There are few jobs today that allow you to work entirely independently of others. Getting stuff done at work today requires intense levels of collaboration and communication with coworkers.
In fact, as a new study reveals, the collaborative intensity of work has risen 50 percent over the past decade, putting greater strains on people's time and energy at work, and reducing the amount of time they can concentrate on creative work, for instance. Most knowledge workers or leaders spend 85 percent or more time in a given week on email, in meetings, and on the phone.
Over the past eight years, Rob Cross, a professor of leadership at Babson College, has performed social network analyses and conducted 160 interviews of managers and individual contributors at 20 organizations.
His research, which he published with Scott Taylor, an Associate Professor at Babson, highlights how employees experience and address what they call "collaborative overload." What they learned surprised them: "Although technology, demanding bosses, needy clients, and inefficient co-workers were problematic, for most of us these time drains are matched by another enemy --ourselves. While there is undeniably a more demanding reality today, much of the problem is driven by how we decide to structure that reality or let others dictate our calendars and to do lists."
Their research found that people often unconsciously tie their identities closely to their performance at work, and shape their work patterns around that. Believing they are the best (or only) person to complete a project or task, they tend to take on more work than they can handle. "In reality, these work patterns are unsustainable and lead us to collaborative overload. We feel trapped, but fail to realize that we created the traps that hold us hostage," say Cross and Taylor.
Their research showed that we have far more control over our work than we sometimes think. Saying "no" more often and drawing boundaries can be tough, but these are important steps toward taking back control over your schedule. "Almost universally, people in our research told us stories of making profound changes to the structure of their lives -- putting up boundaries to work... and saying 'no more.' They did so with great trepidation, only to discover that the negative backlash they'd feared was nowhere to be found."
Cross and Taylor also found that incremental shifts in behavior can actually lead to exponential benefits. "Addressing the problems often takes a series of subtle shifts in behavior -- giving 50 percent of the time people ask for; running meetings in a more structured way; using email less and more carefully; managing calendars more strategically and holistically; learning that saying yes to something automatically means saying no to something else --work, professional goals, personal aspirations, family, etc."
They found that steps like these enabled people to claw back 18-20 percent of their collaborative time.
Based on my own off-and-on struggle to reclaim my time at work over the years, here are a few things I've learned that might help you as well:
1. Set a time limit for meetings and calls (and make it transparent).
Without a preset time limit, meetings and phone conversations can drag on well past what is really needed to be productive. Set a clear time limit for every meeting, announce it at the beginning of the meeting, and provide a couple of quick reminders as you approach the end. Of course, if you've got something that needs more time for discussion or debate, by all means continue along that path.
2. Prepare an agenda for every meeting.
Even if it's a few bullet points in an email, make sure you've got an agenda going into every meeting or phone call and share it with participants beforehand. Be sure to give everyone ample time to review it so they can prepare, and try to avoid sharing the agenda right before the meeting begins.
Even if you don't actually share the agenda with the other person, having that on hand will give you the roadmap you need to ensure you cover all of the topics you need to discuss.
3. Go "out of pocket" when you absolutely can't be bothered.
Meetings, calls, emails, instant messages, impromptu chats over the coffee machine--all of these are consuming your time, leaving you less time to do the concentrated thinking and creating that is core to your job. If you find yourself unable to avoid these distractions, go "out of pocket" and find a place where nobody can bother you--maybe an unoccupied meeting room in your office, or the coffee shop down the street. Turn your phone to "airplane mode" and close your biggest time-sucking collaboration apps so you can get your work done.
4. "Get that monkey off your back."
Many years ago, when I was overwhelmed with competing priorities at work, one of my mentors advised me to "get some of the monkeys off my back." The expression initially flew right past me, but once I understood what he was telling me, I tried to put his advice into practice. What he meant was, of course, was that I was taking on too much of the responsibility for getting things done, and that for many of those items, I should transfer accountability to someone else.
5. Learn to just say "no."
It can be really hard for people who enjoy being helpful and being seen as the "go-to person" for important projects to say "no" to the requests that come their way, but it is absolutely essential to reclaiming control over your limited time.