You Don’t Have To Be Accessible Just Because You’re Available

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When I first started working again after being a stay-at-home-mother for thirteen years, I really had a hard time with detaching myself from work. I figured it was fine if I answered that email during dinner, or if I sent out a pitch as soon as I thought of it — even if I was standing in the middle of the baking aisle at the grocery store.

Instead of giving myself blocks of time to be in work mode, I made myself available all the time. I didn’t take a vacation for three years, and never had set days when I worked and when I didn’t; it all flowed together like one long work week.

At first I told myself I was ready to show everyone how hard I was willing to work. I figured it wasn’t a big deal to answer a quick call or get back to every email in a timely manner because it only took a minute.

First, we all know that’s not true. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you’ve been on your phone for a half hour and you’ve missed your entire family dinner.

It took a few years to realize that just because I was available on a Saturday afternoon didn’t mean I had to work. If I got an email at midnight, I didn’t have to anxiously get to it before I set my feet on the floor in the morning.

What happened before I came to that realization, though, was that I became super irritable, felt disorganized, and started making careless mistakes at work because I wasn’t intentional about anything I was doing.

Not my work, not my time with my kids, and not my friendships or relationships. I was that person who would say to my girlfriend, “Hang on, I just have to email my editor really quickly.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to my boyfriend’s house and instead of hugging and kissing him, my nose has been to my phone screen and I’m not even aware of him (or how it might make him feel).

I started cancelling a weekly lunch date a few years ago because I wanted to get my work done. My friend finally said something to me that hit home: “We meet for 45 minutes once a week. You really don’t have time for that?”

She was a labor and delivery nurse and let me know they’d almost lost a patient the day before. “You have to take time away from work in order to be better at your job, you know.”

She was right.

Being available to our careers — or anything, for that matter — every second of every day is taxing and not good for our mental health. It’s hard to remember that just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should.

If this is hard for you (it is for many, myself included) The Muse has a good tip: “Take a moment to evaluate the individual demand and its potential effect on your schedule, well-being, and goals. For conditioned people-pleasers, this can be a challenge, but eventually, it will help you get comfortable with pushing back on demands that don’t benefit you, so you can reserve your time for what’s truly important.”

It’s kind of like counting to three when you are mad. It allows you to separate yourself from the situation enough to see the long game and determine how it’s going to affect your life.

The article also suggests instead of just agreeing to everything you are asked to do at work, to tell your co-workers you will get back to them. “This serves two purposes: First, you can actually look at your upcoming schedule and prioritize what’s already on your calendar. Second, it sets the expectation with your colleagues that you’re not going to jump on every request right away — or at all.”

Our careers are much like our relationships in that people will ask us for things if they think they think we will say yes; we teach people how to treat us.

Yes, we are paid to do a job and we are expected to work hard and bring our best. However, that doesn’t mean we have to be available all the time. Is it really going to make a difference if you answer that email tomorrow instead of at 10:00 p.m. at night when you are trying to unwind? Do you really want to take on that extra project, even if it will interfere with your marriage or family vacation? If we don’t take time off, or say no once in a while, nobody wins. Especially the person who is trying to take on too much.

It wasn’t until after I started setting aside blocks of time for work, blocks of time for my family, and blocks of time for me, I realized it really was okay to let things wait or not say yes all the time.

I didn’t lose any ground in my career, my family was happier, and I was able to work more effectively without feeling mad or resentful because I’d taken on too much. And when you feel like work is a part of your life rather than overtaking your life, it’s amazing how much more productive you become during those set-aside hours.

Take a look at what you can do now. Are you delegating enough? Have you communicated how you’ve been feeling to your boss and co-workers? Have you taken a look at where you are spending most of your time and where you’d like to spend more?

It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing kind of gig. Valuing your career doesn’t mean saying yes to everything, and it definitely doesn’t mean being available all of the time. That’s a true recipe for floundering. You can’t get ahead if you’re constantly worried about falling behind.

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