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Photo by Leticia Chamorro

The Sanctity of Your Calendar

Julie Zhuo
Oct 6, 2016 · 10 min read

Schedule enough large chunks of time on your calendar to focus on the work.

If your primary job is as a maker (i.e. designer, engineer, writer, scientist, etc.), it’s critical that you have long, uninterrupted blocks of time in your day to get into the flow of creative problem-solving. You can’t do that if your day is 80% meetings, or if your meetings are scheduled such that you don’t get more than half an hour here and an hour there to actually do your work.

Go through your calendar at the beginning of every week, and write out your top 3 priorities.

The single most effective thing I’ve found to help me plan my time intentionally is to block off 30 minutes every Monday morning to study my calendar. I start by identifying the three most important things I want to accomplish that week, and I make sure there is time blocked out for those things.

Question if you truly need to be at this meeting.

When I ask people what the biggest drag on their time is, the top answer is always “meetings” — there’s too many of them, they’re inconveniently scheduled, they’re inefficient — really, why do we even have meetings?

  • Feeling a sense of identity or inclusiveness: if a meeting feels like a “team meeting,” you feel like you *should* be there, lest other people think you aren’t committed to the team.
  • Wanting to be in-the-know: if a meeting looks significant (senior leadership is in the room, a big decision is about to be made, you’re curious about how the discussion will go), it’s natural to want to be there, even if you aren’t really an active participator. This is especially true if the outcome of the meeting is something that will affect your work.

You should attend a meeting when: a) you believe your presence will change the outcome in a leveraged manner, or b) you will be much more effective as a result of being there.

To test against the first criteria, I ask myself whether I am an active participant in the meeting. Do I speak up and contribute, or am I just sitting in the sidelines? Do I have a strong point of view about this topic? Is there someone else who can represent my point of view just as well or better? Will something be done less effectively if I’m not there?

Ask if the meeting can be made more efficient.

Sometimes, a particular meeting series will be important for you to attend, but you get the feeling that it’s not run in the best manner. Maybe an hour is allocated when there are typically only 30 minutes of useful content, so people talk in circles to fill the rest of the space. Maybe the group regularly ratholes on finding solutions to problems when it would be better to use the time to just identify the issues and who should solve them offline. Maybe the meeting goes through five streams of work, but only one of them matters to you, so you spend the other 50 minutes on your phone. Even if you are not the meeting organizer, your time and energy gets affected by inefficient meetings, so it’s important that you provide feedback on what might make the meeting better. Some things to consider:

  • Are there unengaged people in the meeting? The larger the meeting, the more expensive it is, and therefore the higher the quality bar needs to be. At the same time, the larger the meeting, the more likely that some folks in the room will find the meeting (or some portion of it) irrelevant and tune out. For regular meetings that I run or attend with more than 5 people, I tend to be much more critical of how useful and efficient the meeting is. More than 80% of the attendees should find the meeting useful and well-run. If a bunch of them are on their phones or computers doing other work, that’s a good signal the meeting should be revamped.
  • Can a big meeting be split into smaller and more focused meetings? For example, if there is a “weekly team sync” that discusses engineering and design issues over the course of an hour, but the engineers don’t really need to be there for the design portion, and vice versa, you’re better off with a “weekly design sync” and a “weekly engineering sync” with just the relevant folks. A PM or manager may have to go to double the meetings, but the team as a whole will get more time back.
  • Is the discussion in the meeting going off-track? Going back to what the agreed-upon agenda was, if you find the discussion veering off to a less important tangent, gently remind the room to get back on track. Useful lines here include: 1) Hey, we only have 10 minutes left, and we still have some things left to discuss… 2) We’re on a interesting tangent right now; can we talk about that next time and get back to talking about X today? 3) Before we leave this meeting, are we clear on what the next steps are?

Create time for learning and inspiration.

Not everything that is important is urgent, and there is no better example of this than taking the time to invest in ourselves. Consider the notion of a multi-day training course. When these types of things creep up on my calendar, they often feel like an annoying houseguest. I’m constantly thinking of all the urgent things I can’t do that week because I’m going to be busy for two days. However, after I take the course, I’m usually supremely grateful that I did. If the training makes you even 1% more effective in your job over the next year, it will be worth the 2 days spent.

Be conscientious of which things you are doing because you love it, and which you are doing because it is important.

We know eating salads is healthy and eating cookies is not. And yet, we are only human; we give in to the sweet tooth from time to time. That’s cool. I’ll never tell you that you should avoid all cookies. But let’s also not pretend like eating cookies is the most efficient path to health. The key, to use the cliche of food commercials everywhere, is “a balanced diet.”



The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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