The shy connector’s schedule: making time to breathe

hamsterwheelIt starts innocently enough. You’re asked to attend a meeting next Tuesday. You accept. Your coworkers invite you to lunch on Wednesday. You agree. A friend invites you to her birthday party next week. You put it on your calendar. Then another meeting invitation comes, and another, and another. Networking events, coffee breaks, and presentations crowd into your schedule.

If this has ever made you feel suffocated, exhausted, and in dire need of some alone time, you might be an introvert.

I know it’s difficult to say no to opportunities. I’ve accepted too many invitations and tried to attend too many events. Last year’s conference season was particularly stressful. The first week, I was in New York for the Best Practices Conference, giving a presentation on blogging. The second week, I was at the even bigger Technical Leadership Exchange in Florida, giving a presentation on Generation Y. By the time I got to the Web 2.0 Summit (which I was helping organize), I was ready to hide. (And I did, behind the podium.)

As much as I enjoy learning from people in conversations and conferences, needing to be “on” all the time is incredibly draining. I’m learning how to manage my schedule and how to say no.

It’s important to figure out what works for you. For example, I don’t want to be out late two nights in a row. In fact, I’d rather not be out late at all. This means that before I accept an invitation, I look at my schedule for that time and my schedule for the week, making sure that I’m not trying to pack too much in.

In addition to getting better at saying no, I’m also getting better at scheduling time for myself. I’ve blocked off time on my calendar for planning, working on important tasks, and responding to mail. Sometimes people still schedule meetings during those times, but in general, I can be sure that my day won’t be full of conference calls. I sometimes block off time during evenings and weekends for particular projects, too. If I’m going to travel for a workshop or a presentation, I want to have a quiet week before and after the trip, and I plan accordingly.

Does this limit opportunities compared to extroverts who are out there schmoozing? Maybe. But I’ve tried running in extrovert mode for extended periods of time, and I can’t do my best if I feel like I’m coming apart. Besides, the things I do in my quiet time—read, write, reflect—also help me connect with people, although in a more introvert-friendly way. It’s better to work with the grain instead of against it.

It’s important to make time to breathe. If you find yourself running ragged because you feel that you have to say yes to everything, stop and slow down. Schedule introvert dates with yourself. Make time for breaks. Say no. You’ll find that the quiet time you give yourself will make it even easier to connect with people when you do, because you’ll be happier and better rested.

What can you do to free up some time for yourself?

  • Early in my college career (it might have been high school, but I don’t recall formalizing this ’till college) I realized the “set aside defined work hours” methodology didn’t fit me; I love what I do, so I want to do it all the time. This left me exhausted from spending all my waking hours working with people and feeling guilty that I couldn’t fit in everyone and everything and even more guilty that I wanted to turn more people down.

    Then (like you) I realized that I can’t do my best if I feel like I’m coming apart. So instead of scheduling work-hours, I scheduled non-work hours. And I still do this. By default, I’m in work mode; since my work (in open source) is highly collaborative, “work mode” usually means “YAY PEOPLE” mode. But I schedule time out for myself where I’m not allowed to do work – with various tiers for that. Sometimes I’m not allowed to do $dayjob, but I can do anything else. Sometimes I’m not allowed to touch my computer. Sometimes I’m not allowed to be with other people. And so on. I do need that time alone, and I need to be able to tell other people that I need to make demands on my own time too (just… not with that phrasing, necessarily).

    This way, I can take my non-work solo hours without guilt and make the most of them because I know when they’ll end.

  • Hello, Mel!

    I like setting aside defined non-work self-time, too. Many of my hobbies need blocks of focused time (sewing, programming, etc.), and I’m getting better at defending those times. I’ll try challenging myself with appointments like yours, maybe declaring no-computer days. =)

    As for blocking that time off – “I’m sorry, I have a previous engagement” seems to work fine. <laugh>

  • shardul

    I liked hamsterwheel !
    did you draw it ? using inkscape ??

  • Yes, I drew that with Inkscape. =) Or rather, I scrawled something that looked like it, used tiled clones to make the bars in the circle, edited the nodes to make them look a little neater, and hoped I didn’t screw up perspective too much. Someday I’ll learn how to properly draw! <laugh>