Taking Control of Your Calendar: Best Practices
Planning your work is essential to ensure that what needs to be done gets done. The calendar is your primary tool for planning daily activities, and taking control of it ensures you have the time necessary to execute your plan.
It is well known that if you don’t take control of your calendar, others will. You will get a never-ending stream of invitations to meetings, quick syncs with colleagues, educational events, and many other activities. And at the end of the week, you will realize that you barely accomplished half of what you had planned — if you’re lucky.
That said, being efficient at managing your calendar is one of the critical factors for success in your role. In this article, we will discuss the best practices for taking control of your calendar. Regardless of whether you’re using Google Calendar, MS Outlook, or a different solution, most of our recommendations are universal.
Put blockers on your calendar
One of the critical components of taking control of your calendar is inserting blockers to reserve the time for various activities. This gives you time to execute your plan and hit your short-term and long-term goals. So, what types of blockers should you start with?
- Events and meetings
Review all the meetings you need to attend during the week/month: global all hands, team meeting, 1:1s with your manager or team members, and any others. Block out time for them to make sure that you’re not double-booked. Having a bird’s-eye view of the total number of meetings on your schedule may lead to a re-evaluation of whether you actually need to attend all of them in the first place.
- Focus time
Obviously, work is not all about meetings — you need to have the time to execute your individual responsibilities. It’s a good idea to create relatively long blockers for focus time. Regardless of the type of activities you engage in, focus time blockers ensure you can focus without distraction. Make sure you stand your ground when someone tries to book something during your focus time. Communicate clearly that this is not a simple filler but mission-critical to focus on your top priorities. Only allow time to be taken from these blockers in exceptional cases. As I wrote in my article, “Top 5 Time Management Practices I Implemented Into My Life” [link], it has been proven that switching between different types of activities requires effort and wastes time. It is recommended to group similar tasks in buckets and do your best to conquer them in one go. This is also something I recommend doing during the focus time slots on your calendar. Examples of such activities may include conducting cold calls, analyzing your book of business, reviewing your team members’ statistics, clearing your email inbox, etc.
- Public holidays, vacation. and other non-working days
While this is something that may seem obvious, many people (including myself from time to time) forget to block out non-working days on their calendars. As a result, certain critical meetings may land on these days and, in some cases, it could be difficult to reschedule them. This could put initiatives at risk of a delay or require you to work on days off, which does not contribute well to a healthy work-life balance.
Reserve time slots thoughtfully
It can be very tempting to schedule standard one-hour blockers for all types of different activities. However, that approach limits you to eight activities per day maximum. That said, it’s important to evaluate the amount of time required for different activities and use different blockers for each.
For example, I use three types of blockers: 15-minute, 30-minute, and 50-minute. Every time I need to engage in a certain activity, I make an educated guess on how much time would be required to perform it based on my previous experience and common sense. Having a clear understanding that I only have 15 minutes for a certain meeting helps to make a better use of that time.
Yes, sometimes it leads to a decrease in small talk, but in the end, it’s all about results. With the efficient use of time, the results are usually there. In some cases, you can be wrong and more time is required for a meeting or to perform a certain activity. If it becomes a trend, make sure that next time, you choose a longer slot for such activities.
Use color coding for different event types
Color coding enables you to distinguish different categories of work from each other and prioritize what’s more important. When you look at your work day in the calendar and see a wall of events one after another, it may sometimes be challenging to recall what each meeting is about. Color coding helps here.
For example, I use yellow for all client meetings, green for internal meetings and 1:1s, purple for analytical work, and blue for focus time. This allows me to quickly understand the structure of my day and prepare properly for my tasks. For example, 1:1s and client calls require preparation, while focus time does not. Color coding events does not require a lot of time, and I consider it a very efficient practice.
Set up reminders and notifications
During the day, we’re often overwhelmed with notifications from social media, email, websites, and other sources. They tend to merge in the never-ending flow of updates that we eventually learn to manage with a moderate level of success, only paying attention to the most important ones.
Most calendars today allow you to set up reminders for yourself and choose when you will receive them. I usually set two types of reminders: the regular ones that notify me about a calendar event 10 minutes before it takes place (a default setting in Google calendar) and the ones I set up manually to notify me one hour before certain critical events. The former simply helps me to stay on track during the day. Should a meeting take longer than usual, I get a memo 10 minutes before its end on what’s up next and whether it would be possible to stay longer or continue the conversation later.
I use the latter for mission-critical activities to ensure I have time to prepare for the event, find the necessary information, drive to the office, etc. I enabled calendar notifications on all my devices — from phone to Apple Watch — to make sure that regardless of what gadget is closest to me, I stay on top of the important stuff. I disabled notifications for most apps on my phone, so I do not get bombarded with never-ending notifications from other sources.
Set up meeting events thoroughly
Another recommendation that falls into the “small but useful” category — always do a good job setting up meeting events on the calendar. Add the meeting agenda, attach any relevant documents, and insert the Zoom/Google Hangout/MS Teams link. Yes, adding the link directly during the meeting will only take a moment. But you’ll be surprised how much team members’ time can be wasted waiting for the host to add the link, attach a file, or open the document. This is a relatively easy and small habit to build, so I strongly recommend starting today if you aren’t doing it already. Also, if certain meetings take place regularly, convert them to recurrent events so that you don’t have to set them up every time.
Do not accept meeting invites blindly
Unfortunately, it’s not always the case that you’re asked in advance whether you would like or would be able to participate in a certain meeting. Some people tend to send you invitations without any further notice. I do not consider blindly accepting these invites a good practice. Should such a situation occur, I always reach out to the person and ask three questions: What is the planned agenda, what are the expectations from my side, and is my presence really needed?
I’ve had quite a lot of situations where, after a brief message exchange in Slack, it became obvious that the meeting was 100% irrelevant for me due to the specifics of my team’s business processes. There are exceptions to this rule should my manager request a meeting, but she always shares the agenda in advance, so I have a clear understanding of what we’re going to be discussing.
Create buffers if you see that several meetings in a row have been scheduled
I’ve been playing with several calendar automation tools for a while (such as Calendly) and have to say that, in general, they can be helpful. However, I still haven’t figured out a more efficient way of calendar management than a combination of automated and manual approaches.
Many meetings fall on my calendar from Calendly. I need some blockers to prepare for these meetings and to schedule bathroom breaks. However, putting these blockers on your calendar in advance limits the options for people who need to meet with you. Imagine how frustrating it would be if an important client was ready to sign a big deal but couldn’t find a convenient slot on your calendar because all the convenient times were already blocked. You might’ve been more than happy to move some of these blockers if you had known beforehand.
This is why I don’t put blockers between meetings or calls in advance but established a routine of reviewing my calendar several times daily. Should I notice that several meetings have been booked in a row, I immediately put a blocker after or between them where applicable. This allows me to be flexible for the stakeholders I’m engaging with, but at the same time, I maintain control over my schedule.
As calendar services develop, more and more best practices will emerge. I’ll make sure to share more findings as I continue to work on my calendar discipline.