But you can learn to do it for yourself.
When I was first promoted on Wall Street, I thought I had it made.
I was a Senior Equity Research Analyst. People in that position recommend stocks to institutional investors. Things have changed, but in the late 2000’s they were the experts about 10 or 15 or 20 companies in a specific sector. So, if your mutual fund or hedge fund owned a lot of a certain stock, odds were that they talked to an Equity Research Analyst first.
Senior Equity Research Analysts also run their own show. There is a department head above the position. And the compliance group creates some pretty tight guard rails around what you can & can’t say. But Senior Analysts in Equity Research have almost complete autonomy over their days. The details are completely up to each individual, and everyone has their own style.
So there I was, a newly minted Senior Analyst. I thought I’d be able to write about the topics that interested me. Visit the companies that were most compelling. Talk to the clients that I wanted to talk to.
Spoiler alert: I was wrong.
As soon as I started recommending stocks, I was inundated with calls, emails, and requests. All day, every day. Hundreds of investors asking questions about the stocks that I covered. Smaller companies wanting to meet with me to see if I would cover them in the future. Sales people who had favorite investors that they wanted me to talk to, or email, or meet in person. Even if they lived half way across the country. Didn’t I have time to make a quick trip from NYC to Wisconsin in January to visit one investor? It was important.
At the same time, I had just started dating my now-husband. He also had a crazy job with a lot of travel. He was gone at least a few days of each week. But we both were trying to find time to spend together and get to know each other more.
My time was both all my own, and completely out of my hands.
At first, I was pinging around like a pinball. I spent my entire days responding to the influx of requests coming in. I knew that I needed to write more reports, do more primary research. Plan more trips to medical conferences to do some deep digging. But I couldn’t even find the time to plan to do those things. I was completely reactive for 12 hours a day.
I made it through my first summer that way, and then I had a chat with the head of my department. He wanted to know why I didn’t have more companies under coverage. Why I didn’t write more reports. I was well liked by clients and the salesforce. But I needed to spend more time creating new and original investment ideas and analysis.
That’s when I started to put my foot down.
When I was first promoted, I was under the impression that everyone around me would be respectful of my time. That they’d all know in how many directions I was being pulled. That they would only ask of me things that were truly urgent, truly important.
After that conversation with my boss, I stopped thinking that way.
I realized that what might be important to one person was not a priority to me. That no one else would create the structure to my day, or figure out my priorities, but me.
After that, things got better. There were a few tricks I learned then, and a few more that I’ve learned since. But those tricks have served me well for many years.
Learn to say No the right way
We all know that an important part of mastering our own time is learning to say No. To graciously and mindfully turn down the things that are not on our own, personal, priority list.
This can be very difficult in a work environment. You’re balancing the needs of other people that you need to work with, to get along with, going forward.
But there is some research that indicates the best way to say No. A way that can make you feel empowered, and maintain healthy boundaries.
Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt performed a study that they published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
They gave three groups of women goals. Then they gave the women strategies around how to say No when they were tempted to lapse on their goals (e.g. skip their daily workout). The three strategies were:
Group 1 was told to “just say no.”(this was the control group).
Group 2 was told to use the “can’t” strategy. (I can’t miss my workout today.)
Group 3 was told to use the “don’t” strategy. (I don’t miss workouts.)
Ten days later, the results were this:
Group 1(“just say no”) had 3 out of 10 members who stayed with their goal.
Group 2(the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who stayed with their goal.
Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an 8 out of 10 members who stayed with their goal.
Significantly more of the “Don’t” group stayed on track toward their goal. Due to a feeling of empowerment evoked by the strategy. And the power of the words they used had a significant impact on their success. As they stated about the “Don’t” group in the results of the paper:
Evidence of empowerment is indicated by increased feelings of autonomy and control, greater self awareness, and positive behavioral change.
How does this apply in a work environment?
There are two benefits to politely saying No in a work environment adapting the “I don’t” strategy.
Saying “I don’t” feels like a choice. It feels empowering, like you’ve weighed the pro’s and cons and you’re making a mindful decision. I don’t brings up less guilt and conflict than I can’t, which feels like you don’t have a handle on your own time.
The people you work with will take “I don’t” less personally than “I can’t.” I can’t sounds like you are minimizing their priorities. I don’t sounds like you have a structure and flow, and their priority is a part of that, but at the right time.
So, when that sales guy who wanted me to fly to Wisconsin in January asked again. I could tell him “I don’t do overnight travel to see only one client, but if you were able to put a full day together of 8 meetings, I’d be happy to go.” I didn’t say I won’t or can’t make time for him. I told him that I will, within my own predetermined parameters.
Schedule, but include flex time
I got pretty good at proactively creating my own schedule. Instead of letting the day dictate my schedule for me. But, the stock market is unpredictable. I realized that unexpected news events were the norm, and I had to prepare for that too.
So, I’d create an hour or two of “flex” time in my day. I created a blank space in my calendar, and I protected it. It was usually right after the market closed.
If nothing unexpected happened, I could use it to work on a longer term report, or catch up on email. But it was also there to give me time to react to events that happened beyond my control. That way, I’d have time to accomplish my own priorities, and react to the things that I couldn’t predict.
Switch tasks less times during the day
Some people are able to multi-task, but I am not one of them. The amount of cognitive load (i.e. working memory) it takes for me to switch from one task to the next — to rev down and then rev back up — is significant.
Working memory is defined as:
a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing. Working memory is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision-making and behavior.
Studies have shown that task switching depletes your working memory. Switching from one task to the next over and over makes it harder to focus and make good decisions as the day goes on.
So I picked certain periods of time to focus on research and writing. Usually mid-morning, after the catch-up of the morning, but before the markets closed.
I knew that if I picked up the phone every time it rang while I was trying to work on a new idea, it would only take me longer to find my place again.
I was able to do some of this with the help of a small team; they screened my calls. And back then, there were not as many notifications that came out of your computer. Now, I try to turn them off when I want to stay on task.
Have confidence in your own priorities
Once I got my ability to say No down, and was able to gain control of my schedule, I started to see the fruits of my labor. I was producing more quality content. I was having more value-added conversations with investors and companies. I received positive reviews and an industry award after that first year (Institutional Investor’s Next Generation Analyst). So I knew that I was doing something right.
That positive feedback helped give me confidence in my own priorities. I had tangible feedback that I was adding value. So, when I enforced my own boundaries around my time, I could do it gently, without defensiveness. Coming from that place, other people respected my boundaries as well.
Everyone has to find their own way in the workplace. So many of us work inplaces that continue to be more hectic, with more interruptions. I can only be grateful that I have never worked in an open office environment. But having these tools at your disposal, and having the confidence to use them, can only improve the quality of your work and your mental state.
So the next time you think, why is Bob asking me to join this meeting? Turn that thought around. Ask yourself, do I need to be in that meeting? Is it my priority? How can I intentionally gain control of that time? Because Bob’s not going to do that for you. But you can do it for yourself.