Negotiating your time back

Left to their own devices, people in organizations tend to take your time away. “Would you serve on the birthday committee?” “Would you contribute to our twice-weekly newsletter?” “Would you take our new hires out to lunch?” And who, with half a heart, could say no to such harmless extracurricular requests? The problem, of course, is that many harmless extracurriculars add up to one stressed out employee—someone who can’t get their job done.

In these moments, it’s time to get your time back. I would offer the following five negotiation principles as a framework for making the process more negotiable:

  1. Interests. Your interests are what you really want or need. In this case, they’re the tasks you really need to complete to satisfy your job. And perhaps the extracurriculars you really want to tack on because you like them. What do you really need and want to do, and how much time will it really require? Answering those questions provides a baseline for deciding how much time is left for the birthday committee.
  2. Alternatives. With respect to any particular extracurricular, what would you alternatively do with the time if you had it back? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost of being on the birthday committee? If they’re higher than inherent benefits of the birthday committee—to you, but particularly to the rest of the committee and whoever’s having a birthday—chances are it’s not worth your time.
  3. Bottom line: Given your interests, what is the absolute maximum amount of time you can spend on extracurriculars? That’s a rhetorical question for your consideration, not a question to answer in front of the birthday committee coordinator, lest they see your free time as an opening to ask you about the anniversary and holiday committees too.
  4. Perspective-taking: If you’re considering quitting a particular extracurricular, how’s the organizer likely to react, and why? The organizers of some extracurriculars will probably be more concerned than the organizers of others. And the very concerned organizers will probably be concerned for some particular reason, which you might be able to address by proposing a…
  5. Creative solution: Sure, the organizer of the birthday party may not do a happy dance when you resign from his or her committee. But could you bring back some semblance of a smile by understanding the underlying concern and doing something to address it? If the underlying issue is your refined knowledge of the birthday planning process, perhaps you could train someone else? If the concern is that no one else will volunteer as much time as you (providing further justification for your qualms), perhaps you could create a team of dedicated birthday planners, subdividing by month? If it’s that your absence will spell the end of the beloved birthday emails from the company, perhaps Microsoft can offer an automated solution?

In sum, we all, out of the goodness of our hearts, find ourselves agreeing to serve on something like the birthday committee from time to time. But when the scope of our goodness expands to include the anniversary committee, holiday committee, and everything else—and when we consequently find ourselves stretched too thin to even read our boss’s emails—it’s time to get our time back. In these instances, I’d suggest that considering some basic negotiation principles is well-worth your time.