Being a Better Boss To Myself

I am good at setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life. I’m the sort of person who can take a company Blackberry on vacation, check it twice a day, and not have it destroy the vacation. (I did that when I was the manager of the informatics and IT group at a small biotech, because to do otherwise would have been unfair to my one direct report. It was possible because he was the only one who knew I had the Blackberry with me, and we had an agreed upon subject line code to identify any message he thought I really needed to handle while on vacation.)

So it has been a bit of surprise to find that since going out on my own, I’ve struggled a bit with where to draw that boundary. I’ve never relied on a boss to draw it for me, so why would it be any harder now?

It is harder, of course, because I can more directly see the link between my work and my ability to pay my bills. This creates a certain pressure to work more, more, ever more. However, I know that is short term thinking. The reason I’ve always been good at setting boundaries is that I’ve always been clear on the fact that a lack of boundaries is unsustainable. If allowed to, work will consume your entire life. Maybe there are people out there for whom that is a sustainable way to live, but it is not sustainable for me.

Therefore,  I need to get better at this. I am acutely aware of this problem this week, when I scheduled in far too much work for the week before Christmas, particularly a week in which I was also going to see the new Star Wars movie (loved it). I would never have done this as a boss of other people, but I happily did it as the boss of just myself.

In short, I need to be a better boss to myself.

When you can see the entire picture of an enterprise and you can clearly see what might go wrong if you don’t push through and do that extra bit of work it is harder to tell yourself to “go home” for the day.

But we still need to do it, whether we are running a business, a research group, or a team at a company. Looking at the even bigger picture of whatever enterprise we’re running should make that clear. In most cases, success depends not just on hard work, but also on a spark of innovation or creativity, something that sets what we’re doing apart from the other people doing similar things. Those sparks are hard to come by when you’re running on empty, and even if they come, there may literally be no fuel left to make them explode into the full-fledged ideas we need.

Beyond that, there is the risk of burn out. Some people can build successful businesses (or labs) by running hard for a few months and then shutting down to recover. But most of us will do better with a more steady approach. Sure, there will be crunch times, just like there are in any job, and the smart boss lets her team recover with a some comp time after a crunch. The danger comes when we allow the crunch times to merge together into an unhealthy mashup of a marathon and a sprint that just cannot go on. When we hit the wall—and there is always a wall!—we shut down for too long, creating a backlog of work that will lead to another marathon of crunch times, leading us to plow headlong into another wall, and so on and so on.

During the last few weeks, I was running full steam at a wall. The problem is, I cannot afford a long recovery time in the next couple of months. There is too much that needs to get done. Luckily, I looked up and saw the wall before I hit it. I think I’ve eased off enough to allow myself to get the most urgent tasks done now, without destroying my ability to do next month’s urgent tasks.

I need a better long term strategy, though. I want to climb over the walls, not run into them. I’m thinking about how to take what I know about being a good boss, and apply that to being a better boss for myself.

The first step is to step up my planning game. I keep my long term goals and plans in Trello, and that works well. I keep my immediate task-oriented to do list in a little spiral notebook on my desk, and that works well, too. What was missing was the intermediate term plan. In my corporate days, I would have a bevy of project plans and possibly also a Kanban board to help me through. So I’ve started making project plans where they make sense. I make work breakdown structures for projects where I’m doing something repeatable, like publishing a book, and want to retain what I learn about dependencies and optimal scheduling in a form more permanent than my memory. For other projects, I add more checklists and other details to my Trello cards. I’ve also started sketching out a rough 2-3 month schedule on blank calendar pages I print out from

Office door with decorated whiteboard
Underutilized Kanban board

And I’ll be adding a physical Kanban board soon. My new office is inching towards being all set up, and the magnetic white board on the door is now ready to be used for something more than drawings and notes from my children. (I have promised to leave the bottom 6 inches or so for them to draw on, though. Seeing their creations makes me happy.)

Next, I need to work on respecting my own work preferences a bit more. As a manager, I was always aware of what sorts of environments or schedules would stress my team. Sometimes I could fix the problems (e.g., by storing the backlog for a team member who preferred short, focused goals lists), sometimes I couldn’t (e.g., I couldn’t fix the noisy open plan office). But I always acknowledged them and did my best. I can’t say the same for how I’ve treated myself over the last few months. I tolerate clutter in my workspace really well… until I don’t. Then it really bothers me until I organize everything. Thanks to the fact that we were in the process of a home remodel (to add the new office), my work space has been in disarray for most of the year. It started really bothering me a few weeks ago, but I kept telling myself I didn’t have time to deal with it. I should have made it a priority, and I now have.

Finally, there are times of the year during which non-work considerations will take priority, and the smart boss schedules around those instead of fighting against them. The end of the school year is one. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is another. I didn’t do a good job of scheduling around either of those things this year. Next year, I need to do better.

Maybe I need to explicitly imagine myself switching from the “worker” role to the “boss” role, so that I can make better long term decisions, for both my company and myself. Whether I resort to that or not, though, I am resolved that next year, I’ll be a better boss.

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