You’ve probably read this advice before: “The best thing you can do for your productivity is to say no more often.” By freeing yourself from unnecessary tasks, the thinking goes, you can spend more time working on the things that really matter.
At first blush, this sounds smart. Many things people ask of you aren’t really necessary or can be accomplished more efficiently by someone else. But in practice, this advice often backfires. After all, while you can set boundaries around your work, you can’t straight-up refuse a task when your boss asks you to take it on. In the same way, simply bowing out of a partner’s requests to share the household labor won’t exactly make for a happy home.
But you can figure out a better question to ask, which will in turn lead to an actionable solution. Here’s how:
Figure Out What Kind of Worker You Are
There are two types of workers: schedule-makers and schedule-takers.
Schedule-makers go to work and decide how to spend their time and attention every day. Knowledge workers tend to fall into this category—salespeople, marketers, managers, software engineers, and most other white-collar laborers are schedule-makers. If you have a say in how you spend your time (as long as you get your work done), you’re a schedule-maker.
Schedule-takers show up to work and generally have their schedules made by someone else. Customer service reps, restaurant workers, manual laborers, and other operators fall into this category and are often paid hourly.
It’s rare that a job is entirely either schedule-making or schedule-taking, but most tend to skew toward one category or the other. Even if you can decide how you’ll spend most of your time at work, for example, there may be mandatory meetings you have to attend.
A schedule-taker can’t tell their boss, “Nah, I don’t want to” when they are asked to do a task. They’re on the clock, and, in the trade of time for money, they agree to do what they were hired to do under the terms of their employment.
For the schedule-maker, though, things get more complicated. Since these kinds of jobs require workers to make their own schedules, managers often have no idea how employees spend their time. As long as their work is delivered on time, most managers don’t care much when it gets done or how long it takes.
This can be where the trouble starts.
Instead of Saying “No,” Ask “When?”
Without an understanding of how a schedule-maker spends their time, managers can heap on more and more tasks until the employee is burned out and work has slipped through the cracks. The result is frayed nerves, poor quality work, and stressed relationships.
But instead of saying “no” to your boss, try schedule-syncing.
Schedule-syncing gives others transparency into how you intend to spend your time, and it’s a practice that will change your life, at work and outside of it. You can schedule sync with colleagues, managers, and even family members—anyone to whom you owe some amount of time and attention.
How to Schedule-Sync
The first step to schedule-syncing is time-boxing your calendar—blocking off time on each day of the week, clearly labeling each time box with what work you plan to do and when. You can use this free schedule-maker tool to get started.
Next, you’ll want to sit down with your manager (or whoever else you owe time to) and look over your schedule together. You can share a printout of your schedule and say, “Okay, here’s everything that’s on my plate for the week ahead and how I plan to allocate my time for the tasks you’ve given me.”
Now you can ask, “Is there anything not on my schedule, and when would you like me to work on those tasks?”
By asking “when,” you’ve asked your manager to do their most important job: prioritizing which work needs to get done first. And with transparency into how you spend your time, they can finally understand when your schedule is full. Without knowing this critical information, they’ll just keep throwing more work your way.
This transparency is just as valuable at home. Before my wife and I started schedule-syncing, we found ourselves bickering about why certain tasks weren’t getting done around the house. “Just saying no” to the dishes or laundry was obviously not okay—that stuff had to get done by someone.
To start schedule-synching at home, we:
- made a list of all the household tasks we needed to do
- agreed on a way to split the load
- synced up our schedules accordingly
After syncing, we both knew when these tedious tasks would get done.
This practice has made our home far more harmonious, since we now have visibility into how we’re both spending our time to help the family. Whether at home or at work, when we have clear expectations based on how we intend to spend our time, we can fulfill our obligations to others and to ourselves.
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