Calendar Construction

Based on all the positive feedback, I’m going to continue with the productivity theme this week. Once you’ve solidified a daily planning ritual and a comprehensive weekly review, the next place many of my clients turn to is their calendar itself.

Try this out. Take a moment and go look at your calendar for the week. Gaze at it in all its majesty. Take your time, I’ll wait.

What emotion are you feeling right now? Excitement? Are you energized? Or is your calendar stressing you out? Do you feel overwhelmed? When someone at work asks you how are you doing, do you say “Busy”? “Crazy Busy”? Most of the people I work with feel overwhelmed with meetings. Often, they find themselves playing Tetris with their calendar trying to figure out how they can cram one more 15-minute meeting into an overflowing schedule. When you add in remote work and Zoom fatigue it can be incredibly draining.

If this sounds like you, it’s probably time to remodel your calendar. I chose that term deliberately. This is not canceling a meeting here or there. This is tearing it down and rebuilding it from scratch the way you want it to be. Forget your existing calendar for the moment. If you had the power to move every meeting around to wherever you wanted, how would you design it? Consider the following:

  • How many blocks of uninterrupted “focus time” do you need in your week?
  • What do you want your “working hours” to be? What’s the earliest meeting you’d like to have? What’s the latest time in the day you’d have a meeting?
  • How many breaks do you need in a day? Where would you slot them? Do you have a dedicated break for lunch?
  • What’s your energy like in the morning? In the afternoon? What’s the best time for each meeting given your energy level?
  • Do you want to batch 1:1 meetings together on a single day or spread them throughout the week?

A word of caution – if you are in 6-8 hours of meetings per day right now, you will have a hard time giving yourself permission to block out as much time as you likely need to succeed. A coach can be a great asset here to challenge you as you walk through this.

Here’s how I optimized my calendar when I was a Product Management leader.

Even accommodating my 1:1s and my standing team meetings, that still left 20 hours for other meetings (and rest assured, that white space always filled up).

Of course, the next step is negotiating your current calendar with this new ideal calendar you’ve crafted. In their book Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky have a tactic they call “Bulldoze Your Calendar” (this is tactic 10 of 87). Imagine a mini bulldozer driving around your calendar freeing up the space you need. Moving some meetings over to other slots. Shortening some meetings. Even eliminating some. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to shorten a meeting or shift to accommodate your schedule.

If you can’t make this happen in the coming weeks, I invite you to jump ahead four weeks. While the near-term may be booked solid, when you start looking out four weeks or more, you probably have more flexibility. Draw a line in the sand and remodel your calendar starting at that point forward. You’ll be there before you know it.

While you’re bulldozing, you’ll need to put each meeting under a microscope. Some questions you should ask

  • Is this meeting a valuable use of time? Rate the value of each meeting on a scale of 1-5.
  • Should I be attending this meeting?
  • If not, why am I attending?
  • Do I need to delegate attendance to someone else?
  • Do I need to make sure the meeting owner publishes outcomes to people who need to be informed?
  • Is this meeting the right length of time? Can it be shortened? Can it happen less frequently?
  • Could this meeting be replaced with another mode of communication (Slack, Email)?

If you are ruthless in your evaluation, you will find a lot of opportunities for remodeling.

I found my 1:1s used to be focused on status updates, which weren’t a good use of our time. We moved that to a simple weekly status report which I read ahead of the 1:1. In our meeting, we spent five minutes on clarifying questions instead of 20 minutes having the employee report the status. We pivoted the bulk of our 1:1 conversation to mentoring and coaching and reduced the frequency from weekly to fortnightly.

I found a lot of meetings that had way too many participants. This was indicative of a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) culture – people felt they wouldn’t know what decisions were made unless they attended the meeting. Whenever I see this, I ask the leader to reboot the meeting limiting it to the required participants and commit to publishing decisions and action items from the meeting to everyone who wants to be informed. I ask them not to accept any additional participants who don’t need to be there but want to “listen in”. (Pro tip – Outlook has a setting now for a meeting invite where you can prevent participants from forwarding your invite to someone else).

The bottom line is this – you have a lot more control over your calendar than you think, but it requires courage, a willingness to say no and a touch of ruthlessness when you see bad meeting behaviors. The impact on your productivity and your sanity will be well worth it.

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