Welcome to Refinery29’s new career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Each month, readers will be asking Fran Hauser, bonafide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, their hardest career quandaries, from managing your overly emotional boss to overcoming your biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month, an associate at a management consulting firm faces a common, but difficult, problem about visibility and working hard.
Question: I have trouble prioritizing tasks and adjusting my schedule when priorities change. More so, my job requires a lot of research work and sometimes I feel like I'm too heads down and not being visible enough to prove my value. Then, when I don’t stay at work late, I’m worried my manager will think I’m not working hard enough and fully prioritizing my career. How can I prioritize my work, networking and professional growth, and my interests outside of work?
Fran's advice: When I was in my 20s and working at Coke, any time a last-minute task or request came up, I was the first person to raise my hand and volunteer to stay late and do it. Yes, it showed I was ambitious, but I had also unwillingly set a precedent to always be available to take on more. This meant working as hard as possible and spending as much time as possible in the office. There’s nothing wrong with going the extra mile, but it does become a problem if it leaves you with no time left over to focus on developing yourself and your own career. You need to invest in yourself and be a team player.
It’s vital to set boundaries at work to help you cut out extraneous tasks so you can focus on the things that matter most to you and your career. I know I work better when I have a specific plan to follow, so I created a Four Square method to force myself to create and maintain these boundaries. Here’s how to do it: Draw a quadrant on a piece of paper and label each of the four squares with the most important areas of your life. Career will most likely be one of the four, but others may be a hobby, political advocacy, or a particular relationship. Write this at the top of each box.
In each square, list no more than three top priorities related to that part of your life. For the career square, it can be hard to limit to three, but setting clear priorities for this quadrant forces you to determine what to focus on and what you should stop doing (which is even more crucial). It will also eliminate some brain anxiety about feeling like you’re working on the wrong things.
Remember that you don't have to live with these forever, but you should ask yourself, “What do I most want to learn or improve to take my career to the next level right now?” For you, maybe it’s learning to become more efficient with your research work, working on your presence within your company, and taking on more visible cross-department projects. Ask your boss, “This is what I think I should be focusing on based on our company goals. Does this look right to you?”
While we’re talking about your boss — many times we assume our manager is giving us side-eye for leaving “early” or thinks we’re not working hard enough. Stop speculating and ask for feedback. What could you be doing better? Does he or she have any other concerns? Do you? The more open and honest you can be, the less time and energy you’ll spend worrying about expectations that don’t exist.
I recommend putting Networking at the top of one of your squares in addition to Career. To invest in yourself and your future, you must build relationships inside and outside your company. When I talk to fellow senior leaders, most of them say they wouldn’t be where they were today without their incredible networks. These are all highly intelligent, hard-working people who realized that picking up your head from the work, broadening horizons, and taking the time to meet new people can help your job, too. The things you learn from others while you’re out networking can benefit you and your company. There’s no way I would be where I am today if I hadn’t begun to grow my network.
Finally, once you have your priorities mapped out, it’s important to learn to say no to things that fall outside your Four Square. This is not easy, especially if the request is coming from a colleague you want to impress or a peer who needs your help. But by doing so, you will be able to focus on the right tasks to help your career flourish. Ideally, the priorities you listed should take up at least 80% of your time.
To say no with kindness, first, start with thank you instead of I’m sorry. You don’t need to apologize for turning down a request. Say, “Thank you for the opportunity, or for thinking of me,” and then be specific about why you can’t do it. "I’m too busy" isn’t adequate — we’re all too busy! To decline with confidence, say that you’re at full capacity focusing on x, y, and z (your Four Square priorities). If you’re feeling generous, you can always offer a smaller assist, like suggesting someone else who would be up for the task or sharing research on a smaller piece that needs to be done. This keeps you focused on your priorities while still coming across as a team player.
Stay tuned for the followup from our reader! She'll be taking Fran’s advice and reporting back.