Show Your Calendar Who’s Boss: 20 Tips to Tame Your Diary
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So who’s actually in charge here? You or your Calendar? If any of these sound like you, then you are losing the battle (and maybe the war!)
- Deadlines sneak up on you
- There never seems to be enough time
- It feels like you spend more time in meetings than out of them
- It can take days or weeks to confirm a meeting with you
- Your regularly cancel or reschedule meetings
- You often have diary conflicts because you accepted two meetings and then can’t decide which one to keep
- Your boss changes a meeting so you end up re-arranging your whole diary to accommodate the new time.
- You send meeting invitations but turn up poorly prepared, fail to send agendas or reconfirm
- You general accept meetings on a first-come-first-serve basis
- You arrive late to meetings because your previous meeting overran
- You are slow to accept meetings because you’re not sure if you can attend
- You accept meetings even though you’re not clear on their purpose or what’s required of you
- You block off time in your diary to get work done, but find this is regularly compromised
- You have no idea what’s in your calendar for next week, but you know you’re busy.
- Instead of actively listening on conference calls, you’re on mute and spend the time multi-tasking (answering emails, playing with spreadsheets and presentations, taking care of some long-overdue admin)
Fear not my friend, you are not alone. I’ve gathered 20 of my best tips to help you reclaim control of your diary.
1. Review. Then review again.
Review your calendar at the start of every week (Sunday night is best). Map out what meetings you have and list any action items and preparation you need to take care of. If they’re important, then block time in your diary to make them happen. Then take a daily review. First thing in the morning, and about an hour before you finish for the day. You’ll get a good sense of what you need to tackle, what progress your making, and what your priorities are.
Your opinion of what was important on Monday can change by Wednesday. It’s also easy to forget a meeting or overlook something you need to do – that quick check-in has saved me many, many times. My days aren’t 9 to 5 – and I doubt yours are either. The evening review reminds me what I’ve got on and I can adjust my start and finish times for the next day.
2. One event free day a week
Allow yourself one meeting free day a week and do your best to protect that time at all costs. Even if the boss says she needs to meet with you on the only day you’ve got nothing on – offer an alternative.
I need to focus on deep work, and you do too. Busy being busy does not get you a pay rise at the end of the year. So your “free” day is actually far from free.
It’ll give you time to think, contribute to long term projects, tackle the to-do list, demolish emails and power through your admin.
Go on, give yourself some quality time. You deserve it.
3. Schedule Meetings ASAP
If you know you need a meeting, get it in the calendar as soon as you can. The longer you put it off, the more likely you are going to have scheduling issues or conflicts. Make sure the purpose is clear and everyone knows why the meeting is in place and what they need to prepare.
POWER TIP: Give options when your hosting, or asked to attend a meeting. You’ll avoid endless email exchanges as everyone tries to find a time that works. For example, “I can meet on Tuesday at 10am, Thursday between 2pm and 4pm or Friday at 11am”
4. Appointment Scheduling Tools
If you’re using Outlook on an Exchange Server, then I recommend using the Scheduling Assistant. When adding attendees the free/busy grid shows the availability of attendees so finding a time that suits everyone is straightforward.
Better still, download the Outllook Mobile (Android, iOS) which has built in scheduling. When you pick a time that works for everyone, the event is green. When there’s a conflict it turns red.
Outlook Mobile also allows you to send your availability when asked for a meeting. Just reply to the email, click the calendar icon, select the times you’re free, and Outlook Mobile does the rest. This is a massive time saver. Check out this video tutorial to see how it’s done.
Another great tool for those on an Exchange Server is Microsoft’s FindTime which allows you to send a new meeting poll to propose your selected times to all attendees and allow everyone to vote and quickly come to a consensus. FindTime then sends out the meeting invite on your behalf and you’re done! This is great because it can also be used for attendees outside your organisation.
Consider appointment scheduling software. Tools like Doodle and Calendly offer great free versions and integrations with Outlook, Gmail and more. They are an easy way for clients and colleagues to book time with you. Simply set your availability, share your link, let them select an available time and the event is added to your calendar!
It’s also worth taking a look at Microsoft Bookings, was launched in late 2016 as part of Office 365 Business Premium.
5. Follow Up
If you’re asked to do something by a client or colleague, we both know they’re going to chase you for an update. Set expectations by immediately scheduling a follow up meeting in the diary.
With a deadline, you’ll be sure to get it delivered on time. Plus you won’t be ambushed for an update on something you probably haven’t started yet!
6. Use Reminders
A simple and easy way to stay on top of your meetings and tasks. Set a 5 minute appointment for the time you want to be reminded of something and explain what it is in the meeting subject. Tick the reminder and set it to zero minutes. Done.
- Time to leave for client meeting – get the train to King Cross then Victoria line to Oxford Circus.
- Print handouts for this afternoon’s presentation
Use this trick sparingly.
Tasks don’t belong in your calendar – don’t even try to combine the two – there are much better tools for that. You don’t want your calendar filled with dozens of 5 minute reminders but the odd one here and there can really help you out.
7. Add another time zone
If you work with colleagues or clients around the world, then adding a second time zone to your Calendar is a great idea.
This will show dual times on your calendar – very helpful when planning meetings. Plus it saves you the hassle of Googling “what time is it in…” You can set up dual-time zones on Outlook and on Gmail and most other email clients.
8. Import all your calendars
If you do have multiple calendars then import them all into your primary calendar. It’ll save you loads of time and if you have overlay mode, you’ll be able to see all your calendars and appointments simultaneously.
Keep meetings brief. 30 minutes should suffice for most. The golden rule though, is to take only the time you need.
Most calendars default to 30 minute intervals. That’s why you tend to get invited to hour-long meetings when less time is needed. You can change the Calendar time scale in Outlook to whatever you like, so think about modifying it to 15 minutes. It’ll make it easier to setup 15 or 45 minute meetings.
If you’re invited to a meeting and not convinced it’s going to take as long as requested, I recommend asking the Chair if there’s any homework you can do to keep the meeting short.
Another idea is to let the organiser know you can only join part of the meeting and ask them to schedule you a slot. It’s not always appropriate but definitely works for status update type meetings (assuming you can’t wriggle out of them – see number 10.)
10. Say “No” to fact gathering or status updates
Is there anything more frustrating then spending an hour in a meeting getting updates you read in 10 minutes? Instead, consider online collaboration, brainstorming and project management tools. Get your team setup on these and encourage colleagues to use them as well. They will reduce emails and meetings significantly if used effectively and give you a lot of time back in your diary.
It’s time to say hello to the 21st century!
11. In fact, just say “No”
If you don’t know why you should be at a meeting, and the organiser can’t tell you either, then say “No” until they can. You need to be clear on what your contribution is and the value you are adding.
If that’s too harsh, try delegating – it could be good development opportunity for someone in your team.
Another trick is to decline, but offer help to the organiser with some meeting preparation so they feel comfortable hosting without you. For example, while you may not be presenting the slides, you can create them.
For a face-to-face meting, sometimes the value just isn’t there. Travelling 3 hours when you’ve only been allocated 15 minutes on the agenda, is not efficient. Question if you’re really needed in person. Perhaps instead of “no”, you offer to attend virtually.
12. Start on time and skip the roll call
Don’t wait for late-comers. Get started. For large meetings skip the roll call. Everyone knows who should be there(just check the attendee list on the invitation if you don’t). Those that arrive late will catch up. Those that don’t turn up, either you won’t miss them, or they owe an apology to everyone.
Just about every meeting I’ve attended spends 15 minutes waiting for stragglers and doing a roll call of who’s on the phone, who’s in the meeting room, who sends their apologies. Observe this rule, and you’ll not only finish on time, you might even claw some back!
13. Meeting conflicts
You can’t be in two places at one, despite your super-powers. If you have a calendar conflict, take care of it immediately. The longer you leave the two appointments in place, the more anxiety you’re going to create for yourself as the day looms near and you’ve done nothing about it.
It’s also mightily unfair to the organiser to decline last minute.
Prioritise which is the most important for you to attend and not the invitation you accepted first.
14. Cancel it
Sometimes you just need to cancel a meeting. If you think it’s going to be a waste of time, then think twice. I highly recommend reading Should you cancel your next meeting from the Lucid Meetings Blog and take a look at their infographic below:
15. Group Activities in Blocks
If you’ve got a bunch of meetings, then bite the bullet and have them all in a day and do emails in between. That’ll give you a bigger block of free time for another day. Sure it can be brutal, and I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but it can be a good strategy if you need to claim some time. What would you prefer?
- WED 3 x 1 hour meeting and FRI 2 x 1 hour meeting
- WED 5 x 1 hour meetings and FRI free
If you have back to back meetings, use the countdown function on your phone’s clock to ensure you stay focused on finishing on time. Google has a simple countdown timer with alarm. I also like TimerTab which shows a countdown in your browser tab.
Set the countdown or alarm for 5 minutes shorter than the meeting duration so you know it’s time to wrap things up (e.g. if it’s a one hour meeting, set the countdown for 55 minutes).
If it’s going to take you some time to get between meetings – just let both organisers know in advance that you’ve got back to back’s so may need to leave a little early, or may arrive a little late.
16. Colour-code your calendar
Categorising and colour-coding is awesome. It’s easy to segment and identify personal meetings from business ones and arrange your day. At a glimpse you have a great overview of your commitments and an easy way to filter what you’re doing over a day, a week, a month.
A lot of people keep a personal diary and a work diary. Using this method, eliminates the need for multiple diaries and puts you back in charge.
If you need more convincing, read this great article from Asian Efficiency on why you need to colour-code.
17. Allocate Time for Email
This is important. You can easily spend every minute God sends on email if you allowed it. Dedicate only a few hours a day to email. I typically try for 60 to 90 minutes maximum in the morning and same again in the afternoon. I like to leave the time in between for actual work.
It sounds great in theory and of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but I do stick to that schedule more often than not. I have switched off all email notifications and when I’m done with emails, I usually close my application so that I’m not even tempted.
18. Factor in Your Productive Peak
We all have an optimum time of day when we’re the most productive. For some it’s first thing in the morning. For others they get they joyous second wind right after lunch. Do you know when yours is?
Pay attention to your productivity spurts and avoid meetings during that time. If you must accept a meeting, accept the ones where you need to engage, focus, make decisions and participate. Schedule the meetings that are going to be a breeze for when you are trying to kick-start your engine.
19. Do you really need to meet?
This is a brilliant infographic courtesy of the Wrike Blog that’ll help you decide whether or not to have that meeting. I love their blog – lots of great posts on collaboration, project management and productivity.
Also check out the “Do You Really Need to Host That Meeting” post over at Harvard Business Review.
20. Find Time
RescueTime is a fantastic – and FREE – piece of software that shows you where you’re spending your time. It quietly operates in the background monitoring what applications you work on and for how long and gives you a great snapshot of your activities. Check out dashboard for February. I’ve spent 30+ hours on email. I know. Scary.
When you go through your calendar and look back at the month that was, and overlay it with your RescueTime dashboard, some patterns start to emerge. You can really begin to see what distracts you, when and why.
Other great time tracking tools with free options include
Toggl offers unlimited and free time tracking for individuals. All you have to do is click the play button and the app will begin monitoring the working hours of your employees. Afterwards, you can go through the generated weekly and monthly data on the total hours spent working inside the Summary Report tab.
This tool really opens your eyes to how your day is spent and pin downs what you are actually doing and how much time is (or isn’t) wasted. It tracks your activity invisibly and automatically in the background and also has an amazing number of integrations including ToDoist, Trello, DropBox, Chrome, Salesforce and more. They claim to find you an extra 30 minutes of productive time a day!
NOTE: Don’t be tempted use these “working out loud” tools in order to monitor your teams. They are great for personal productivity insights but for most teams they might be considered spying and do not build a culture of trust. Focus on results. If your team are delivering, then the when, where and how are unimportant.
Bonus Tip: Time management quiz
Just how efficient are you? If you long for more hours in the day, take this enlightening quiz from MindTools and find out how good your time management really is, and how to be more productive.
For further ideas check out these 27 awesome time management tips.
I hope you found this useful. Let me know what you think and please share your favourite calendar and time management tips in the comments.