Set honest boundaries to combat urgency

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I have been overwhelmed the past several months with urgent demands, tight deadlines, and unrealistic expectations. If you resemble this statement, keep reading.

As a public information officer for the State of Oregon, the COVID-19 pandemic and Labor Day wildfires have kept me inundated with media, legislative, stakeholder, and public needs.

In 2020, I implemented more campaigns, wrote more news releases, conducted more media interviews, developed more presentations, and crafted more talking points than any other year in my career. I have canceled plans because I needed to work nights and weekends, and endured several after-hour meetings.

I also learned a valuable truth that all of us need to acknowledge. The more urgent we treat our work, the less inclusive and collaborative it becomes.  

In order to respect this truth, and for the sake of my mental health, I am setting honest boundaries to combat urgency.  

Urgency is ingrained in our society, and COVID-19 shined a bright spotlight on it.

Urgency can be obvious and it can be subtle. Either way, it manipulates our lives in profound ways.

The obvious examples are easy to see. A crisis strikes in the night, it’s Friday afternoon and a reporter calls, or an executive needs a speech first thing in the morning. These things happen, they add stress, cause you to alter personal plans, and sometimes cannot be avoided.

The subtle examples seem small, but are more manipulative. A leader decides they do not have time to manage email during the work day so they respond to direct reports at night and over the weekend. There are too many meetings in the day so a final one is set after work hours to “accommodate everyone’s schedule”.

These examples seem harmless to the person doing them, but create undue stress on the recipients. These actions subconsciously say, “I need you to be thinking about or acting on this while you are off work.” No matter how well-intentioned, it wears on the recipient, keeps them up at night, and stresses them out when they should be resting or focused on their family.

2020 taught me that while some things are indeed urgent and require immediate attention, especially for PR pros, many other things are just urgent because of someone’s perspective.

To combat the urgency that limits our ability to collaborate and plagues our mental health, I decided it was time to get honest and set a few boundaries. Here is how I am fighting urgency. If you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to consider doing the same.

  1. Be honest – Have honest conversations with peers and leaders about what should be urgent and what can wait. One of the easiest steps to take is simply encouraging people in your organization to avoid sending emails between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m.
  2. Limit the amount of time you work on projects after hours – At my home office, the laptop is off by 5:30 p.m. and my work cell phone stays in the office. Once I leave that room for the evening, I do not check either one until 7 a.m. If something pops up that absolutely cannot be avoided, my personal cell is readily available, but I screen calls. Anyone needing to reach me knows to text or leave a voicemail.  
  3. Stop multi-tasking and prioritize – Decide what is absolutely important, understand the types of needs that will force you to drop everything, and do not be afraid to question the urgency of what someone asks you to do.
  4. Collaborate and delegate – Get to know your co-workers. Understanding each other’s strengths, how to work together, and how to ask for help will only serve your clients and customers better.  

The best thing about these four simple rules is that they can apply to everyone in an organization. Actually, these rules become more effective the higher up you are in an organization. As a leader you set the example for others to follow. If you want your people to embrace work/life balance then it is up to you to exemplify it.

Next time something appears urgent, remember the more urgent we treat our work, the less inclusive and collaborative it becomes.  

Let’s make 2021 the year we start being honest with one another. The year we set realistic boundaries. The year we really get to know each other. The year we start really understanding the best ways to work together.

Brad Hilliard, APR, serves as the Immediate Past President on the 2021 PRSA Oregon Board of Directors. He is a Public Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.

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