Your calendar is your bank account for time

You wouldn’t hand a stranger your debit card…so why are you so generous with your time?

You are at a conference, and you meet an impressive recent graduate of your alma mater. She is seeking career advice, and requests 30 minutes of your time. You agree, and send an email to her and your assistant to schedule a meeting.

You proudly serve on a non-profit board, but you wish the 4-6pm monthly meetings could be held in the middle of the day so you’re not missing dinner with your family. You sigh and book a babysitter.

You are at a cocktail party and have a great chat with someone who has just moved to your city. You sense that he could easily become a friend, and you wish you weren’t so swamped right now. Then he asks you to meet for a beer one night after work. You empathize with the difficulty of being new in town, and you know you’d have fun. You say yes.

I imagine that you, like me, have been in every one of these situations – or one similar. All of these are “productive” uses of time, ways to give back, to be a good citizen or friend. And in isolation, none of these are big commitments.

In the aggregate, however, activities such as these are the daily Starbucks latte of your calendar. They are good and enjoyable, but over time begin to add up. An hour here and a half day there begin to translate into hours and even days of time away from the priorities that matter most. And culturally, protecting your time can be swimming upstream, as giving time is a common expectation.

I often work with coaching clients on setting boundaries, particularly around saying no. It can be one of the very hardest skills to master. Some of the strongest, most brilliant, accomplished people I know find themselves struggling to decline meetings or invitations. And we make all kinds of excuses to justify saying yes, even when we don’t want to or shouldn’t. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. It’s for such a good cause. It’s not really that much time. I know I can really help this person. The list goes on….

Because the human brain responds to contrast, I point out to my coachees that they would be unlikely to be so profligate with their bank account. Could you imagine saying yes to every request that came your way, and not drawing appropriate boundaries? You would be broke! Let’s recast the three scenarios above to include asks for money, not time:

You are at a conference, and you meet an impressive recent graduate of your alma mater. She asks you for some money to buy an interview outfit, so you hand her your debit card and wish her happy shopping.

You proudly serve on a non-profit board, and you know how badly they need a $1,500 year-end gift to keep the program closest to your heart. You were planning to save most of your performance bonus, but you sigh and write a check.

You are at a cocktail party and have a great chat with someone who just moved to your city.  You sense that he could easily become a friend, and he mentions that like you, he’s a golfer, and he has just been admitted to your country club but is finding the initiation fee hefty. You call the business office to take care of it, then text him book a tee time.

Unlike the first three scenarios, this set borders on absurdity. Most of us would never simply hand our money over to someone else with such abandon! Yet we do it with our calendars, all the time (pun intended). We can look to the world of financial planning for three simple strategies to protect our time:

  1. Set a budget: your time is not an unlimited resource. Figure out how much you have, and – as with setting a charity bucket in your personal finances – determine how much you are willing to give away. Then track it, whether that means color coding “giveaway” time on your electronic calendar or keeping a hand-written tally in your Filofax. (Most people who do this exercise are shocked to see how quickly they blow through their budget.)
  2. Check in with yourself: Pausing for 30 seconds or a day or a week before saying “yes” can save us from making unwanted commitments, and question your instinct to comply.  (It’s like the “2 hour test” in shopping.) Does a “yes” answer serve you or the other person? Will spending time this way further your own personal objectives, or is this an obligation? Will you leave the conversation berating yourself for failing to say “no”? . Saying “yes” can be ok, but give yourself time to think through your answer.
  3. Consider your trade-offs: money doesn’t grow on trees, and you can never get lost time back! Because time is a limited resource, a “yes” is, by definition, a “no” to something else. If you have coffee with that college grad, will you be able to finish your client pitch deck in time for yoga at 6? If not, maybe you reconsider. 

One of my wisest business school professors, Nancy Koehn, used to tell us “you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.” Just as we have to budget and save our money, we need to be mindful of how we spend our time. We don’t hand our debit cards over to anyone who wants them, and we should treat our time with the same respect. Remember – your calendar is the bank account for your time.