Think about the last time you had a really productive day—when you made a number of important decisions, crossed off key to-dos, and reached out to a few new connections. That felt good, right? Now think about a day when you felt as if you got nothing meaningful done. Maybe you sent out next steps after a series of back-to-back meetings, spent half a day listening to your coworkers vent, or researched Slack icebreakers instead of industry trends. At the end of that day, you weren’t sure what you’d accomplished, but you certainly felt very busy doing it.
You had the same amount of hours on both of those days, but in one scenario, you were in control and crossed off tasks that had a bigger impact on your company or career. In the other, unexpected distractions and assignments that don’t clearly ladder up to larger goals took up much of your attention. The latter are what I call distractors and fillers: the extraneous tasks and time sucks that prevent you from doing work that matters.
There are three phases to taking back control of your time: assessing how you’re spending it, deciding what you should keep doing, and learning to say no to everything else while still being a team player. The last part is often the trickiest because being helpful at work and nurturing relationships with your coworkers are both vital to your career growth. The key is to be mindful and kind about the choices you make.
Here’s a simple roadmap to help you reprioritize your time while still being a good colleague:
Before you do anything else, you’ll need to take notice of your distractors and identify your most common time fillers.
Distractors are tasks indirectly related to your work that prevent you from focusing on your priorities. They’re inevitable but not always proportionate. Women, for example, are often loaded with the additional roles of emotional therapist, culture builder, and conflict resolver. And distractors tend to revolve around people and culture—like getting stuck in never-ending conversations or recognizing that an employee needs a pick-me-up. In a silo, these tasks can serve an important purpose in helping people feel connected, but they become a problem when they take over your to-do list. Write your distractors down.
Fillers are tasks that are directly related to work but often aren’t highly valued and don’t help you advance your career. In other words, they’re not the kinds of projects that lead to recognition, raises, or promotions. Instead, they include “office housework” items like scheduling the follow-up meeting, taking the notes, or otherwise being the memory keeper, organizer, or person who keeps the trains on track but goes unnoticed. List these fillers out, too.
Look at your list of fillers and distractors and start to evaluate how essential these items are to realizing your career goals. As you look at each task, ask yourself these questions:
- Does this support one of my personal or professional goals?
- Is this a fundamental part of my job description?
- Does this give me access to a valuable connection or a different part of the business?
- Does it bring me joy?
If you answer “yes” to at least one of the questions, then there’s room for that item on your to-do list and it’s worth making time for it. If not, add it to your “to-don’t” list.
Now, I wish you could just add stuff to your to-don’t list and—poof!—it disappears. Some things you might be able to just stop doing. Others may require buy-in from your manager or delegation to someone else. For each item on your to-don’t list, add the first thing you need to do to get it off your plate. For instance, next steps could include: call the head of a task force to discuss stepping down from a committee role or set up a conversation with your manager to discuss your goals and priorities.
Saying no—and doing it with kindness—is the most important skill you can learn to keep time sucks like the ones you identified in the previous steps off your plate in the future.
When one of those distractors or fillers pops ups, decline with confidence. Start with, “Thank you,” instead of, “I’m sorry,” because you don’t need to apologize for turning down a request. Say, “Thank you for the opportunity,” or, “Thank you for thinking of me,” and then add that you’re at full capacity right now.
If the request is coming from a client or your boss, you might not be able to say no outright, but you can still be intentional about your workload and say, “Yes, I can do that, but it will take the place of X. Are you OK with that?” If this is coming from a close colleague, you may want to be specific about why you can’t do it. If you’re feeling generous, you can always offer a different timeline (“I will be free in July”) or a smaller assist, such as sharing research on a smaller piece of a project that needs to be done. This keeps you focused on your goals while still coming across as a team player.
It’s too easy for last-minute requests, distractions, and fillers to take control of your time and to-do list, leaving little room for high-impact work. But when you start to pay attention to these hidden time sucks, you can prioritize the things that matter most to you and your career.