A reliable and pleasant colleague without always being accessible

Martijn Ruitenburg

I have to make a confession; sometimes I worry far too much about what others think. If I know that someone is going to contact me by e-mail at a certain time, I am almost waiting for that e-mail to arrive. Not out of curiosity, but so that I can respond immediately. The other person will certainly appreciate that. And that gives me a good feeling! 

If I take a minute, my colleague can get on with it. That's what you do then, isn't it? 

You will probably recognize it. You have a busy job that takes a lot of energy. Part of your energy, like mine, comes from the satisfaction of helping and being there for others. Whether it's colleagues or customers, you want to be reliable and helpful. And so you are available all day long: by e-mail, telephone or teams.

The downside of reliability

No matter how much satisfaction you get from it, there is also a big downside.: when do you really get around to doing your own work? How often do you succeed to work on a task without interruption and with full attention? You can answer an e-mail or write a short memo, but other important, less urgent tasks remain untouched. 

And that probably costs even more energy: all day long (and if you're unlucky, even in bed) your head is spinning with all the things you still have to do. Wouldn't it be great if only for a moment others are not able to contact you? 

Focus and distraction do not go together

The message is clear: if you want to work with more focus, you can't afford distractions. Every distraction disrupts your concentration and it takes time and energy before you return to your task with full attention. Where did I leave off?" you hear. You'll be amazed at how productive and efficient you can actually be when you allow yourself 45-60 minutes to get on with a task without disruption. But, how do you do it? 

Communicate your reachability

I know it is easier said than done. After all, you don't change habits just like that. Certainly not the habits that produce short-term benefits (satisfaction) or where changing the habit produces an unpleasant feeling (you feel guilty or unreliable). 

People don't want you to be available all day, they want clarity: to know where they stand. 

And that is why I want to give you a shot in the arm here. Others are much less concerned about you than you often think. Have you ever learned to indicate your boundaries better? Were you afraid of the reaction of others? And, how did the other person react in the end? 

People especially need clarity: they want to know where they stand. Are you not available between 8 a.m. and 9.30 a.m. because you are writing an important document? Then that colleague will save his question for later, or he won't expect your answer right away. Do you say that you answer your e-mail at 3 p.m. every day? Then that colleague really doesn't expect your answer any earlier. 

The fact that the colleague knows what to expect from you makes you reliable. The biggest challenge then is to actually keep to your own agreements. It makes you unreliable if you can be reached between 8am and 9.30am.... 

Clarity is reliability

As a small business, you don’t need to be coy, Roy. Clearly state what you want people to do.

Use phrases like, “Subscribe to our newsletter,” “Book your reservation now” or “Email us for a free quote today.” After you identify your page structure, sketch out your content sections and maintain well-defined CTAs, then layer in conversion opportunities like pop-ups, alert bars, and more! Your lead forms should be prominent and enticing as well.

The first steps

If you decide to schedule more frequent moments when you can work undisturbed, the steps below will help you communicate your (un)reachability: 

1. Schedule meetings with yourself in your calendar. In this way, you block off timeframes where others can schedule you in and make sure you reserve time for important tasks where good focus is important. 

2. Set an out of office reply in your mail for the time slot you are unreachable. Include a phone number in this message where you can be reached immediately in case of an emergency. 

3. Agree with your colleagues which channels (telephone, e-mail, Teams-chat, whatsapp) you will use for what. For example: non-urgent matters on the mail, direct requests in whatsapp, phone only in emergencies etc. 

4. Make agreements with your team about times when you do not disturb each other in principle 

(e.g. Wednesday morning) and moments when you do not plan any meetings (e.g. between 12:00 and 13:00). 

Are you the colleague who can always be reached immediately, but who doesn't have time for the important things? Or are you the colleague who can be reached at set times, but whose important tasks are also well taken care of? 

Clarity = reliability. Communicating your availability is an indispensable step in creating more moments of real focus, so that you can do what is important at that moment with full attention. 

Good luck!

Martijn Ruitenburg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.