Sometimes it feels like our schedules happen to us. What seems like a relatively calm week on Monday gets jammed with meetings and phone calls by Thursday, and all of a sudden there's no time to do all the work we know we need to get done. Most often, it is the "important but not urgent" tasks like planning, relationship-building, and big-picture thinking that get squeezed out when schedules get tight. This can create the feeling that we are flying by the seat of our pants and not really attending to everything that needs our attention.
While none of us has complete control over our schedules (we must cede time to superiors, funders, and unexpected events), we could all find a little more wiggle room in our calendars if we practiced proactive, defensive scheduling. Here's how.
Time Blocking Block out time in advance for the important projects that you would otherwise neglect in the rush of everyday work. If you have a board meeting in six weeks, schedule two hours of prep time three weeks from now so that you don't find yourself scrambling to prepare the day before the meeting. If a conflict arrises, be sure to reschedule this time block as you would any other meeting.
Meeting with Yourself It's impossible to keep work flowing without stopping from time to time to step back, take stock, and course correct as necessary. Most of us will need to review our current work load weekly and take an even bigger-picture look every month or two. Schedule this meeting time with yourself -- a weekly hour or 90 minutes to review your current work, and a bi-monthly big picture check-in -- and then defend against all who would seek to impede upon this time.
Time Batching In any given week you may have work to do on 7 different projects. Rather than flitting around from task to task, project to project, give yourself chunks of focused time each day to work on a single project. Maybe on Monday you devote time solely to projects 1 and 5, Tuesday is all about project 2, Wednesday it's 3, 4 and 7, and so on. Rather than staring down 7 projects at once and scattering your attention amongst all of them, you will make significant progress on one or more project each day, adding up to a much more productive week.
Playing Nicely With Others Meetings scattered throughout the day and throughout the week can leave little solid time for at-desk work. To remedy this, set scheduling boundaries on meetings, such as: no meetings on Tuesdays, (or, all meetings on Tuesdays), no meetings after 3 PM, or only phone meetings on Friday. You won't be able to hold to these structures in all cases, but you will probably be surprised how much agency you do have once you start asserting your meeting boundaries.
Give Yourself A Break No more back-to-back meetings! After every meeting, you need time to capture, process, or reflect upon the outcomes of your last meeting before starting the next (if only for a few minutes). What's more, your body needs to stretch, eat, use the restroom, take a walk and generally renew itself after a period of intense focus. Give yourself 20-30 minutes between meetings to take care of these essential tasks. Otherwise, you risk losing ideas and actions generated in your last meeting and you compromise the quality of your attention going into your next meeting.
Say No Probably the #1 thing that you can do to defend your schedule and create more time for yourself is to simply say no. No to attending that meeting when your colleague could do so; no to that extra committee; no we cannot pursue this funding opportunity given our current workload. The incredible thing about saying no is how much it frees you up to do a better job at fulfilling the commitments you say yes to.
What are the biggest time-eaters in your schedule? What strategies do you use to defend your time?
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