5 Ways to Prevent Your Calendar from Ruling YOU

There was an interesting take on how to optimize your time management published in Forbes yesterday. Anthony Wing Kosner comments on the book 99U called Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind and suggests that the early hours of a day are best left to the bigger tasks while you mind is fresh!

Of course it’s always great WHEN YOU HAVE A CHOICE on how you should plan you day.  I remember a few years ago my mum telling me that she went on an off-site time management course and struggled to see the relevance of the course for herself given that she was a PA at the time and her schedule was set by her boss.  In the real world I know many people face a diary that’s not set by themselves.  The era of Outlook shared calendars your working week can be filled even before it begins!  I remember particularly a week in June 2012 when on the Monday morning (a little like today) I turned to my Outlook calendar to find out that every day was committed to a series of meetings and quickly realized my list of things to-do simply wasn’t going to fit in.  I’d also committed to an off-sighter TODAY which meant I was already late.  Not a great start to my week.  All my own fault. My bad.

After that fateful day last year, I’ve been working much harder at getting my time management right.  But it’s not simply a question of planning to work all of the time.  Experts believe that we all have ‘cycles’ of performance – peaks and troughs – so you have to keep in tune

Here then are my ’5 of the best’ tips on HOW TO PREVENT YOUR CALENDAR FROM RULING YOU:

1. Take control of your calendar and ‘compartmentalize’ (but be realistic)

The very first thing to do is to accept that  your calendar is YOUR calendar: You set it.  If the schedule isn’t working for you, it’s your fault.  YOU accepted the meetings in it – accept your fate! It was pretty painful for me to accept that the silly obligations in my schedule were through my own bad management.  It’s sometimes difficult to ask the question of customers and colleagues – ‘So what’s this meeting about?’ or ‘Is this meeting completely necessary?’ or ‘Would it be better to have this meeting later?’ – those sorts of questions.  But if you want to take control of your calendar you simply have to make sure that you’re not walking into an off-site tea and cupcake meeting that serves no great benefit.

A method I use to make sure meetings and other activities don’t run over is to compartmentalize your calendar into time-slots so that you don’t let any particular activity extend simply because there’s nothing else in your calendar coming up.  For example, if I’m working on an article, I give myself half an hour to complete it.  If I extend beyond this time-slot then I question whether I pick it up later or carry on for another 30-minutes.  Similarly with meetings, explain to the participants that you have 30-minutes or 60-minutes and stick to it.  If they’re happy to spend their day talking that’s up to them – YOUR TIME IS PRECIOUS!!

All this sounds like a good plan but I’ve personally found the biggest challenge is to be realistic about what you can achieve in 30-minutes or an hour.  It’s no good getting lots of jobs ‘nearly’ finished.  Some tasks simply have to run their course and IF THEY ARE IMPORTANT you must allocate the time.  Get real!  You CANNOT cheat the clock and try to squeeze in big jobs in small time-slots.  All that will happen is the quality of your work will slip, colleagues will get frustrated with you and outcomes will not be met.  Being realistic about your time is a GOOD THING because it forces you to consider if a task is really worth the time you’re going to have to spend on it: If a task will take an hour or so to complete, is it REALLY that important?  Could it be done another way?

If you are struggling to organize your calendar because your boss or colleagues are dominating it, then have a chat with the to explain that you’re trying to get more time efficient in your role and see if they agree to be more thoughtful about booking your time.  I’ve found most people are extremely accommodating.  They probably hadn’t thought to deeply about how their bookings were impacting on your schedule.

2. Write down priority tasks 

Work out what the most important things are for you to achieve today that will make it into a good day and write them down.  Then make sure you book them into your schedule and do them first. It’s helpful to consider what few tasks could make a big difference to your day – solving a big technical challenge perhaps, overcoming an issue that’s creating conflict within a team, contacting your most important prospects and see if they’re ready to progress to the next stage – whatever it might be.  Even though these are YOUR TASKS and probably don’t involve others, don’t let them slide off your schedule or be pushed into tomorrow because, you said so yourself, these are your most important things to get done.

3. Plan to work harder in less time – and don’t fill up your margin.

There’s a natural instinct to keep working and working if you enjoy your job.  That includes missing lunch to tap away at your laptop or sliding into the 6ish, 7ish period before you scurry off. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking ‘If I allocate some of my personal time then I can get more done on this task’ because if you have more time to stretch into, I guarantee you will end up using it.  But kid yourself not, the time that you are investing is not a good investment.  What tends to happen when people work longer hours like this is that they work ‘less well’.  If you commit yourself to focused work in compartmentalized time-slots during the day, believe me, you will get more done and you will do it better.

4. Work out your personal productivity cycle

As human-beings we can’t work non-stop without a break and expect to maintain our highest level of performance.  Just doesn’t work that way.  We each of us has a cycle when we are best, good, and just plain okay.  For example, some people are early risers and others wake up later in the afternoon.  I know I’m rubbish first thing on a Monday morning.  Just can’t think particularly clearly.  At around 3ish on Monday afternoon – and right the way up to the late hours – I’m on fire. So why would I aim to schedule an important meeting at 8am on a Monday?  Looks ‘committed’ sure but I’d be useless then. If you know what your cycle is, tell your boss and share it with colleagues.  Let them know when you’re good and when you’re not.  Perhaps as a flexible worker you have the option to work when your top of your game and chill more when your not.  I find personally exercise works for me when my brain doesn’t want to work.  Therefore, I tend to exercise in the mornings!!  You know, some people believe they can be more effective when working 30-minutes on, 30-minutes off.  It’s never worked for me (perhaps it’s down to the sort of work that I do) but it might work for you! Try it!

5. Don’t be unnecessarily generous with your own time

If you like to be perceived as a nice and accommodating person then you might find yourself agreeing to meetings and places for meetings that are good for others but not so great for you.  This is particularly common with people in junior roles seeking to climb their career ladder by presenting themselves as ‘willing’. But spending most of your day travelling to meetings is not going to impress anyone. And participating in meetings and performing tasks that don’t directly contribute to your role outcomes will ultimately do very little to help your career progress. You can’t go to your boss at the next appraisal and say, “Do you remember that morning last January when I trucked over to Cardiff for an 8am meeting just because you asked me to?”.  They won’t remember.  What they will MEASURE you on are your outcomes.  Be thoughtful, committed and willing yes, but recognize that the best way to manage your calendar is for YOU to manage it.

You can find a quick presentation here to share if you like these points and want to share them.

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