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The Leader's Calendar Survival Guide

March 17, 2021

By Randy Hall


I was working with a senior leader recently and they were complaining a bit as they sized up their calendar for the coming week. When I asked them to describe how the week felt, words like overwhelming, heavy, and exhausting showed up.

Taking Control of Your Calendar

Sometimes we think that as we move into leadership or management roles, we get more control over our calendar, our time, and our choices on how we work. And for the most part we do.  But many leaders never actually take that control, even though they really wanted to have it.

In today’s world, often, others can put meetings and appointments in our calendar, (I love by the way that many of my European clients call it a diary.  For some reason that feels more personal and rewarding to me.)  And it’s not unusual to look at a week and think, “I have no time to actually do any work,” or “I feel like I am wasting my week in meetings that are not that important to me.”  These sentiments are all too common, and so that control over our time that we wanted evaporates into increased busyness and less focus on genuine priorities. 

Spending time on things we don’t like, don’t care about, or don’t want to contribute to is a recipe for burnout and isn't sustainable.  As leaders we have to remember that if we begin to disengage or just become “present,” our team has no shot at being fully engaged, productive, or successful.

Set Priorities

Here’s an exercise that I have done with several coaching clients that helps them reprioritize and reorganize their week in ways that allow them to begin to take back that control over their time.

Write down your priorities as a leader using the following questions, or even others that you might add to these to help you think about your role, your interests, and your most important spends of time. (Yes, this could be a much deeper exercise, and if you haven’t done this in a while, now might be a good time.)

  • What can only I do?
  • What is most important for me to focus on?
  • What do I enjoy the most and want to do more of?
  • What should I be thinking about to make our team or business better?
  • How much planning time would make me a better leader each week?
  • What coaching, support, and leadership does my team need each week?

Start With a Blank Canvas

Take control of your calendar

Now start with a blank calendar page. You can do this on paper, a whiteboard, a spreadsheet, or just go to some point, like a year in your future, to a week that is relatively blank.  Then block off the planning time, thinking or focus time, and working time that represents your ideal week relative to the priorities that emerged for you.  Simply build your ideal week using the thoughts and insights you just had about what’s most important and enjoyable.

Now add in activities that recharge you and your mind in the places that you would put them in an ideal week.  This might be exercise, journaling, walking the dog, reading, or anything that you feel is stimulating and recharging. 

This does not include activities that are merely coping or escape activities like binging Netflix, surfing the web, or social media.  Certainly, some of those might end up happening in your week, but we are not planning them in our ideal week.  Our ideal week is about being at our best, at our most productive, at our most engaged, and at our highest level of enjoyment.  Only things that contribute to these things should be on our weekly plan.

Now make sure you move the blocks of time into spaces where they best fit.  For example, if you are most creative in the morning, you might want your thinking or focus time there.  You might put a recharging activity in the middle of the day for a break.  You might move your work activities that only you can do to the afternoon, if some of those tasks are repetitive or routine in nature, like answering emails that absolutely need your attention.

Find Time for What's Important 

Take your week, dotted with blocks of time for the things you think are most important in an ideal week, and see how it fits on your calendar as soon as you can possibly fit it.  What I mean by this, is that next week might already be full of stuff you have said yes to and maybe it’s not feasible to cancel or decline all those meetings or commitments. But if you go 3, 4, or 6 weeks out, you might find the first week that you can fit the new weekly plan into place without moving too many things.  Drop it in there.

Now evaluate the week and see what shifts might have to be made.  You might need to change some of your time around because there is a standing meeting with an executive team or your boss, and they would be difficult to move.  Also, now look at the open space left.  Is it an amount of time that you feel is reasonable for other meetings to fall into or other unforeseen needs to have some space? Make those changes, without sacrificing too much of your ideal weekly plan, and then drop it in place.

It's Okay to Say "No"

Say no to anything that cannot be fit into the remaining space. That might mean declining meetings that you do not need to be in or asking others on your team to attend instead.  That might even be part of their development.  Sometimes a 10-minute debrief by them could be every bit as valuable as sitting in a 1-hour meeting. And they begin to learn how to prioritize the outcomes of long discussions as well. You also get to ask questions about what they think should be done next, who else needs to be included in the communication moving forward with the work, and other questions that cause them to think at a higher level.

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Conclusion

Try to design and protect your time and let me know your thoughts on how this works for you.  There will always be things that push us to abandon our plan but there are often, also, things we can do to protect it.

If you don’t protect this time, you will end up trying to lead based on what’s left of your energy, your focus, and your attention.  Leadership is more important than that. 


What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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