This is the last in a series of scheduling- and calendaring-related topics. This one’s about my overall strategy of using scheduling as a tool to manage my time. Clearly, managing my time isn’t the same as managing my calendar, but managing the latter does help with the former. The essence of my strategy is this: I care about my time, but others care about my calendar, so I can forestall a lot of intrusions on my time by using my calendar intelligently. To do this, I block off time, keep an eye on how many meetings I’m in, schedule my work when I need to, and tell people how I prefer to use my time.
Blocking Off Time
When pressure on my time increases, I block off the time I need to keep a good balance and ensure I’m not too distracted. There are a couple of philosophies that go into this.
The first is schedule your work, not your interruptions. Most of the time, “work” is done in the blank spaces in peoples’ calendars, and the meetings are interruptions. But you can flip this around. If you’ve committed to produce a big chunk of work by next week, when are you going to get it done? Certainly not in half-hour chunks between meetings. Schedule it!
This isn’t always needed. Sometimes there isn’t a lot of demand on my time, and I don’t need to explicitly block off time so people won’t claim it. But at times that threshold gets crossed, and I block off time. Sometimes, to make a point, I’ll be pretty unsubtle about it.
Google Calendar used to have a feature that let you check a checkbox to auto-reject conflicting events during an appointment. I scheduled one of those when it’s time to go pick up the kids from school. They’ve since replaced this feature with “out of office” appointment blocks, which aren’t as good in my opinion. Either way, though, you can get the job done. Even if it’s just a big old NOPE appointment.
The second philosophy of balancing my time is finding the right amount of meetings.
I’ve found that the number of meetings on your calendar is directly, inversely proportional to your productivity on any given day. Teams hold more meetings when they don’t have enough important work to do otherwise.
Too many meetings is hectic and leaves too little time to settle and focus on work, but too few meetings isn’t great either. I don’t agree with the popular opinion that fewer meetings are strictly better. It’s been my experience that without enough interaction, people get misaligned and row in the wrong direction for too long without a course-correction. Meetings can also serve as a way to help people realize the overlapping work they’re doing that should be coordinated, and so on. So in fact, too few meetings can be highly inefficient. As someone once said (not sure who), “If you think meetings are expensive, try not having meetings.”
But it’s certainly the case that too many meetings is catastrophically bad for productivity. Take an 8-hour work day and schedule it like the following, for example:
That schedule represents 4 hours of meetings. There is basically zero chance I’ll do anything productive between them. This day’s schedule has literally reduced me to 50% productivity, if that. This is not a good use of my time.
People often aren’t happy with pushback when I try to defragment my schedule. “I’m trying to schedule something with four people, it’s the only time available.” Maybe so, but what that really means is that people are asking too much of me. It’s just not smart to fit in “more” at the cost of me actually being able to do a lot less. My response then is to tell people what I’m able to do and not, and ask to be uninvolved in some activities.
This might not be the same for all of my readers, but my daily reality for the last decade is that people always want me involved in most things that are going on in the company.
I’ve had to address this in different ways at different times. Sometimes it’s enough to say “I prefer to be unscheduled in the mornings,” and that takes care of most or all of it. Sometimes I have to block off my calendar. Sometimes I have to decline to be involved in particular things.
In all cases, it requires some patience and communication from all parties. Clear expectations are super helpful.
Take an hour lunch everyday. Especially remote working its easy to forget lunch (no social cues to go to lunch). Take a full hour. Its not just about eating, its about taking a break. I block off an hour every day for lunch and everyone knows I take it very seriously.
I hinted at this in the previous section, but I basically try to social-engineer people to pack my meeting times together so I can have larger blocks of focus time too. When I need to work on cognitive tasks, I’m most productive in the morning. Knowing this about myself makes it possible for me to reserve that time for work that needs it most. So I try to ask people to schedule meetings with me in the afternoon.
The more people that are involved, the lower the chance that we can all find times that work and leave each other (or just me) free to focus for long periods of time. There’s probably a way to analyze this mathematically with probability and prove it, but it’s pretty obvious. If I ask people to schedule things within only a few-hour block of time, it gets a lot harder much more quickly.
So it’s not always possible, but I’ve found that being polite and persistent about it, and helping people understand that if they really think I’m a valuable asset they need to stop reducing me to 3-4 hours of effective time per day, is pretty workable.
The next step in defragging your calendar is to make sure that not only are you not turning your day into Swiss cheese full of holes, but that you’re not switching between modes too much. I don’t have a lot of direct reports right now, but when I did, I tried to schedule all my 1:1s on the same day as close to each other as I could, because once I’ve gotten my brain into 1:1 meeting mode I need to keep it there and not switch it into, say, sales engineering mode. Lara Hogan has more to say on this, and it’s a good read.
Intolerance for People Who Disrespect my Time
My Scoutmaster, an ex-military fellow, used to say “it’s rude to be on time or late.” I try to be no more than a minute or two late to a meeting if I have any choice in the matter at all. Usually I try to be a minute early.
Time management isn’t just a matter of opinion, “let’s agree to disagree.” No. There’s actual right and wrong in time management. And some people don’t care much about my time, and especially about being on time for meetings. I have an extra-low tolerance for them.
There are punctual people and don’t-care people, and the punctual people are right and shouldn’t tolerate the careless ones.
The reason there’s right and wrong, and not just opinions, is that my time is not just my own. It’s shared. If you and I agree to be in a meeting, your time isn’t your own. Your time is my time too. Respect that objective truth and be on time.
There’s other things I could say on this topic—for example, the delicate dance of agreeing to meetings scheduled during times when I can’t be very certain about my schedule. (Depending on whether my spouse is delayed, I might have to go get the children from school even when I wasn’t planning to, for example.) But the essence of it, I think, is always about communicating expectations clearly and candidly regardless of the little details.
Kids at school, spouse late, overbooked, too many requests, someone’s late and thinks it’s okay—all of these problems have the same solution: tell people what’s going on and what you are able/willing to do, and use your calendar to help communicate and/or reinforce that as much as possible, and things get a little easier.