Earlier in my career, I took pride in packing my schedule with meetings. Most days included at least six scheduled meetings. And then I worked late and caught up on tasks during weekends. I prioritized work over everything else and had two great guys break up with me because I wasn’t present enough.
Then I burned out.
During the sabbatical that followed my burnout, I realized that it doesn’t have to happen this way. We don’t have to schedule more than a human being can possibly do in a regular work week. We don’t have to lose important relationships because we work too much. And we don’t have to burn out to learn the importance of taking control of your schedule.
I’ve learned the following six rules that help me control my own schedule:
Rule #1: Limit the number of hours spent in structured meetings each week.
We’ve grown so used to meetings. As a result, we have forgotten the significant price we pay for participating in one. The first price is the “opportunity cost” of the time spent in a meeting. Lori Esposito explains opportunity cost as: “every decision we make results in giving up an alternative choice.”
For example, today I was invited to a public forum for a community partner. My alternative choice is to prepare for a meeting tomorrow. I am a key participant in the meeting. So I chose to forgo the public forum in order to fully prepare for the meeting.
There is another cost to attending meetings: every meeting involves homework. Homework might be making follow up calls, designing an implementation plan or developing something new. In my own experience, one hour in a meeting often results in 75 to 90 minutes of homework.
I have learned that 17 is the magic number of hours I can spend in meetings. I still have time to finish my meeting homework and respond to emails. And I still have time to engage in “deep think” activities that move my organization or client forward.
Rule #2: Schedule your weeks at least ten days in advance
Let me start with this simple equation for a good work week:
Regularly scheduled meetings 7 hours One-time meetings 10 hours Unstructured time 23 hours Total weekly work time 40 hours
Most of us have regularly scheduled meetings. These meetings structure and outline our weeks and months. They might be team meetings, one-on-one meetings with direct reports, periodic meetings with a supervisor or board chair, staff meetings, committee meetings and board meetings. These regularly scheduled meetings often take up 5 to 7 hours of our time each week.
This only leaves me 10 to 12 hours for more meetings before I hit my sweet-spot of 17 hours of meeting time. For this reason, I book at least 23 hours of unstructured time on my calendar. I note it on my calendar as “desk time”. This is the non-meeting time that I plan to spend moving my projects forward and being a good team member or leader.
Once my schedule is full for the week, it is full. I will move desk time within the same day or week to accommodate a meeting request. But I won’t cut any desk time to add a meeting. For this reason, I often schedule meetings three to six weeks in advance.
True emergencies arise, but they should be infrequent and non-recurring. And note who brings you these emergencies. Have a radically candid conversation with anyone who often brings emergencies.
Rule #3: Schedule your desk time for your peak performance
I do my best creative thinking and long-form writing first thing in the morning. So I almost always schedule two hours of desk time at the start of each day. Before I check email or respond to text messages, I take this time to do my most critical, most important work. Of course, the morning isn’t the peak time for everyone. You should schedule your desk time when you will be at your most creative and effective.
Rule #4: Don’t feel the need to use a full hour for every meeting
While you might book meetings for a full hour, end the meeting once you’ve completed the agenda. The benefits of ending a meeting 15 minutes early is multiplied by the number of people in the meeting.
Here’s the cold hard truth: I’m not perfect at following these four rules. I often have to remind myself and reinforce them. But my work life and my family life is better when using these rules to controlling my own schedule.
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