Over the past year (!), the world has been consumed with the concept of protection. Talk of masks, hand-washing protocol, sanitizers, distance, and more have flooded our airwaves, feeds, and conversations as we did our best to protect ourselves and others. But as many of us reenter the world and reopen brick and mortar locations, we have to think about how to protect another precious resource: time.

Of course, some of us have been struggling with time protection all along. As we moved from offices to remote work and set up shop at home, the lines between work and life blurred even further than they had with the advent of the smartphone. 

From a business perspective, though, we saw some benefits of this new arrangement. Many companies reported that productivity actually increased as they streamlined systems, stacked video calls, and the small talk that often happened between meetings or during lunch disappeared overnight. Employees also found that they could focus better in a more comfortable environment, and spent the hours they’d typically burn commuting on work-related tasks. 

However, while productivity was on the upswing, innovation actually decreased. There are a number of reasons for this outcome. Businesses typically spend less money and take fewer risks when the future appears murky. And interestingly, without those opportunities for in-person connection, we lost out on the creativity and novel ideas collaboration tends to spur. 

But it’s not just human interaction that sparks innovation; it’s also downtime. That’s why some of our best ideas come to us in the shower or on a walk, when there’s nothing else vying for our attention. 

With that in mind, as a sense of normalcy re enters our lives—and with it the many daily interruptions that were par for the course before the pandemic—it’s up to us to take steps to protect our time for the sake of our sanity and our creativity.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t engage in the work and social activities you enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Having lunch with a colleague or friend, jumping in on an unexpected meeting, or logging a few extra hours to launch a new project can be exciting and stimulating—particularly after a year without them. 

But giving ourselves space to acclimate—and to think—is crucial too. 

Here are a few time-protection strategies you can employ as you get back to your routine: 

Allow for breathing room between meetings. Being able to enter a meeting with the click of a button has made an impact on how we schedule our time. Without a commute to consider—not even a walk down the hall or elevator ride—many of us have become accustomed to booking ourselves in back-to-back sessions, without a moment to breathe in between. That just won’t work in the in-person world. 

When you’re sitting in a boardroom, you can’t just mute yourself and shut off your camera when you need a water or bathroom break. Plus, everyone benefits from some time to process. Keep this in mind when coordinating your calendar, and—if possible—leave yourself a window of time to absorb what you learned, take care of any administrative tasks, or simply grab a snack. Remember: True productivity—and innovation—is a marathon, not a sprint.  

Schedule time to focus. At home, you’ve likely had something you aren’t guaranteed at work: lots of time to focus. Without interruption from co-workers dropping by to ask a question or chat—or coffee, lunch, or drinks with clients—many of us had more quiet time for head-down assignments than we did previously. With a different, busier environment comes more distractions, which can have an impact on your ability to complete necessary tasks. 

Blocking out time to do the work can help, as can returning to the quiet of your home office (or dining room table). Plus, many offices are maintaining flexible work policies even as they bring employees back to a physical location, due to the productivity they witnessed during the pandemic. If you’re in a leadership position, consider instituting the same policy. That way, you and your team can take advantage of time away from the office to handle tasks that take significant concentration. 

Incorporate mindfulness. Many of the world’s most successful leaders make time for mindfulness—time to be still, process, and clear away the buildup of worries and unnecessary information that can cloud the mind on a day-to-day basis. If you haven’t instituted a mindfulness routine, this is a great time to start. Consider investing in an app that can guide you through those quiet moments—or simply schedule time to sit by yourself without distraction for even just a few minutes a day. Doing so can help you manage the influx of stimuli that comes with being out and about. 

After such a tough year, it’s exciting to get back into a routine, see those we’ve missed, and find our way in the world again. Protecting your time as you readjust and beyond will ensure you get the most you can out of your new (old) normal. 

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