Work and Money
How To Manage Your Calendar and Avoid Chaos
I think about my time a lot. I think about where it goes. I think about where I can get more of it and how to optimize it. I like to think of myself as a professional organizer. I'm good at creating to-do lists and detailed calendars. They help me stay on top of things (well, most of the time).
I'm a freelancer, so I work around the clock in different time zones. My well-thought-out schedules often come to my rescue because I plan everything to the minute. Like I know which task is waiting for me after I finish writing this piece.
Now that people are heading back to office at least on a hybrid basis, it can be challenging to adjust to a new environment and maintain control over one's workday. Here are some tips you can follow to retain control over how you utilize time:
Create a Master Monthly Calendar
Typically, there will be some things that you do daily and weekly on a repetitive basis. To clarify that, create a master calendar with all those tasks and blocks of time marked out. This will help you know how to schedule office meetings better.
For instance, if you pick up your child from school every afternoon or attend a Buddhism meeting, you'll know that you need to keep that time slot free.
The best way is just to dump all your tasks — big or small, professional or personal — on an Excel sheet and then categorize them based on priority.
Use the Calendar Technique
Calendar blocking simply means marking blocks of time out for each of your tasks. That way, you know exactly what to do at each hour of the day and can just follow a sequence. Meetings, calls, reviews, writing, household tasks — block them all out. I get overwhelmed easily. The detailed planning helps me keep my wits together.
Schedule Critical Tasks Wisely
Early mornings for me tend to be the most productive as I'm fresh and the daily grind hasn't started yet. I enjoy the quiet mornings a lot. However, pick whatever time of day you're most alert and block that for critical (non-meeting) tasks.
If there's a presentation you need to create or a draft proposal you need to review, use that time to complete it. I usually pick up the most difficult tasks of the day in the mornings. The routine helps me do the job stress-free.
Breaks are an essential part of your day. It can be all too easy to keep working through your coffee and your meals — don't. Block out designated breaks when to rejuvenate, especially when you have essential tasks to do.
Just in case there are any time overlaps, it's best not to keep time-critical tasks next to each other. Instead, intersperse them with email time or coffee breaks. It'll help you rejuvenate yourself better for the next essential tasks.
On the other hand, if you commute (or whenever you start commuting to work), block that time out, too. You can use it to relax or listen to your favorite podcast.
Schedule Time for Email
You'll be surprised how much time gets wasted if you check email throughout the day. Instead, schedule a block of time in which you read all your emails and send out the ones that need to be sent. For the rest of your time, keep your email notifications off as much as possible.
I'm not too fond of the element of surprise in emails, so I prefer to check my inbox after I have finished doing at least one critical task in the morning to retain focus.
Use the Right Tools
While a pen and a notebook remain the favorite tools of many, it helps to have a few tech tools in your arsenal to gain control over your time. Here are some to try:
- Trello: I love this project management tool. All my tasks — personal and professional — are scheduled or listed on Trello. I sometimes wonder what I'd do without it.
- RescueTime: It operates in the background and shows you precisely what you spent time on and which applications you use. As you use it over a week or month, you can spot important patterns.
- Google Calendar: The all-time classic. Use it for calendar blocking, spot any scheduling conflicts, and color-code your tasks for better visibility.
Start Batching Tasks
Batching tasks is all about grouping similar activities together. For instance, if you have a proposal and an email to write for the same client, do them together. You'll finish them faster as they're based on similar topics and research.
Optimize Your Meetings
Far too much time gets wasted on meetings that don't go anywhere. When you have a meeting, make the most of it by setting a clear agenda and sequence of topics and having a time limit. This will keep everyone engaged throughout the time slot and help you get things done. On that note, hold meetings as short as you can — 30 minutes are usually enough if you have an agenda.
Establish a Meeting-Free Day Each Week
You need clear time for deep work — which means concentrating on your actual tasks and goals rather than talking to people. Establish one day a week when you do not accept any meetings or calls and protect that day at all costs. You'll be surprised at how much you can get done on a meeting-free day and how satisfied you'll feel at the end of it.
Say 'No' Wherever Possible
Sometimes, meetings just don't add value to your day — or anyone's day. Try to avoid attending or scheduling meetings that don't require your presence.
As alternatives, you can opt for an online collaboration tool like Slack or send a document with the points you were asked to present. For one of my clients, we use Basecamp to discuss our work and schedule the tasks on the platform itself. We rarely have meetings.
On the other hand, sometimes you might not be able to accommodate a task as per the request of your manager or client. In that case, be clear about that and offer an alternate deadline for the task.
Review Your Calendar at the Start of Every Week
Every Monday morning — or better yet, on the previous Friday before you clock out for the weekend — review your calendar to see what meetings, phone calls, and important tasks you have. Then, keep checking daily.
This helps you keep track of things you might have forgotten, lets you accommodate tasks that unexpectedly crop up, and enables you to reassess the importance of each task as the week goes on. Overall, you end up with a lot more clarity on each day and what's to come.