Photo by Leticia Chamorro

The Sanctity of Your Calendar

I am currently on parental leave, so these days I wake up to the freedom of an empty calendar that’s ready to be filled with toddler train rides, visits to the pumpkin patch, and round after round of couch-snuggling. As this stretch of time at home with my family is so very limited, I am determined to cherish, to the very best of my abilities, the simple pleasure of every little moment.

This got me thinking about time — how precious it is, how it is the one thing we can never get more of. When I am not on leave, I am working, and when I am working, the greater portion of my waking hours are devoted to the pursuit of productivity, of creating something useful for the world.

There is always the sense that there is never enough time. Or maybe there is, but we spend it recklessly, paying large sums for little return only to find ourselves coming up short for what’s truly important.

Over the years, it has become clearer to me that there is no more challenging and worthwhile task than good time management. This is what productivity boils down to. For many of us in creative disciplines, we can start by reigning in the chaos of our work calendars.

Here are some of my most useful tips:

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.

One rule of thumb I love, proposed by Facebook design manager David Gillis, is that makers should aim to have at least six chunks of three-plus hours of uninterrupted work time on their calendar every week. This averages out to one three-hour block every day (either an entire morning or afternoon), plus a no-meeting day with two such blocks.

If a quick scan of your calendar reveals that you don’t have at least that much time to focus on making stuff, then you’re either not being very productive, or you’re working nights and weekends to fill that gap, which isn’t sustainable. This is a critical problem that must be solved pronto. Tell your manager, your PM, and your teammates that you don’t have enough time to work effectively during actual work hours, and ask for their help. Can team meetings be moved to just mornings or afternoons? Can everyone agree to a no-meeting day? Can you decline any non-essential meetings (see the next point)? It may feel impolite to ask, and in the past I struggled with this because it felt selfish to ask other people to rearrange their schedules on my behalf, but as a manager, I can tell you quite definitively that anybody with the term “manager” in their job description is highly incentivized to make sure the makers have enough time to actually make things. The team as a whole becomes more productive. End of story.

When you do get that block of time to work, treat it like it’s your grandmother’s heirloom jewels. Set clarity for what you want to accomplish. Don’t say “I’m going to explore this design solution” and then get waylaid by checking and responding to e-mails. Make sure you are in a comfortable work environment devoid of interruptions so you can really focus. Find a hidden nook away from your desk if that works better for you. Get your favorite beats queued up, turn off your notifications, and fuel up with a full stomach or some coffee or tea or La Croix at the ready. Minimize your distractions so it’s easier to get into the flow and get cranking.

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.

Then, I look at every single meeting of that week to make sure it belongs. If I’m invited to something and I don’t know what it’s about, I’ll shoot an e-mail to the organizer asking about the agenda. If I have a regularly scheduled 1:1 with somebody but I don’t have anything to discuss with them, I suggest we cancel for that week. If I have an important review or presentation, I block off some extra time the day before to prepare for it. And if there’s something on my mind that I want to resolve with someone, I ask if we can schedule some time that week to discuss.

Active calendaring takes effort, but it always give me a greater sense of control over week. If you find that you rarely add or decline events to your calendar, it’s usually a signal that you’re being too passive with how you’re spending your time.

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?

I’m by no means a meeting-hater, as I view them simply as a tool for communicating information to unblock decisions. But let’s be honest — we do spend a ton of collective time in meetings, and often not valuably.

What I’ve found is that there is a natural tendency to be reactive to meeting requests. A little blue rectangle suddenly shows up on our calendar, and we treat it as gospel. We decline other requests that come later. We end up not doing more important work. Why? There are a few reasons:

  • Not wanting to let someone down: if another person requests a meeting with you, you assume they must have a good reason for wanting to chat, and of course you want to be helpful to them. So you accept the request, even if you have more important things to do.
  • 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.

The above forces strongly influence our behavior towards meetings, but they aren’t always grounded in clear logic. We need to be more intentional. Here is my rule of thumb for meetings:

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?

To test against the second criteria, I ask myself whether I’d have everything I need if I read someone else’s notes about what happened at the meeting. If the answer is yes, then that’s a good signal I’m not learning much more by being there in person. On the other hand, if I anticipate asking a lot of clarifying questions, or if the issue being discussed is complex and subtle and I really need to understand the nuances to do my job well, I will attend even if I don’t expect to be an active participant.

If a meeting does not fulfill one of these two criteria, then I take it as a sign that maybe I don’t need to be there. It’s not always easy to decline —when I do, it can feel like an acknowledgement that my contribution isn’t important in that meeting. But think of it another way: your time is limited, so by freeing up that hour or two, you can now put it towards something more valuable. Our ego shouldn’t get in the way of that.

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:

  • Is there a clear agenda or purpose to the meeting? If not, suggest to the meeting organizer that she starts by getting everyone on the same page about what the group is trying to accomplish (i.e., make decision on X, share information about Y, etc.)
  • 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.

Other examples in this bucket are taking the time to nurture important relationships, getting mentored or coached, attending industry events, listening to speakers you admire, or simply doing more reading about what’s going on in your field.

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 same can be said of our time. Some things on my work calendar are there because I love doing them, because they resonate with me and give me energy. Examples are catching up with an old colleague over lunch, pitching in on a creative project, or giving a talk to students. Do I have to do these things? No. Are there other people around me who could do these things just as well or better? Yes. Are they the most important things I could be doing from the lens of What will be most impactful for my organization? No. Again, this is fine as long as it doesn’t interfere with the job we are hired to do, and we don’t confuse what we like with what is most important for the job and expecting to receive the same credit for both.

Ultimately, we are the wardens of our own time. And the struggle gets harder and harder, it seems, the older we get. When I return to work, it will be with a clear image in my rearview mirror of what I am giving up: tiny yawns and laughs, the scooping up of fall leaves in the driveway, the short baby days of my children.

When I look back over my weeks, months, and years in pursuit of making useful things for the world, I want to feel that the time I gave was well spent.

Continue on to Part II: a close examination of my own calendar and how I can better apply these principles.

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