As you’ve heard us share ad nauseam, we are in a career-long fight to protect our calendars.
Step three is where it gets hard: How do you guard your time while also being a good teammate? How do you balance your own stuff while also being available when someone asks you for help?
Because this always happens, right? You make a lovely schedule, and then a colleague needs something. You build your list of priorities, and then someone starts adding to it. You fight for margin, and then that margin gets eaten up with requests.
It’s unavoidable—but in our experience, there are several things that can help you maintain your productivity (and sanity) while also helping others:
1. Respond with kindness and understanding.
First things first, be a good human. Be nice. Even if you’re annoyed (and even if you’re going to ultimately say no), treat your colleague/friend/acquaintance/cold email lead with respect. Set the tone for the conversation from minute one.
2. Keep your needs (and yourself) front and center.
Their list is not more important than yours. Their priorities are not more important than yours. They are a person with an idea (yes, even if they are the boss), and those ideas have to fit within your framework. Sometimes, circumstances will require you to drop everything and handle a fire drill, but that should be the extremely rare exception, not the rule. Don’t throw away your autonomy at the first sign of a request.
3. Give what you can, but set boundaries.
Our work culture celebrates helping one another, but it also celebrates saying no. Saying yes to a request that you actually cannot handle is not helpful. Saying yes to something that will overwhelm and exhaust you is not good for the team. Saying yes to more when your own plate is already overflowing is a recipe for frustration, resentment, and poor quality work. So know yourself. Know your boundaries. Guard your time. And know when to say no.
4. Do things on your terms and time.
More often than not, we figure out how to say yes and offer help to those around us—but our yeses come with caveats. Yes, I can help—tomorrow. Yes, I can help—when do you actually need this? Yes, I can help—but I need to prioritize this other project, so can I get this to you next week? Yes, I can help—but I cannot join that meeting. Give yourself the freedom to help without putting yourself in a tough spot.
We aren’t experts—and in so many ways, we’re preaching to ourselves. But if we believe our work, our margin, and our brain space matter, then we have to protect them. So we’re learning how to do just that.
What would you add to this list? How do you balance your own priorities with “hot” requests from others and guard your time? Let us know in the comments!