How to protect your most valuable asset (hint: it’s about time)


How do you protect your home from intruders and thieves (and nosy neighbours)?

Does your home have walls? Is there a lock on the front door? A doorbell? Maybe a fence of some description? Have you got a security system (electronic alarm, scary dog, etc)?

If you’re like most people reading this article, you probably take at least some basic measures to safeguard the privacy and security of your home.

So why don’t you do this with your time? (And if you do, why are you reading this article?)

I was coaching a client last year when we unexpectedly stumbled upon the idea of protecting your time the way you protect your physical property.

Like so many others, my client was struggling to juggle the competing demands on her time, which had multiplied since taking on a senior leadership role. She had recently been away on a family holiday, and her frustration was plainly evident as she recounted how her precious time had been interrupted by calls and emails about matters that weren’t (in her view) urgent.

As an ontological coach, I am trained to explore a client’s “way of being” — rather than just what they are doing — to improve their effectiveness as leaders and influencers. After all, most of us know how to do time management — from the Urgent/Important matrix, to Getting Things Done, to (more recently) Bullet Journalling, we are not short on methodologies for managing our time. And yet many people aren’t applying what they know, which suggests that the issue is in their way of being.

One of the ways that a person’s “way of being” might be revealed is through their use of metaphors. Metaphors are powerful linguistic devices that are laden with meaning and can reveal layers of latent assumptions and beliefs about a person or situation.

In this case, my client’s metaphor came to the surface when, thoroughly exasperated, she said: “I’m so sick of people stealing my time!”

This offhand comment opened up a juicy discussion — not least of all about what my client could do to protect her time from being stolen in the future. And, you can too, if you choose to adopt some of the insights below.

If time is “property”, how do we protect it?

If we extend the metaphor of “time theft”, it seems that we can protect our time the same way (metaphorically speaking) that we would protect our physical property — by installing and maintaining a psychological security system.

Here are some of the insights that emerged from our discussion about what this might involve (with thanks to my client for her permission to share this):

  1. Taking OWNERSHIP of your time: Before you can protect your time, you have to realise that you “own” it. People often give their time away without thinking about it because they assume that others are automatically entitled to it or because they are afraid of rocking the boat. But you — and only you — can choose what you do with your time. Of course, most of us are in relationships (with employers, colleagues, clients, partners, family, friends, etc) that involve an expectation that we will spend certain amounts of time in certain ways. The key is to negotiate those expectations consciously and from a position of power (ownership) over your own time. More on that below.

  2. Installing appropriate BOUNDARIES: Dr Henry Cloud describes boundaries as “a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible”. In this context, it’s about choosing to be responsible for your time and how you prioritise (and balance) requests for that time. For example: Do you carve out time each day to focus on your high priority projects or are you constantly available to “drop-ins” and other interruptions? Are you available for phone calls and emails during meetings/after business hours/while you’re on holiday — or do you set conditions or limits? When someone asks for your help with a problem, do you immediately assume responsibility for solving it or or do you support the other person to discover their own solution? Do you even know what your priorities are? (If your answer is “no”, you’re not alone — but you can do something about this!)

  3. Creating GATES in your boundaries: Now you might be wondering how this strategy fits with being accessible and responsive to clients and customers, not to mention in the context of open plan offices and open door policies. Well, that’s where gates come in! A “gate” is essentially an opportunity to treat what might previously have been seen as a demand or obligation and turn it into a request instead. The difference between “demands and obligations” and “requests” is important, because the latter tends to imply that you have more choice in how you respond — and you do.

  4. Learning the LANGUAGE of negotiating your boundaries: Richard Bransonfamously encouraged us to “say yes — then learn how to do it later”. But this doesn’t mean we should always say yes! It can be tempting to treat “yes” as your default response, especially if you identify as a “people pleaser” or are in a role that requires you to be helpful and accommodating. But this can be a fast track to feeling overwhelmed — and ultimately unproductive — so it’s important to avail yourself of other responses from time to time, such as “no”, “not now”, or even “not that, but how about this”. And once you’ve negotiated a boundary, it’s important to stand by it — even though you might feel guilty or uncomfortable in some cases.

  5. Employing a SENTRY: There’s no point in having a 10 metre high security fence if you constantly leave the front gate open! Boundaries only work if you remember to use them. In psychological terms, this is about being mindful enough to realise when someone is knocking at your door and present enough to respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. This is difficult when you’re operating on autopilot, so (again) mindfulness is the key. When faced with a request, take a pause and give your conscious mind (your sentry) time to catch up and consider before responding.

  6. Noticing when the ALARM goes off — and responding accordingly:You’re not always going to get it ‘right”, and others are going to commit trespass from time to time (just as you will with them). And like the flashing light or high-pitched alarm of an electronic security system, your psychological security system uses your emotions (typically, resentment, frustration and anger) to tell you that your boundaries have been breached. The problem is that many of us have learned to ignore the signal. We swallow our irritation and complain to others about how so-and-so is imposing on our time, when we could be using our emotions to signal the need for a more constructive conversation with that person. With increased awareness of how your alarm system operates, you can expand your range of choices for responding more effectively.

It takes courage to create boundaries and mindfulness to maintain them.

It’s not necessarily easy, but the benefits of productivity, progress and peace of mind — not to mention the clarity and confidence that comes with taking ownership of your most valuable assets — are, well, invaluable.

The key is to cultivate an underlying “way of being” of feeling legitimate enough to make choices about how you use your time, so that your psychological security system becomes a natural extension of who you are and how you show up in your world.

Would you like to learn more? Are you wondering how to apply these strategies to your own circumstances? Please get in touch and/or subscribe to my blog to be notified about new posts and get access to other valuable resources.