by Jim Bruce
We began the Tuesday Readings for 2015 with a focus on being intentional, and followed that with an essay on practices and then, last week, on the art of saying “no.” Today we want to take a next step and turn to your calendar and being intentional about it. It’s been noted that you have a choice – either you control your calendar or your calendar controls you. I fear that too often it’s the later when really it should be the former. You really need to control your calendar to be an effective leader and be intentional about how you use your time.
Too many of us think our calendar is only a place to record the what, when, and where of our meetings. In reality, it needs to be a tool for planning and recording what work, and other activities, we will do and when, as well as our meetings. And, we need to get there first in our planning before other meetings and those requests for “just a few minutes of your time (right now)” make it difficult for you to schedule your own work.
To a very large degree, our To Do list controls, or should control, our calendar. As I noted last week, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, suggests that the typical mid-level manager, at any one time, spanning all aspects of his or her life, has 40 – 70 projects (a project being anything that takes more than one step to finish) and 150 – 200 next action steps. He also suggests that you should have a single To Do list that spans all the aspects of your life. That way it’s all in one place. Once you have the list, you can sort through it, breaking it into categories, and for the complicated entries add the action steps.
Jane Porte, writing recently in a FastCompany essay, said that it’s important to be clear about what the task is and where to begin. Tasks, and action steps, on your list need to be embarrassingly simple – not “meet with John” but “meet with John within the next 10 days to discuss the X project and his role with subtasks such as identify possible times for a one hour meeting with John, write a description of John’s role in the X project, send email to John describing the meeting you wish to have, including the suggested times, etc.” Yes, embarrassingly simple, but I cannot begin to say how many times I have been stopped dead in my tracks because I couldn’t get beyond the task heading because, for whatever reason, I had not broken the task down into the simple action steps. And, this includes my work on my projects, particularly those which continue across multiple days.
You also will want to think through what your objective is at the meeting, whether a one-on-one or with a group, and what results you expect to see. (More about this next week.)
So, the To Do list represents your commitments. To deliver on these commitments you schedule the work necessary on your calendar. Your practice becomes if it’s not scheduled for today, it won’t be done today. The difficulty often comes because we naturally wait until all sorts of activities, usually someone else’s meetings, have appeared on our calendar to find the time for “our work.” And, you find that there’s no time. That needs to change.
The major change that I have found to work is to devise a standard template for your workweek. I start my planning for the week with my template, which has remained relatively unchanged (except for the number of standing meetings) for about 25 years. I begin my day getting up and then, in no particular order, getting ready and dressing for work, physical and mental exercise, triaging my email, reviewing my calendar for the day, and asking myself what, if done well, will really make my day.
I take the time when reviewing my calendar to look not only at what I have planned for today but also at the remainder of the week and the following week as the end of the week nears. (This is when I consult my To Do list to make sure I’m making appropriate progress on my commitments.) Do I have all the material I need for the items on today’s calendar? Do I need to request specific information for today’s work or for work in the future? If so, I make those requests. And, I’m also aware of any adjustments to the day’s schedule that need to be made and make those changes.
For those who are familiar with Julie Morgenstern’s book, Never Check Email in the Morning, you may be saying, “he reads email in the morning?” No, I triage my email and that’s a very different thing. Overnight I will receive 40-60 email messages. Among them are three newspaper summaries, a dozen or so electronic newsletters from the Harvard Business Review, CIO, EDUCAUSE, etc., email from coachees and others that either ask simple questions or ask what I think about an issue, and a good bit of junk mail that makes it through the filters. Triage is a medical word that really has to do with sorting – separate patients in a facility with limited capacity into categories where their needs can be more easily and appropriately addressed. For example, individuals who need care now, individuals who will be just fine if treated with delay, and patients who are most likely not going to respond to any treatment, no matter when delivered.
For me and my email this translates into scanning the content with several simple rules and actions in mind:
1. Is this an email with a question that I know the answer to and can respond in a few minutes of less? If yes, answer the email, if no, it becomes a To Do.
2. If this is a newspaper, scan for articles of interest and read them at that time.
3. If this is a journal, scan for articles that look interesting and save the article either electronically or on paper for later reading. (This is the source of much of my material for these Tuesday Readings.)
4. If this email contains information for a project I am working on, file the information in the project file.
Sometimes my triage will uncover urgent items that need to be addressed immediately and that may derail all or part of the rest of my day, but not often either when I was CIO or now.
Today, I have few standing meetings. But, that wasn’t the case in my past and I’m sure that it’s not yours today. Since our brains like habits, I prefer standing meetings to be scheduled at the same time each week or month, etc. Getting these meetings on the calendar along with time to prepare for them is important and sets important boundaries for your day.
Next, you want to identify times on the calendar when you can do your work, the activities that you have listed on your To Do list. Depending upon your role, I suggest that between 25 and 50% of your time should be devoted to this purpose. As you assign time to different activities, indicate the particular activity and each of the subtasks you plan to do in this block of time. You do this for at least two reasons: Having the particulars in your calendar makes it much easier for you to get started. And, if you have identified what you are going to work on, it makes it psychologically difficult for you to not work on it.
When you are at the point of using your template, you’ll want to remember several important research results. Most likely you can remain tightly focused for only about 90 minutes at any one time. So, find a natural stopping point in those long tasks and take a break. Do something for even 5 to 10 minutes that gets you focused on something else to give your brain a rest. And, while I’m writing about breaks, take a lunch break. Get up from your desk, change the venue, go get a bite to eat, take a walk, etc. It will increase your productivity.
As you are scheduling your tasks, you’ll first single out the tasks that you will do on a particular day and then you’re faced with the question of which one first. It makes a difference. Most people say put your most difficult task where you have the most energy. For many people that means do it first. And, if you’re working on a major task and need to stop before you finish, find a logical stopping point and write some notes about what to do next. This will make restarting the work much easier.
There are three more things you need to add to your template. Most managers and leaders are plagued by interruptions during the day. University faculty members solve this by identifying “Office Hours” when students can drop by without a specific appointment. Marisa Mayer, president and CEO of Facebook, when she was a vice president at Google, took this one step further hanging a small dry erase board outside her door where people who needed to see her that day could schedule the number of minutes they needed in that day’s office hour. I think that this would work for many and suggest you consider giving it a try, perhaps starting with one or two hours a week until you see how it will work.
Second, to keep you from constantly fighting the urge to look at your email, schedule a specific time when you’ll catch up on email. Perhaps one in mid-day and one at the end of the day. Move away from being tied to being current on your email all the time.
The final item I suggest you have on your template is a time at the end of your day when you reflect on how the day went, the implications of the day on your meetings and work in the coming days, and to answer whether you did the task you said would really make my day well. If you did, you can leave the office with a smile on your face and a bounce in your step.
With your template in place, you can proceed to add meetings with others, events, etc. to the calendar knowing that time for your personal work has been protected. As time for these other activities gets added, do regularly review these additions to make sure that you’ve added any time necessary for preparation for the activity and for travel, whether across your campus or across the country, before the event.
I believe that putting a system along the lines I’ve outlined here in place, will significantly improve your week and permit you to get more of your work done.
Do let me know your experiences if you give it a try. . . . jim
1. Jane Porter, “Why Our Brains Love Lists and How to Make Better Ones,” <http://www.fastcompany.com/3040420/why-our-brains-love-lists-and-how-to-make-better-ones>
2. Eric Barker, “How to Be the Most Productive Person in Your Office – and Get Home by 5 pm,” <http://theweek.com/articles/444385/most-productive-person-office–still-home-by-530-pm>.
3. “10 Common Time Management Mistakes,” <http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/time-management-mistakes.htm>, MindTools.com
4. Natalie Houston, “Commit to Your Calendar,” <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/commit-to-your-calendar/58057>, ProfHacke Blog, The Chronicle of Higher Education.
5. Ron Friedman, “How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day,” <https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-spend-the-last-10-minutes-of-your-day>, HBR Blog Network.