Defensively Scheduling Your Way to Work-Life Balance

Using productivity tools to get away with doing less.

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

I’m an academic, and let me tell you, the academy doesn’t “get” work-life balance at all. If you want to be taken seriously as a professional intellectual, you aren’t supposed to complain about your workload, or express a desire to cut back on any responsibilities. After all, you are fortunate to be living a life of the mind. That means you don’t get to complain about being exploited.

In academia, faculty are constantly expected to join new initiatives and committees, and take on an ever-expanding array of administrative and mentorship duties, all while teaching a full course load and conducting research. Saying “yes”is the only way to show you care about the work. If you think students need more writing support, you must volunteer to be on the writing assessment committee. If you think first generation college students deserve mentors, you better sign up to become one. If you are a person of color, or you are LGBTQ, you better be willing to lead anti-bias workshops and attend meetings about diversity and inclusion.

This doesn’t just happen in academia, of course. I see it all the time in nonprofits and arts organizations, too. If you are lucky enough to be working in a job that is creatively or morally fulfilling, it seems you have no right to any work-life boundaries. If you believe your organization is doing good work, you better be ready to hand over a ton of sleepless nights to it. If you’re blessed enough to get paid as a performer, you’ve got to be willing to do so much additional work for free that it kinda all washes out.

This dynamic also plays out in the corporate world, where employees must smile and lie and pretend they believe in the company’s “mission”, then deliver on that lie by attending lunchtime talks, vision meetings, and a panoply of after-hours social events.

I hate to see people being run ragged like this. Our workplaces have browbeaten us into having a very warped sense of consent. If we care about something, we are expected to bleed for it. If we said yes to a responsibility once, we are doomed to say yes to it forever, no matter how over-extended we become. I have watched many people spiral into burnout because of this. I refuse to join their ranks. So I’ve developed a few sneaky tips and tricks for leveraging the language and the tools of busyness, and reshaping them into tools of boundary setting and work-life balance.

I call my technique “defensive scheduling”. It’s all about crafting an image of yourself as someone who is already far too busy, and already contributing a hell of a lot to your organization.

Defensive scheduling allows you to block out time for the things that matter to you, while giving yourself adequate credit for the mountain of work you’re already doing. It’s helped me reduce stress, schedule time for exercise and socializing, and avoid a ton of dead-end meetings. It’s made it possible for me to write a book while working a full-time job. Defensive scheduling also helps me manage people’s expectations, and teaches people to value my time.

I have recommended this technique to many colleagues and friends, and several have told me it works well for them, too. If you’re interested in trying it out, here are the steps you can take:

Block out time on your calendar. A lot of time.

If you work for an organization where Outlook calendar invites are King, you need to protect your time by blocking out a ton of it. Whatever your regular work duties are — writing, responding to emails, preparing datasets, coding — you need to ensure you actually have enough time during the work day to do it. If you leave your calendar wide open, your day can and will get absolutely consumed by meetings, and your time and precious energy will be wasted.

In a previous essay, I talked about how I make regular “writing meetings” with myself, and put them on my calendar. To all of my colleagues, these writing periods look like any other meeting on my calendar. They are as inflexible and sacrosanct as any meeting I would schedule with another person. They’re just as necessary as the time that’s set aside for my class lectures. If you want to get something done, you schedule time for it — and you don’t let other people encroach on that time.

I care about writing, and my employer supports and values my writing too, so I refuse to let other work responsibilities intrude on my ability to do it. I’m not going to steal writing time from my evenings and weekends. It’s a part of my job, so I do it during work time. If that means I have less time for other tasks, so much the better. I know where my priorities lie.

You can also use defensive scheduling to ensure you have enough time for a proper lunch break, or to keep yourself from getting burnt out from a day filled with conference calls. For example, if I already have one long, potentially tiring meeting on the docket for the day, I pad out the rest of my calendar with “ghost meetings”, just so that no one else can ask me to meet with them that day. During my “ghost meeting” time, I work, answer emails, take a walk around the block, and just generally look after my own needs. I know I’m actually a more effective employee when I defend my time this way. I’m also a happier, kinder person when I do it.

Push things to next week.

If you’re at risk of being overwhelmed at work, try pushing a meeting, phone conference, or deliverable into the next week. Often, I find that when a colleague asks me to help out with a task, they don’t have a firm time frame in mind for it. In the absence of specifics, the default time frame is assumed to be “as soon as possible”. This lends a sense of urgency to many responsibilities that are not remotely urgent. By simply saying something like, “Can we check in about this next week?” I give myself and everyone else some extra room to breathe.

I can’t overstate how powerful the phrase “can we check in about this next week?” is. It buys you a few extra days of rest and recuperation, it spreads out your obligations across a wider span of time, and it helps manage people’s expectations of how quickly you’ll get something done. Very few things in life are so urgent that they can’t be kicked into next week. Sometimes, you can kick an annoying or pointless task into next week forever, or at least until the other person involved gets so busy with their own over-commitments that they forget about it entirely.

Say “yes” to duties that look impressive, but don’t require a ton of time.

In academia, committees are amorphous beasts that vary widely in size and scope. Some committees require weekly meetings that last upwards of three hours apiece; other committees meet once per quarter, if at all, yet still sound very impressive and impactful on paper. When I’m choosing between new duties at work, I try to suss how much of a time sink each one will be, and how much they will benefit my career when annual review time comes around.

I only take on low-cost, high-yield commitments. In other words, committees that aren’t deep time sinks, and which deliver results that make me look useful and valuable to my employer (which, of course, I am). For example, last year I signed up for a university-wide committee that was charged with selecting the school’s new course evaluation survey program. The committee took about nine months to complete its proceedings, but during those nine months, we only met about three times. All of the meetings were remote, and most of our work happened via email. At the end of the process, we had a concrete result: we had selected a new course evaluation system, which now is used in every single class on campus.

This committee demanded very little of my time, it put my expertise as a psychologist to use in a measurable way, and it had an impact I could easily point to and that everybody else recognized. It looked fantastic in my annual review, and it helped me forge new connections with faculty in other departments. I was also able to use my membership on this committee as a reason to turn down other obligations that seemed like a worse use of my time. On paper, I looked and sounded like I was busy doing important work — and I was. I just wasn’t suffering for it.

Contrast this with a committee a colleague of mine joined last year, which required them to attend hours-long meetings every day for months. This committee was incredibly grueling for them to be a part of, and ultimately, some of the committee’s decisions were reversed by administrative higher-ups. My colleague found this totally dispiriting to be a part of, and I can’t blame them. It takes time to develop instincts about which organizational initiatives are worthy of your time and which will vampirize your days, but I strongly recommend developing those skills if you can. Don’t be afraid of being strategic.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Give yourself credit for everything you do. Every. Little. Thing.

In nonprofits, academia, and even the corporate world, people under-value their work and how they spend their time. These leads to a culture of over-commitment and exploitation. If you aren’t getting full credit for all the work you’re doing, after all, your employer is going to under-estimate your value, and demand that you do more.

Defensive scheduling is all about resisting the pressure to overwork by giving yourself credit for every single valuable thing you do. Every email you send, every conversation you have, every skill you teach to a colleague, and every minute you spend at work is a service to your organization. When you are reporting to a superior, or having your performance reviewed, list every single meaningful thing you have ever done at your job. Use language that emphasizes the impact you have at your company, rather than downplaying it.

Taught your office mate how to use the networked drive? Cool, you just provided peer training and mentorship. Had a conversation during your lunch break that evolved into a new programming idea? Good work, you just held a brainstorming session. Had one meeting about a project that kind of went nowhere? Congratulations, you organized an exploratory committee and clarified your goal-setting. Sent an email to someone in another department? You’re doing outreach and building relationships. Write that shit down!

If any of these descriptions feel slimy to you, ask yourself if you’ve been taught to undermine your own efforts and downplay how hard you’ve been working. If you want to have a healthy relationship to work, and be recognized for the worthwhile, productive person you actually are, you need to stop being so modest. Your manager will always overlook the countless small contributions you make to your workplace every day. People don’t see and recognize that stuff. If you want your efforts to be fairly recognized, you have to be your own best advocate, and make people aware of how much you are bringing to the table.

Never underestimate how long a project took. Take into account how much time you spent thinking about it; include all the emails you sent, and all the informal conversations you had about it. Consider all meetings and professional events to be significant expenditures of your time. Count every hour that you spent at that mixer or conference. If a project goes nowhere, you should still give yourself credit for all the time you had to devote to it. Your time is meaningful, and should not be taken for granted.

Leverage the language of busyness.

Sadly, we live in a productivity-obsessed, “busy bragging” culture. Being overwhelmed has become something of a status symbol; people are seen as worthy and impressive if they are constantly on the brink of burning out. Saying “no” to an obligation, dialing back one’s commitments, going more slowly — all these very reasonable, healthy boundary-setting behaviors are viewed as signs of unacceptable laziness.

Of course, laziness does not exist. No one chooses to lack motivation or disappoint people just for the hell of it. Each of us is already working at our max capacity, and coping with dozens of challenges and struggles that are invisible to everyone else. There is no shame in deciding to do less. Unfortunately, there are often professional consequences to being seen as “lazy.”

In order to escape these unfair pressures, you can learn to turn “busy bragging” culture on its head. Cultivate an image of yourself as incredibly busy, stressed out, and important. You don’t have to lie, because in all likelihood you already are juggling a ton of responsibilities, both personal and professional, and not getting enough credit for how hard all of it is.

Let your mask of uncomplaining, agreeable productivity drop a little bit. Stop pretending you can handle everything your colleagues throw your way. When someone asks you if you have time to get something done, pause for a few seconds. Don’t reflexively say “yes”. Really think about it. Ask if you can check in about it next week.

Fill up your calendar with the dozens of small yet time-consuming things that you do every day, so people can see how busy you are. If someone pops into your Slack DMs or email inbox to ask if you’re busy, tell them the truth: you are. You don’t have to be rude or dismissive, you just have to be a bit more honest.

I find that many people are terrified to express boundaries and limitations with their employers, and often for very good reasons. Being seen as “lazy” or a “bad worker” can have disastrous results. However, in their haste to be seen as virtuous worker bees, many employees wind up hiding just how stressed they are, and how much they are being forced to deal with. This can be counter-productive. If you constantly say “yes” to every request at work, and never mention how busy you are, people will often underestimate how hard you are working, and demand that you do even more.

The way out is not to keep saying “yes.” The way out is to finally start advocating for yourself, and illustrating the immense value of your time. Using defensive scheduling, honest time-tracking, and a ton of new self-advocacy skills, you can push back against the institutional pressures that would exploit you, and help build a professional culture that actually recognizes how much each of us is doing.

So, don’t be afraid to be a little bit selfish. Use your calendar strategically. Think carefully about which duties you’ll take on. Cultivate an image of yourself that makes your work ethic impossible to question, all while fiercely protecting your free time. You deserve to have room in your schedule to breathe.

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