We talk a lot about how to set boundaries for ourselves. We set timers, block ourselves from going on social media, and so forth. Sometimes, though, we need to be clear with others – our colleagues, family, friends, and students – about how we need to spend our time.
Nobody is going to protect your time for you. Setting aside time means nothing if you cannot use the time without interruption. Your time is valuable and finite, and there is not one person on earth who will respect your time more than you.
So how do you go about setting and protecting these boundaries to ensure you are using your time effectively?
Establish routines. Routines provide reinforcement through repetition and consistency. For instance, if you close your office door every day from 1-2pm, you set the tone that this is time when you should not be interrupted. Of course, routines are reliant on you setting a schedule for yourself.
Say no. At my former college, the Dean set a rule that first year faculty members were not allowed to serve on committees. It did not matter how large or small your department was, you simply did not serve on committees for any reason. This free time created a space for faculty to carve out time for their own research, or just to acclimate to their new careers. It also empowered first year faculty to say no. I can’t count the number of times I said something to the tune of “well you know the Dean really frowns upon us taking on that kind of commitment in our first year.”
Figure out how you intend to say no. Perhaps you have a firm deadline looming, or a goal to complete your book proposal by the end of the semester. A clear explanation goes a long way in convincing people that your calendar is already set, and that you cannot deviate from your schedule.
Be clear about your availability. I learned early on as a teaching assistant in grad school that the time I respond to emails does not coincide with the time that undergraduates send emails. Being the nocturnal creatures that they are, their emails would come in during the late night hours, so I would wake up to a flurry of emails. I made it clear that I would respond to emails within 24 hours so students did not expect an immediate response. My mornings were dedicated to writing and working on lesson plans (depending on the day), so I did not want to give the impression that they should expect replies from me before noon.
I set similar boundaries with colleagues. When I did eventually begin to serve on committees, I made it clear early on that I did not come to campus on Fridays because I spent this day writing from home. Most people are not incredibly eager to have Friday meetings anyway, so I was able to easily maintain this boundary. I made sure that I was flexible for meeting on other days, so my request did not seem unreasonable.
Get physical. No, I don’t mean starting fights to protect your time. Create physical boundaries to remind yourself and others that you are unavailable. Close your office door or leave your office to write elsewhere. Perhaps there is a quiet corner in the library where your students and colleagues would never think to look for you. If you work from home, maybe there is a desk or table that you can devote solely to work, so that your family members and/or roommates realize that when you are seated there you are in “work mode”.
Be present when you are available. If you give the impression that your time is more important than other people’s, they will quickly begin to resent you and the boundaries you have worked so hard to maintain. The only reason I was able to make sure none of my committee meetings were scheduled on Fridays was because I was a present and enthusiastic committee member during our meetings. My department colleagues respected my closed office door because I generally kept it open during the mid-afternoon.
All of these strategies come down to one premise: you must effectively manage expectations, and in order to be successful you will have to be firm, consistent, and clear – not only with yourself, but with the people around you.