Take control of your calendar

Flow, Howto

Monday morning arrives. You wake up and think “I have a lot to do this week”. You get ready for work, have some coffee, and brace yourself for the week ahead. Last night, you looked at your calendar and prepped for a meeting with your boss, which makes you feel a little better. However, you also missed your kid’s bedtime because you were working. There must be a better way!

Imagine a world where you can disconnect from work on the weekends, you are confident you are working on the right things, and you drop into flow for multiple hours every day, getting more done than you ever have before. And, it’s fun…

Well, you can do it using proven habits and systems in this guide. This guide provides a practical approach to managing your priorities and your time for maximum positive impact for you and your business.

Step #1 – Where do you want to spend your time?

Would you like to spend more time with your family? Would you like to spend more time with customers? Would you like to spend more time on personal development? Make a list of the high-level categories where you want to spend the most amount of time. Here’s a starting point:

  1. Personal: family, growth, exercise, learning
  2. Customer: lead generation, sales, customer success, on-boarding
  3. People: 1:1s, team all-hands, stakeholder relationship building
  4. Projects: moving projects and goals forward with teams
  5. Flow Time: deep work, strategy, individual contributor stuff
  6. Free Time: open for new things

Put the percentage of your time that you would like to spend, during the workweek, on these categories. Family time and personal growth should be included during the work week, not just nights and weekends.

  1. Personal: family, growth, exercise, learning (10%)
  2. Customer: lead generation, sales, customer success, on-boarding (20%)
  3. People: 1:1s, team allhands, stakeholders (20%)
  4. Projects: moving projects and goals forward with teams (10%)
  5. Flow Time: deep work, strategy, individual contributor stuff (20%)
  6. Free Time: open for new things (20%)

Step #2 – Where are you spending your time?

Does this calendar look familiar? Many working professionals live by their calendars. Meetings, projects, team catch-ups, client discussions… you name it. If you’re in high demand, your calendar may be booked with back-to-back meetings all day, or, even double-booked. Many high achievers plan their lives a month or more in advance, and they dance to the rhythm of their calendars:

Beware of the empty calendar! It may seem like freedom and like you will be incredibly productive, but your actual results may surprise you! If you find yourself with a lot of free space that is unstructured, it can be difficult to make progress against hard goals. It might be hard to know where to start. You might fritter away an entire morning on non-critical administrative work like doing the dishes, cleaning out your inbox, or filing an expense report instead of solving the hard problem that is blocking your business from moving forward. Some structure, paired with clear goals (for another blog), can beat an empty calendar most days.

So, how do we sort this out? Well, you can color code or annotate your calendar to easily see what is going on…

Color-code the events in your calendar into your chosen categories to visually see where you are spending time. When I started doing this, it revealed I was heavy on projects, which didn’t align with my customer-focused preference. The color coding allowed me to “read” my calendar in a new way, which then allowed me to be in control of it. 

if you are unable to differentiate colors, use characters in the meeting title to help you visually map your calendar (asterisks, numbers, keywords, etc.). Avoid “*”, #”, or other common characters since you won’t be able to search them. Use “AR:” for active recovery or “PRJ:” for project, etc. to quickly count up how many hours you are allocating to a given priority. One limitation is that you are not able to change someone else’s calendar in this way but you can request them to do so. Color-coding does not require someone else’s permission, it just shows up on your calendar. 

Either approach enables you to visually see, weeks in advance, where you are ACTUALLY spending your time and compare it against where you WANT to be spending your time. 

This will be an eye-opener – add up the hours you are spending in each category and divide by your weekly working hours to get the percentages. Average this over several typical weeks:

  1. Personal: family, growth, exercise, learning (10%)  
  2. Customer: lead generation, sales, customer success, on-boarding (20%) ACTUAL 10%!
  3. People: 1:1s, team allhands, stakeholders (20%) ACTUAL 10%!
  4. Projects: moving projects and goals forward with teams (10%) ACTUAL 30%!
  5. Flow Time: moving projects and goals forward by myself (20%)
  6. Free Time: open for new things to come in (20%)

If you are anything like me when I started doing this, my perception was way off. I thought I was spending lots of time with customers, but actually wasn’t. I was spending way more time on projects and administrative work and not nearly enough on 1:1s and customers. Once you see where you are actually spending your most valuable resource, you can make changes.

Step #3 – Simplify and Schedule the perfect week

Now, it’s time to put your money where you mouth is – if you are spending 40% of your time on projects and 0% on your own learning and development, it’s time to make a change. In my case, I was spending too much time on projects and not enough on customer and people so I eliminated, delegated, and simplified my project meetings. I delegated key meetings to leaders on the team who would grow from the experience. We turned 1 hour meetings into 30 minute meetings. We turned 30 minute meetings into dashboards to find more time. To free up time, simplify, eliminate, delegate, or automate: 

  • Do not underestimate the power of delegation, simplification, elimination, and automation. If something is no longer serving you, get rid of it! 
  • Do not sacrifice active recovery time – energy is the other resource you can manage through the week. See Put your Oxygen Mask on First for more details on active recovery.
  • Do not sacrifice free space – free space creates resilience, lowers cognitive load, and increases responsiveness.
  • Almost every organization would benefit from looking at their current meeting and decision-making architecture.

So, imagine your calendar looks like this instead. You’ve got free space for yourself and it is scheduled with the same importance as everything else. You can quickly see where you’re spending time, whether it is with customers or your team or on projects.  The idea is simple – you have 40-ish hours a week for work. How are you going to use those 40 hours? You have a time constraint but you are not constrained in strategy or execution ability. Use the calendar as your tool to make sure you are committing to the right things at the right times.

Notice a couple things on this calendar:

  1. Yellow – You can visually see where you have breaks to take care of yourself personally – active recovery, lunch, running errands, etc. each week.
  2. Dark Green – You can visually see how much time you have to actually get work done. You need at least an hour, ideally 90 minutes or more, to really get into deep work every day.
  3. Green – You can visually see how much time you are spending with customers. Note, if you are not in a customer-facing role, then you might consider replacing this with stakeholder – your internal customers. 
  4. Violet – You can visually see how much time you are spending with people – your team, your direct reports, your stakeholders building relationships and trust. 
  5. Blue – You can visually see how much time you are spending on projects providing opportunities for automation or delegation.
  6. Blank – There is open space for incoming, urgent activities, or, just time to daydream!

If your calendar is largely out of your control, then control what you can. I recommend starting with active recovery and flow time. Protect the space you do have control over in order to maintain energy and have time to deep work.

Spend some time reallocating your time to those things that you want to do. Based on my work with hundreds of high performers, this typically takes a couple months before the allocations settle. Expectations have to be reset, training has to occur, automation has to be built. Don’t worry if your calendar is still a mess, the idea is to generally move in the direction you want to move.

Bonus tip – create a startup sequence and a shutdown sequence to book-end your workday. A startup sequence enables a transition period to work and the shutdown allows you to lessen cognitive load before transitioning to personal life.The space between the startup and shutdown will serve as a liberating constraint – your brain will be constrained in time but will be freed in creativity, execution, and strategy. During my shutdown, I review and reorder my backlogs (for another blog), close off completed tasks, dump my working memory, and physically close my laptop. I transition my day by getting in the car and picking up my son from school. Scheduling this time into your calendar as “busy” time (which it is), you will avoid people clobbering your calendar with meetings as you are picking your kids up!

Step #4 – Use the Friday Afternoon Strategy Hack

So, now that you’ve got your strategy in place and are color-coding or annotating your calendar – you’re executing your work week with a clean calendar that’s well prioritized. How do you maintain it? That’s where the Friday Afternoon Strategy Hack comes in. This is a habit and practice that will help you prioritize your purpose, consistently, week after week, so that you continue to roll up hill against your goals.

Every Friday afternoon you’re going to check in on your calendar, using these questions to guide you. You’ll notice some of the questions prompt you to check in with your energy to make sure you are able to perform when you need to. If you aren’t careful, your breaks may be spent on your phone, which may lead to working overtime, so it’s really helpful to get in this habit of a weekly check-in to be sustainable inpractice. This will keep you honest to the things that you want to do. Other questions will keep you honest about working on the thigns that truly move your business forward to help you stop with busywork, administrative tasks, or meetings that do not serve your most important goals.

Fridays are an excellent time to do this – we tend to have fewer meetings on Friday, freeing up space for strategic thought. We may be a little tired or day dreamy on Friday afternoons which is perfect for strategy. Remember the Inspiration Paradox? We can be more creative when we are tired. By doing this on Friday afternoon, we can enter the weekend knowing that our next week is primed for productivity. We can drop into flow-ey execution first thing on Monday morning and not think about it over the weekend.

When your competitors are deciding where to go for happy hour, you are strategically out-maneuvering them. 

Download a printable version of the “Friday Afternoon Strategy Hack” here.

Wrap up

Time is the most valuable resource you have.

Where we spend our time determines the quality of our lives and how much impact we will have.

You have the power to take control of your calendar right now. You can do it. Simplify, delegate, automate, or eliminate as much as you can. Then, block out the time for active recovery and deep work. Then, allocate the remaining time to your chosen categories. It works because you will work on your highest priorities, have energy to sustain the week, and still have space to respond to incoming issues. This strategic approach to time management can really help if you work in complex, unpredictable, volatile, or ambiguous environments.

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