunity, remember that there will always be other chances. There will always be more events, more conferences, more articles, even more crises to solve—more of everything. If you don’t make time for what’s an enduring priority for you, such as sleep, rest, or time with important people, you’ll miss out on what truly matters.
The “I’ll Just Do It Myself” Scenario
In my experience, highly intelligent, hardworking people tend to struggle with letting go of control through delegation. This challenge seems most acute when they go from a “doing” role such as a consultant to a “leading” role such as a department head. Instead of passing off responsibilities to the appropriate parties, you tell yourself, “It will just take a minute. I can get this done better and faster than anyone else.” These thoughts do have some truth to them in that you may have the ability to execute on some activities very well. But if you’re like most business leaders, you don’t have the minutes to spare. In a typical week, you’ll have just a few precious work hours you can devote to doing the activities that only you can do. The first question you should ask with any item—big or small—is: “Could someone else do this for me?” If so, delegate it.
The more organized you get, the better you’ll be able to delegate without “inconveniencing” others. But it’s also OK to ask others to pitch in even when it’s not ideal—so that you don’t end up buckling under the pressure. If you spend all your work time on activities like fixing computer problems, instead of e-mailing IT, setting up meetings, instead of handing that off to your assistant, and researching and putting together presentations, instead of delegating them to the subject matter experts, you will miss out on leveraging the power of the unique, strategic leadership you can offer to your organization.