I know you’re busy, so I’m going to bother you.


Who is the best person to manage your time?

Unless you have a great executive assistant or are a small child, the answer is the same: you are. This is particularly apparent when you realize that managing your day includes more than just managing your time. You also need to manage your emotional energy, motivation, focus, and all of the other stuff needed to get things done. Other people might know your schedule or priorities. They might be better decision makers. But only you really know how you’re feeling. You know best how exhausted you are, how motivated you are to tackle that problem, and (if you’re honest with yourself) how likely you are to actually give a fuck when the time comes.

That is why I am bothering you, even though I know you’re busy. I don’t want to make your life harder. But I do have a request or some information to convey or some work that needs to be done — and I trust you to manage your own day. When I decide that you’re too busy to help me, not only am I robbing you of autonomy over your own work, I’m usually making worse decisions based on my own perceptions and assumptions. Adding stuff to your plate makes your life a little harder, but having multiple people try to manage your plate makes your life a lot harder.

Supporting this kind of distributed time management usually requires fundamental cultural changes.

Like “no”.

In order to manage their own work, people need to be able to say no sometimes. Busy people need to be able to say no quickly and inexpensively so that they can get back to what they’re doing. Good prioritization will require people to sometimes say no to valuable work in favor of more valuable work.

And that is hard. Beyond even the internal decision making difficulty, some people feel like they can’t say no to a superior. Some people feel like by saying no that they’re letting the team down. Some people feel like they need to go “above and beyond” to get that promotion. Some people think that maintaining a sustainable workload is somehow selfish. These are all costs that a good culture can make cheaper.

The other side of the cultural change is for people that want stuff done. They can’t really give orders anymore since that doesn’t let others manage their time. They can’t really set hard deadlines anymore since that doesn’t let others manage their time. When individuals manage their own workday, needs are shaped more like requests. Instead of “do this thing”, the approach is “when can you do this thing?” or “can you help with this thing?”. The requests tend to be smaller too because people are loathe to commit to big requests. Best of all, requesters stop asking themselves “is this person too busy?” and start asking themselves “is this thing valuable enough?” because they know it needs to beat out other options.

When it’s working well, individuals make almost as many requests as they get to keep the load distributed across the team. Over time, people progress from “saying no” to “saying no quickly” to “saying no with feedback so they don’t need to say no in the future”. There is a lot of culture work needed to help people succeed, but nobody can succeed if they’re not even given the chance. If you want help, go get help. No need to sacrifice your own work because someone else might be too busy. Reach out to people. Let them manage their own work, and trust them to push back when it’s too much.

Likewise, if you are heads down on some work, a quick “busy, will look in 30 mins” will offend no reasonable teammate while keeping your focus on the task at hand. A simple “no, I have other stuff I need to take care of this week” is far better than agreeing to something you won’t have time for or you will burn yourself out on. Even if they wanted to, your boss can’t manage 5–10+ people’s worth of day to day work well; not with all of their meetings, and certainly not in an increasingly remote world. Interruptions from coworkers might be annoying, but they are vital because they let the best person make your time management decisions. You.

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