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How the concept of a “hard stop” helped me gain more time in the day

This tech COO spent many years of her professional life burning the candle at both ends. When her daughter was born, she knew that she had to change the way she viewed time.

How the concept of a “hard stop” helped me gain more time in the day
[Photo: Konevi/Pexels]

Time. It’s the most precious and finite resource that we have. Even today, where our increasingly connected world makes it possible for us to be more efficient than ever, time still escapes us. Time is still the only resource that we can’t borrow or buy more of. And, once it’s gone, it’s impossible to get back.

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For most of my career, I’ve been acutely aware of the ticking of time. As semi-pro speed skater, I raced against both the clock and my opponents. Later, as an attorney specializing in international tax law, I diligently logged every minute of billable work done on behalf of our clients. And, especially now as the COO of a rapidly growing global tech company, time is as fleeting as ever. Every day can feel like a sprint toward the next product release or update, the upcoming hiring blitz, or the next customer deal.

For a long time, I was among those burning the candle at both ends. But that came to a screeching halt this spring when we welcomed our daughter into the world. I began to measure time differently. Instead of calculating seconds, minutes, and hours, I started thinking of time in terms of moments and milestones.

After maternity leave was over, I wanted to make the most of the time I had at both work and at home. I knew I had to set firmer boundaries and expectations for how I set up my schedule. That’s not to say that I don’t ever bring work home, or that I say no to every after-hours call or email that comes my way. But, I’ve learned to embrace what I’ve started to call a “hard stop.” The hard stop is the time I choose to put my work aside and focus on our daughter and my family. It’s the time when I put down my phone, shut my laptop, and focus on my family.

Here are some of the things I’ve found to help establish a hard stop.

1. Identify your limits

You can’t set up boundaries if you don’t know your limits or where you stand. That’s why it’s essential to take inventory of the non-negotiables both at home and at work. As an example, I know I need to set aside time for athletic activity. Too many of us know that’s one of the first things to go when we’re pressed for time. But it’s an investment that I find pays dividends. Taking a little time out for myself makes me sharper both physically and mentally, and in turn, makes me a better mom at home and leader at work.

2. Give yourself permission

Guilt and fear often prevent us from speaking up about the boundaries we need to set. If you’re not used to it, setting boundaries can feel self-indulgent, when really, setting boundaries is a sign of self-respect. Identify your limits and allow yourself to preserve them.

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3. Find your sacred space

When you’re keeping up with the demands of business and life, it’s easy to let outside demands dictate your schedule. I’ve learned to start internally first. Whether I’m planning the week, month, or quarter ahead, I schedule time for my “sacred space” first and then fill in the rest. For me, my sacred space is Wednesday evenings. That means I wrap up my work so I can devote a couple of hours to sports. Having a set time and date to do an activity I love motivates me throughout the day to get work done.

4. Communicate clearly

Deliberate and clear communication is the key to enforcing healthy boundaries. Setting deadlines, working toward them, and sharing status updates proactively helps create awareness and alignment around my goals. When I communicate my schedule clearly, it also sends a clear signal to others that I want them to do the same.

5. Optimize for efficiency

Once in a while, you might have no choice but to burn the candle at both ends. But if it’s happening more frequently than not, it may be time to ask yourself why. Being the first person to arrive at the office and the last one to leave doesn’t always mean you’re the most efficient. On the contrary, it could mean you’re struggling with time management.

Take inventory of your time, and how you use it. Get tough with yourself to find out if you’re using your time efficiently. If there’s a standing meeting on your calendar, ask yourself why it’s there and whether being there is the best use of your time. Spend time getting to know colleagues, but limit idle chat around the espresso machine. Finally, pare down your daily to-do list to prioritize the handful of tasks that will have the most impact for the business. Optimizing for efficiency, and owning my calendar enables me to get work done during work hours so that I can spend my evening hours with my husband and our daughter.

6. Find your rhythm

Putting hard stops in place doesn’t mean you have to ascribe to a set schedule. For some, spending an hour in the evenings checking email provides a sense of calm and helps them feel prepared for the day ahead. For others, checking email right before bed can be anxiety-inducing. Let yourself find your rhythm, and turn it into a routine that you can repeat consistently. When your colleagues know how you prefer to work, they will optimize for that.

7. Seek out support

I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner and stable childcare who often reinforce my hard stop, but any type of support system is critical to ensuring the boundaries you set up for yourself can remain in place. Seek out mentors and managers who take your personal and professional limits into account. Work together to maximize your productivity without sacrificing the time you need to take to recharge. You can also lean on colleagues, friends, or family members to keep you accountable as you practice setting boundaries together.

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You don’t have to have a baby to set boundaries for yourself or wait to be a parent to put “hard stops” in place. Climbing the career ladder isn’t about pushing yourself to the brink of burnout, even if you’re among those in a leadership role. By setting limits, and embracing “hard stops,” you might be able to borrow or buy yourself some extra time after all.


Mayke Nagtegaal is the COO of MessageBird, an Amsterdam-based cloud communications platform company.

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