September 20, 2021

Seize control of your calendar to win the time management war

One of the most consistent challenges my clients face is time management. Improving your time management requires a variety of tools and skills (taking care of your body, putting your smartphone in its place, managing your energy). And time management techniques abound.

But there’s one strategy that will enable you to do all of these things and more: Taking charge of your calendar. It sounds basic, and in some ways it is. Here’s what you need to know to improve your time management and make your schedule work for you.

Are you a manager or a maker?

Have you heard these terms before? I learned them from this great essay, and I’ve found that while some people are one or the other, most of us are a bit of both.

We all have managerial tasks we need to take care of, such as replying to emails, scheduling and attending meetings, handling requests from colleagues and putting out fires. These things can be vitally important, but they can also involve a whole lot of reacting to someone else’s agenda. Managerial tasks also involve mission-critical but relatively mindless get-stuff-done work like approving payroll, and we all have them. Even if you are a fundamentally creative professional like an artist, you probably have to return phone calls, send invoices and track expenses.

And yet for most of us, there is much more to our work than managing. Maker’s tasks could include drafting slides for a talk, outlining a paper, rehearsing a presentation, planning for the coming year and mapping a strategy for a critical meeting. Tasks like these take focus, and they can be totally thrown off the rails by a phone call or email.

Being a maker is hard

Statistics vary, but most seem to agree the average office-based professional receives more than 100 emails per day.

Pile on the proliferation of collaboration tools like Slack, the meeting overload that preceded the pandemic and the Zoom overload that swept in with it, and it’s clear most people are probably managing at the expense of making.

Getting control of your calendar

I place myself squarely in the maker-and-manager group of professionals. This was true during my years in academic medicine, when urgent meeting requests perpetually put pressure on my planning, thinking and team-building time.

Now, as an entrepreneur, it is all too easy to get caught up in replying to emails and handling the business side of my business. This work matters, but it can easily consume my days, leaving too little time for developing new workflows, building out my brand and sharing ideas in my writing, presentations and courses.

Making time to create

The challenge we all have with our “maker” tasks is they take time. You can’t just dip into writing, for example, for 20 minutes here and there and expect great results. It takes time to enter a state of flow – when you are fully immersed in the creative process – and interrupting it will push you right back to square 1.

That’s why I build white space into my calendar. White space is essential to enabling my creative work. For me, it takes the form of 120-minute windows that allow me 20 to 30 minutes to move into a flow state, then another 90 minutes to get things done. By the end of that period, I start to lose focus, and I’m ready for a break. That break could involve a true respite like a snack, a walk around the block or a chat with a friend. It could also involve moving into relatively mindless tasks that have to get done but don’t require deep focus.

I schedule this time so I don’t get pulled into other things, and I turn off distractions so I can really make use of it. That means muting notifications, closing browser tabs, silencing my phone and working in a quiet space.

White space isn’t the only thing to schedule. To further structure your schedule the way you want, try blocking off windows for things like external meetings, internal meetings, marketing, professional development and personal priorities, like working out, family dinners and more. And don’t forget to schedule what I think of as “buffer time.” That’s the time we all need between meetings to use the restroom, walk around for a bit, stretch and get a drink. We used to do these things while moving between meetings at the office. Remote work has eliminated the need to relocate for some, but we could still benefit from the break. Take the time back and call it your buffer. Folks will understand!

The best way to make sure things happen is to make time and space for them. As you think about getting control over your calendar, list what has to happen, what doesn’t, and how much time you truly need to for various tasks.

Most important, do what it takes (including saying no to requests) to build white space into your calendar. Then share your calendar (and any limits, like “don’t come to my door during creative time unless it’s an emergency”) with anyone you work with who needs to know when you are available – and when you aren’t.

Calendar management concepts to try

White space and striving for a maker’s schedule work for me. Maybe this will work for you as well, but I encourage you to explore calendar management strategies further so you find the one you like best. In fact, your ideal time management system will probably blend or borrow from several of these, as mine does.

There are actually a number of terms that are related to my concept of white space, and they all involve setting aside time for different types of work. Here are some concepts and links to resources with more detail that you might find helpful:

Time blocking

This is not so different than what I do. It involves breaking your day into chunks by task or type of task. When you prioritize and organize your to-do list according to how you have set up these blocks, you will have a handy reference for how to use each block of time. This is similar to Michael Hyatt’s ideal week concept (there is more to the ideal week, but it involves time blocking and another concept known as day theming).

Task batching

This is about grouping similar activities together into blocks of time. It’s similar to time blocking, yet it involves not just prioritizing the white space as I’ve discussed, but also grouping (and, importantly, limiting) tasks like checking email to discrete blocks of time so they don’t become an endless drain on your time.

Day theming

Try this when you have the flexibility to spend an entire day on a given task or set of related tasks. Suppose you are a coach like me. Perhaps you assign days to coaching and days to administrative work. Or if you, like me, are working on a longer-term bucket-list project (more to come on this!), perhaps you assign a whole day or two to that. Michael Hyatt assigns days to his team, travel and long-term planning.

Time boxing

This is more about setting limits than allowing time. If you are in a role where meetings can all too easily consumer all your time, you will need to set some limits so you can get other things done. You may also find this helpful if you’re someone who will agonize over something far longer than is necessary. Set some boundaries. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time, but no more.

A time management system built for you

These are all just nebulous concepts if you don’t set up systems to bring them to life. So perhaps the most important suggestion I can share is to devote time to intentional planning of your schedule. Lots of things can feel important because someone is putting pressure on you, because you see the emails piling up, or for some other reason that really isn’t about you and your priorities.

It’s hard but critical to acknowledge the value of your creative time, your downtime and your administrative time. Then, you can make it happen by scheduling it, sharing your schedule with people who have influence over your schedule, and then improving what works and rearranging what doesn’t.

It may feel strange to seize control of your life in this way, but I promise it will make a difference, and it’s an essential step toward getting more of what matters most to you in your days and your life.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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