In my early 30’s, I worked under the guidance of a master builder to help construct my house. My carpentry skills are rudimentary at best, but I was keen to try something new.
Hanging a door, I discovered, is a surprisingly technical skill. Everything requires precision. The frame must be square. Angles must be finely adjusted. Hinges must line up. So must the catch. There is an art to hanging a door that opens and shuts well.
Imagine going to all this effort to install a door but never using it.
This is why it surprises me when leaders and managers fail to use their office doors effectively. They leave their doors ‘open’ all the time and allow all sorts of interruptions to impact their day. I’m speaking metaphorically of course.
In my mind, a door that is always open is not a door, but a hole in the wall.
Doors open, and close. Sometimes they allow people in. Other times, they keep people out. That’s the purpose of a door. They open and close when needed. So should our lives.
Hiding in a cafe
I often encounter managers who struggle to set boundaries on their time. Their intentions may be noble – to be available to staff and help those around them – but their method are misguided.
For example, I once coached a CEO named Tony who was struggling to deal with constant interruptions at work. He lamented: “I can’t achieve meaningful tasks at work. People are constantly at my door. I find myself hiding in café’s just to get things done. It’s the only way I can concentrate without distraction.”
Hiding in a cafe? His comment was revealing. Unlike his employees, Tony was the head of his company. In theory, he should have been able to shape the rules and set the culture of his organisation. Why didn’t he have autonomy over his own calendar? Why did he need to hide from his own staff?
Seeking to understand Tony’s predicament, I asked further questions. How did he organise his time? What activities did he allow into his schedule? What values informed his priorities? As I listened to understand Tony’s motivations, he seemed to be driven by a need to be useful. He was almost always available to others, even for small things. Staff would ‘pop in’ to talk with him throughout the day. Tony’s phone was always on. His laptop was abuzz with email notifications and instant messages. He almost never created prolonged periods of silence to focus on one thing.
In my mind, Tony was lost in a sea of noise because his door was always open. Some of these interruptions were unavoidable, but many were self-inflicted.
In his own words: “I have an open door policy. My staff know they can interrupt me at any time. It’s one of the reasons why I’m such a good manager. I’m always available.”
Really? Let’s unpack this logic further.
The Logic of “No”
Habits author, James Clear has argued:
“When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option. No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.”
‘No’ can be clarifying. It can communicate our values and priorities to others. A well-placed ‘no’ establishes boundaries. It opens up space for new possibilities, allowing a ‘yes’ for something of greater worth.
So why do we struggle to set boundaries? Why do we keep our doors ajar?
I suspect it’s because ‘no’ is difficult. It feels negative. It feels like conflict. We like to be needed. We like pleasing people. And sometimes, deep down, we enjoy the buzz of being interrupted by something novel.
Some workplace cultures make it particularly difficult to set boundaries on our time. When our colleagues expect to access our calendar at a whim, it adds pressure to accept meetings without reason. No one wants to be the difficult person in the team. Few of us want to rock the boat.
Saying ‘no’ can be painful because it requires us to take ownership of our schedule, and responsibility for our time. Much easier to go with the flow and let others dictate the texture of our day.
But avoiding ‘no’ is also costly. If we have a hole in the wall, instead of a door, the impact is threefold:
1) We make promises we cannot keep
If we cannot set aside time to focus on deep work, it is likely we will struggle to follow through on commitments. We might jump from meeting to meeting, agreeing to next actions, without carving out space to progress the things we have committed to. This is unfair on our teams, frustrating to others, and slows progress for all.
By saying ‘no’ to non-essential commitments, we can carve out distraction-free spaces in our schedules – to fulfil promises and build relational credibility.
2) We create dependency rather than autonomy
As managers, it can be tempting to ‘help out’ or ‘fix’ operational issues that others are capable of solving. Sure, it feels good when others need our expertise to unblock problems, but time spent reacting is often at the expense of thinking, planning, and setting direction.
Rather than get caught in the weeds, might it be possible to create an environment where others solve their own problems? Might our time be better spent creating systems and processes, or coaching and equipping others, rather than fixing issues ourselves?
3) Our teams become reactive rather than focused
Leaders are paid to think, set direction, and create an environment where others can lead. If we are always reacting to email, instant messages, and in-person interruptions, we rob ourselves of the space we need to reflect deeply and clarify direction.
It can be hard to think strategically and unblock systemic problems if we are at people’s beck and call. I’m not saying we should remove ourselves from relationships or be unapproachable, but there are times when closing our door to improve systems and set direction is the most important thing we can do to build up our team.
The Skill of Saying ‘No’
If ‘closing your door’ is a problem, take heart. Setting boundaries to guard your time and attention is a skill that you can practice.
Here are some tips to help you set physical and digital boundaries on your time.
- If you have your own office, don’t be afraid to close your door from time to time. By setting sensible boundaries, colleagues tend to respect us more, not less. This is especially true when we achieve meaningful tasks, giving our full attention to others when our door opens again.
- Create a rhythm in your week when you are available for walk-in’s. For example, you might open your door to interruptions between 1pm to 2:30pm daily, but require an appointment at other times. Alternatively, reverse the pattern, keeping your door open as a rule, with the exception of Tuesday and Friday afternoons which are set aside for concentrated work.
- You may want to put a sign on the door when unavailable: “Deep work zone.”
- If working in an open-plan office, get creative. Some people wear headphones (indicating the ‘door’ is closed). Others find a meeting room, work from home a few days a week, or head to a café to achieve meaningful work.
- If ‘closing the door’ is valuable for your whole team, you might create distraction-free spaces together. In one team we coached, each person was assigned two afternoon sessions a week for uninterrupted work. During these times, no one was to distract to them. If visitors came, or the phone rang, others in the team would step in to protect the other’s space.
- Digital doors can be even harder to shut because they are designed to grab our attention in real time. Turn off push notifications where possible, including email, social media apps and other messaging services.
- If you need to achieve concentrated work, put your phone on silent and put it away.
- If meetings are an issue (with the expectation to say ‘yes’ to every invitation) there are ways to say ‘no’ without causing conflict. You might delay by asking “what specific input is needed from me” before accepting a meeting invite. You might have ‘a prior appointment’ (even if the appointment is with yourself to achieve an important task.) You might seek to provide input by email rather than attend in person. Or you might just be brave and decline meaningless meetings to use your time wisely.
A Door Or A Hole In A Wall?
There are times for being available, flexible and spontaneous. But not all the time.
More than ever, as professionals working in digitally distracting environments, we need patterns of on and off; planning and doing; reflecting and engaging. This is true when it comes to physical environments, such as our offices, as well as our digital ‘doors.’
As a Spacemaker, close your door from time to time to achieve important work. Be friendly and helpful, but not constantly on demand. Communicate well and set healthier boundaries. Unplug from distraction. Ultimately, your team and those you lead will thank you.
Do you find it hard to say ‘no’ at work? Why is this? And how might better boundaries help you make space?
James Clear: The Ultimate Productivity Hack is Saying No; Retrieved: https://jamesclear.com/saying-no]