You Don’t Work For Your Calendar
Your calendar is the purest representation of your values and priorities. Own it.
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Companies are voracious consumers of your time. The bigger the company, the more things that are happening and the more voracious the company becomes. A large company, given the chance, will take up every minute of every day of your life.
As a result, many of us feel like our days are stolen from us in a blur of status meetings, Slack messages, emails, tasks and updates. It is common that you get to the end of your day and realize you haven’t yet done any of the work you needed to get done, which leads to late nights or weekends working to catch up. If this happens to everyone at a company, execution slows down until it stops.
There are many reasons this happens, ranging from lack of process, growth in communication overhead, and weak leadership. But the reasons don’t matter as much as the question: how do you reclaim your calendar? How do you make the most of every day?
I’ve recently helped a group of CEOs regain their productivity and job satisfaction by getting better at their calendar management. Here is what we did:
Step 1: Make Three Lists
Take all of the responsibilities and tasks associated with your job and sort them into three lists:
Things you love doing. These are things you look forward to, and give you energy when you do them.
Things you hate doing. These are things you dread, and that sap your energy when you do them.
Neutral things. These are things you neither love or hate, and doing them is fine.
This sounds easy, but it’s harder than you think! Often, the things we love doing are things we don’t give ourselves permission to do because they aren’t “mission critical”. For example, one of the things I love is designing new product features including doing the mockups and writing up the specs. As a CEO, I used to think that was not something I should do as my time was too valuable to do such low level things. However, it is something I love that energizes me so it really was part of my job, since that energy made me better at doing everything else.
Likewise, we tend to think of certain responsibilities as invariants. A weekly, hour-long status meeting isn’t seen as a task, it’s seen as a requirement. That is part of the problem with calendars, when you feel subjected to your calendar then you start to feel helpless. Every meeting you attend is a task, whether you love or hate it.
Most people end up with a very long list for #3 (Neutral) and short lists for #1 (Love) and #2 (Hate). If you find you have a really long list for #2 (Hate), perhaps you are in the wrong job?
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Step 2: Prioritize, Delegate and Avoid
With our three lists in hand, it’s time to manage our calendar. How you divide up your time might vary, but what I recommend is that of a 5 day work week:
Spend 2 days on Things you love doing.
Spend 2 days on Neutral things.
Leave 1 day free.
That might sound radical, because I’m telling you to allocate your time based on your preferences and not what the company requires!
However, it’s important to realize that the things you love doing are often the things you are great at doing. Even better, the energy you get from doing them makes you better at doing everything else! Spending a good portion of your time on things you love makes you better at your job, and get more done more quickly.
The Neutral things need to get done, so you need time for them. That’s easy, and hopefully you get them done faster thanks to the energy from the things you love.
The 1 day free is because life is full of surprises! Every job has interruptions, emergencies and other surprises. If you don’t leave aside time to deal with them then they just move everything else around which makes it late or not done. You need the padding to deal with the unexpected.
Now, few jobs are flexible enough that you can spend a whole day doing one thing. When I say “Spend 2 days”, that is really just ⅖ of your time. So on a given 10 hour day you might spend 4 hours on things you love, 4 hours on Neutral things and 2 hours free for surprises. How many hours you work and how you divide up your time is up to you and your job, the important part is the ratio of where your time is spent.
Wait, what about the things you hate?
Yes, I know I didn’t leave any time for things you hate. First, let’s all acknowledge that we’re not good at things we hate doing. Even if we tell ourselves otherwise, we don’t bring passion, creativity or initiative to things we hate.
If you’re a leader, you should delegate things you hate to someone else on your team. One of the amazing things about humanity is that something you hate might be something someone else loves! Look for those opportunities to give someone else a chance to shine.
And, if you’re a leader, don’t subject your team to things they hate. Instead of a one hour status meeting everyone dreads, just send a status email or use a shared document that everyone can update. Again, things people hate drain their energy and make them less productive, which makes you a worse leader.
If you’re not a leader, push back on the things you hate. Does it really need to be done? Does it need to be done by you? Does it need to be done that way? Too often, tasks are assigned without critical thinking and we just do them because we’re asked. Forcing evaluation of these tasks is important to avoid unnecessary misery. Maybe there is a way to do it that moves it to Neutral for you, or maybe there is someone else on the team who doesn’t hate it.
In the end, there are always things you need to do that you hate and, unfortunately, cannot be done by someone else. Every job has these, including being a CEO, and in these cases they end up eating that 1 free day we set aside. Hopefully not all of it, but at least some of it.
When you’re done, you should be spending ⅖ of your time on things you love, ⅖ of your time on neutral things and setting aside ⅕ for surprises. That sounds like a calendar where you are in control and likely to be your most productive self!
Step 3: Monitor
The most important part of this process is to monitor and enforce your priorities every week. Make a habit of looking back on the previous week to make sure your time was spent well, and that your schedule for the coming week is properly allocated. I do this every Sunday evening, and move things around if necessary.
If you use Google Calendar, they have a nifty feature that does this for you! If you color code your meetings, the Time Insights feature gives you a breakdown of how you’re spending your time. Outlook has a similar, but less useful, version of this feature called Viva Insights.
Now, I realize it sounds bad to color code your events based on how much you enjoy them but hopefully your calendaring system doesn’t show your color coding to others who view your calendar. If it does, I suggest not marking your “Leadership Meeting” in red.
Yes, there will be weeks where it’s not possible to maintain the balance we discuss here. There are emergencies, outages and other crises that require you to do whatever is necessary to help the company survive. Hopefully that is not every week and if you really think about it, those emergencies might be the symptom of something bigger. In general, you should be able to stick to a good balance.
Calendars Are Tools
Calendars are tools to make you more productive. Somewhere along the line, calendars started to be used as a management tool to control other people. While that is not a bad thing, when taken too far it robs you of your agency and ability to make decisions. As adults, your employer pays you for your expertise and ability to make decisions. If you’re a leader, all you do is make decisions. You cannot do that if your calendar doesn’t belong to you.
If you find yourself in an organization where the approach we discuss here is not possible, then it’s also unlikely they value you as an adult. I would consider looking elsewhere.
For more on Time Management, Mental Health and Prioritization, see: