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Take Control of Your Calendar

If there is one thing that levels the playing field for every single human on the planet – it is time. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing, we all have exactly 24 hours in a day, sixty minutes in each hour, and sixty seconds in each minute.

What wildly differentiates us is HOW we use the time we have. Some of seem to accomplish much in the time we have, others seem to stall and flounder. Some of us seem to get much done, but in a frenzied way that compromises our relationships, our well-being and our enjoyment of life while others accomplish much more with grace and ease.

If time is truly our most important and fixed resource – how are you using yours? Are you spending time on the most important things? Or are your days consumed by things that won’t matter in five years – or maybe even five days?

The reality for me, and I suspect you, is that what I do day by day is driven by my calendar. It sets my pace, my focus and directs my day to day actions. However, there is qualitative difference between having your calendar serve you and your highest priorities and being a slave to a calendar that may or may not be helping you reach your biggest and highest priorities.

Your calendar is like your master plan. Is yours haphazard or totally unachievable? Or is there an underlying structure and rhythm to it? Are your day to day scheduled activities leading you somewhere or are you on a treadmill – running faster and faster while going nowhere?

Because our calendars provide the map for the days, weeks, months, and eventually years, it makes sense that how we manage (or don’t) manage our calendars has a dramatic effect on the quality of our lives, on what we are able to achieve, and our overall sense of well-being.

There are five key principles I’ve used to take control of my calendar so that it serves me.

1. I schedule the big things first.

At the beginning of each year I block time for things like family time, vacation time, and other big projects I want to tackle . It is far easier to schedule activities around your “big things” than it is to find a way to shoehorn them into a packed calendar. Even if I don’t know exactly where we are going on vacation, there are weeks blocked for that October vacation in January. If I wait until September to find a week in October for vacation, there is very little chance of getting away. If I have that time blocked far in advance, I can book my tickets and get away!

2. I schedule down time, family time and exercise time.

What is on my calendar gets done. What is not on my calendar gets deferred and delayed. So, while it may seem a bit hokey to schedule time for family, for exercise or for fun – it works for me. Even though I like the things I do to exercise, I find that if it is not scheduled, I am far more likely to fail at following through.

3. I block my calendar for future commitments as I make them.

At the beginning of every project I go through the work plan and put placeholders on my calendar for the major activities. For example, if I’m delivering a training session, I will schedule calendar time for not only the presentation, but the development, the review, the practice, the gathering up of the material and the follow up. Even if I don’t know the exact day and time I’ll be practicing the presentation, I do know that I’ll need a few hours before the delivery day to practice, so I add that to the calendar. That block of time is movable within the week if needed – but it is there, reminding me that I’ll need time that week to do that task.

4. I don’t allow others to hijack my calendar.

With email and electronic calendars comes the downside of others claiming your time, often without your permission. Even though some amount of this comes with working within an organization, that does not mean you have to fall victim to time snatchers. Learn to say no or delegate calendar invites that are not aligned with your top priorities. Have a discussion with your boss about the most important meetings for you to attend based on your priorities and get permission to decline those not in alignment. See if you can’t attend for only a portion of meetings in which you are not a central player. Even better, see if getting copied on the minutes can be a substitute for actual time in the meeting.  (Hint: Challenge One will help you immensely with doing this).

5. I schedule in buffer time.

I admit it, I am a “time optimist”.  I fall victim to thinking I can do so much in so little time. That everything will go perfectly and that the wind will be at my back. Unfortunately, life is messier than that. And so, I’ve learned over time to add buffer time to my calendar. And in doing so, my life is saner. I hit deadlines more consistently. And I move through my days calmer and more focused.

Regular driving time to a client site is 45 minutes? Schedule an hour. Think you can get this task done in two days; schedule two and a half days. Have a full day of meetings? Schedule them with half an hour in between to allow for meetings that run over, time to check email and time to physically move from one location to another (and perhaps take a bio break).

William Penn once said: “Time is what we want most, but what we use the worst.” Be that person who uses their time wisely. Who knows what is most important and puts together a plan accordingly. Who manages their calendar and by doing that manages their focus, their energy and over time, their results.

Challenge One: Get Real About Where You are Spending Your Time (30 minutes to evaluate)

What we deem to be important does not always get reflected in the way we spend our time. We say we value health; yet the time we allocate to exercise or rest always is the first to go when things are busy. We have a top priority at work but find only a few meager minutes to advance it forward.

Let’s start by getting clear eyed and sober about how you are actually spending your time, compared to the priorities we claimed in Step Two.

  1. Print out a copy of your calendar from the past 4 weeks and the upcoming 4 weeks.
  2. Find your list of priorities from Step Two.
  3. Highlight in green the times on your calendars spent in supporting your priorities.
  4. Highlight in yellow the time you spend doing things that may not be your top priority yet are still important to continue. It may be that 1 on 1 with your boss, customer visits, mandatory meetings, or community activities.
  5. Highlight in orange those activities that are neither contributing to your top priorities or fall into the “important to do” category.
  6. Patterns will immediately become obvious due to the color coding. Step back and look at the patterns of your weeks. Where do you have opportunities to less of things that are less important in order to do more of what really does matter?
  7. Take action: Do Challenge Two!

Challenge Two: Find and Block Time for the Most Important Things in Advance (30 minutes and then on-going)

In this challenge, you are going to take a firm stand to devote time to your most important priorities. To do that, you’ll clear your calendar of the trivial few to focus on the important few.

  1. Take a hard look at all the areas on your calendar highlighted in orange from the challenge above and reclaim that time. Eliminate (or greatly reduce the time spent) on these activities. Decline meetings. If you can’t decline – see if you can attend less frequently or ask exactly what part of the meeting you are truly needed for.
  2. Add blocks of calendar time for the next six weeks for your top priorities. Put a calendar hold so that others don’t schedule over it.
  3. Schedule in the things that are important but may not typically get scheduled on your calendar, like lunch or stretch breaks, exercise, thinking or family time.
  4. Make a commitment to yourself that if these appointments you’ve set for yourself get scheduled over, that you will move that time to another spot, rather than deleting it.

Chime in: What tasks have you moved from email to another, more appropriate tool? 

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