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Your Daily Calendar …

| February 6, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… Your Path to a Successful Day


The January 16th Tuesday Reading, Leveraging Practices, by Brian McDonald introduced the concept of a practice – “a bridge to help individuals travel from having aspirations to become better, to actually developing the new skills and behaviors to enable her or him to be more effective.  Practices are the means to the new level of competency we foresee for ourselves … A practice is a specific, conscious, action that helps an individual change their way of achieving a goal.  Like in arenas other than leadership – for example, sports, music, dance, science, design, computer programming, etc. – consistent practice builds competence and confidence.  Practices enable you to become conscious of your behaviors and choose a new action.  Through this process, you change, grow and become your next self on life’s journey.” 
The essay urged us all to have a weekly planning practice that calls for each of us to spend 30-60 minutes each Friday afternoon (or Monday morning) identifying our top three to five priorities for the next two weeks.  As part of this work, each individual is expected to identify those actions he or she needs to take (or delegate) to move these priorities forward.  As you do this you will also need to turn to your calendar and schedule time to work on each of these priorities.  This is also a good time to look ahead to identify meetings already on the calendar that can be delegated or where there is no need for you to attend, or meetings for which you need to prepare.  
So, it’s now Monday morning and you are ready to begin your day.  Quite likely, your calendar has changed since you last looked at it, even hours or a day ago.  Possibly, in this world of cloud-based calendaring, someone may have added a meeting to your calendar without checking with you first, or requested a meeting, or perhaps you got a txt message requesting a short phone call, etc.  You may also have a long list of To Do’s that need to somehow be accommodated in this or the coming days.  So, before you jump into “doing” the day, you will need to pause to do a careful review of your calendar for the day, plus your To Do list, plus those things you have stored in your mind to do today.
Before you begin this task, a daily calendaring practice, I want to introduce several elements in your day and suggest processes that you might find helpful in addressing each one of them:

  1. Times for Focused Work  –  As part of your Weekly Planning Practice, you identified several top priorities for the week.  Each of them will require focused time.  When I first became a senior leader at MIT, I realized that I needed to gain control over my calendar.  If I didn’t own how my time was consumed, everyone else would control what I did, and I wouldn’t have time to pursue my high priority tasks.  My first step in this act of taking control was to reserve Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, from when I arrived on campus until noon, for me to work on my priorities.  (This usually gave me about 10-12 hours per week.)  Although I had never heard of either Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi1,2 and his concept of “flow” or Cal Newport3 and his concept of “deep work,” I was actually applying their principles to get my work done.  (I discussed this in the July 25, 2017 Tuesday Reading, “Our Busy, Busy, Busy Brains!”).  

    You will need to do something similar to have time always available to work on your priorities.  It should be the first thing that goes on your calendar.  Perry Brunelli, who participated in the second cycle of the Leaders Program, called this preemptive calendaring and urged his fellow participants to find a pattern of regular time blocks and hold them each week so that you have landing places for your high priority work.  Surely, you can find one block of two hours on your calendar one day this week to begin this practice.  And, if you look at your calendar  into the future, you’ll be able to regularly capture multiple blocks of unscheduled time in the same weekly pattern on your calendar (so everyone can see the pattern of what you are doing and learn to respect your reserved time slots).  As a goal, you’ll may find that having 25% of your week available for your priority work is a reasonable use of your time. 

  2. Concerning Meetings  –  Being a leader usually means you have lots of meetings.  It’s very natural to simply mark the meeting time on your calendar.  However, the actual meeting is only a part of your time commitment associated with that meeting.  You need time to get to the meeting room and return to your office.  And, if you subscribe to the philosophy that if you arrive less than five minutes early, you’re late, you need to leave even earlier.  (Many find the time just before and just after meetings “prime” time for initiating and building relationships with other meeting attendees, or for having short conversations with them about issues of concern.)  And, whether you are responsible for part of the agenda or a participant in the meeting, you will need some time to prepare.  That time commitment also needs to be placed on your calendar as well.  So, when you add a meeting to your calendar, make sure that you include time for all of the meeting’s parts.
  3. Everything on your calendar – I’m a firm believer that everything you plan to do today needs to be written into your calendar when you do your daily morning review.  So, include times for your breaks after any concentrated period of work, like those when you focus on your priorities;  times to review and respond to your email;  times to act on To Dos you choose to act on today;  etc.  The goal here is to capture, on your calendar, all of what you are committed to do this day.  This way at the end of the day you are much more likely to be able to congratulate yourself on a successful day .  As you get better at your planning, you’ll be able to “right-size” your daily plan to better fit what you expect to accomplish to the time that is available.

    And, one final thing:  Place a block of time at the end of your day for concluding your work for the day.

  4. Ending your work day – Last September, in the Tuesday Reading A Practice for the End of Your Work Day, I presented a practice, based on the work of Cal Newport, for ending your day’s work.  There I wrote: “Neuroscience research has demonstrated that if we stop our work on a task before we have completed it or if we have mentally begun tasks that we anticipated completing in the current work session, there will be ‘hangover effects.’  I.e., our thoughts on these projects will work to get our attention throughout the remainder of the day and evening, sometimes even making it more difficult to get to sleep.  If, however, you make a plan for completing those tasks, e.g., giving them priority by scheduling them on your calendar for tomorrow or sometime in the future, the hangover effect will be significantly diminished.”   

    This practice has three steps:  First, shut down and stop every incomplete task.  Identify where you are in the task and what your planned next action is, so that you can return to that point when you resume your work on that particular task.  And, look into the future on your calendar and determine when you will continue this work.  Second, make a final pass through your calendar for the current day and To Do list to make sure that there is nothing urgent there that requires immediate attention.  And, third, announce to yourself that the workday is done.  Turn the lights out and depart.

I know that the process I’ve outlined for planning each day at the beginning of the day and for working through that day may seem confining, perhaps even excessive in detail.  However, if you really follow these practices each day, you will find that it is actually liberating.  It leads you to define the beginning and end of your day, to recognize exactly how much work you can get done in a day, and to become more conscious of your need to be deliberate in deciding what you will do, what you will delegate, and what you will say “no” to.  I think that it will enable you get to a better place. 
As with all practices, you may need to work on it one part of the Daily Calendaring Practice as a time, giving yourself the time you need for it to become an effective habit before adding another step.  However, do give it a try as you make this week great. 
.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, July 2008.
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the secret to happiness, TED2004, filmed February 2004.
  3. Cal Newport, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Hachette Book Group, January 2016.  (See animated book summary here and text summary here.)