In Lithuania, we have this proverb (rough translation): the deeper into the forest, the more trees. Well, it’s exactly this regarding the number of meetings once you start climbing the career ladder. It can get swamped and very overwhelming fast. So how to keep your head above the water?
Let me share with you today my way of operating through jam-packed days. Mind you, it works for me, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best fit to copy for your situation or personality. However, I hope you’ll find some things you’d want to try.
You probably never used your calendar app to such extent before. Your life is pretty much calendar-driven now. Use this to your advantage! A common mistake is to schedule there only meetings with other people. In effect, another meeting request can appear at any point in your free time slot. So you either have to take it or spend time rescheduling to something more appropriate. Therefore I always add two more “types” of “meetings” to my calendar:
- Breaks (I’ll expand on this below)
- Focus time
In the manager’s schedule, focus time is a rarity, and it’s simply a low chance it will appear naturally. Therefore it’s now your own responsibility to block time for it. I use this technique for a known planned work (e.g., I need to work on some decision for 2 hours) and unknown (a bunch of yet-to-be collected TODOs) type.
So if you need more focus time, take control and schedule it back in your calendar.
Many consecutive meetings situations are attention, energy, and brain killers. So it doesn’t matter if you do 5-10 minutes breaks between them because you’ll likely use them to process your notes and TODOs from previous conversations.
You must schedule reasonable breaks after several consecutive meetings to stay effective and attentive throughout the day. After how many - it depends on you and how difficult those conversations are (or might be). However, I wonder if you’re your best after staying focused for more than a few hours. Research also shows you need breaks.
The worst days for me are always the ones when for some reason, I cannot follow this rule. And even the next day, I always feel I have less energy. The toll is obvious. Skipping breaks is borrowing from tomorrow.
Follow the science - and schedule appropriate breaks.
Dealing With Interruptions
Now, I always receive many requests from my direct reports, teams, and partners during the day. Questions, check-ins, requests to review or confirm something, etc. I follow the following mental model to work with them:
- Does it take less than 1-2 minutes to answer? (I know the answer from the top of my mind) –> Answer right away.
- Otherwise, place this question to the TODO, and give back an estimate when you plan to look into it.
For the latter, I leverage Slack’s reminders for things I receive through it and my TODO notes for everything else. Using Slack inline has the advantage of keeping the exact pointer to the context and not switching tools to postpone the work.
When to work on them? I hope you still remember scheduling focus time advice at the beginning ;-)
Manage Your Time
I often hear: “I’d like to talk with you about topic X, but oh, I see you don’t have time for it.” It is a polite gesture from your peer. But it would be best if you always managed your time very actively and aggressively, using the classic quadrant of importance (a.k.a Eisenhower Matrix: important vs. urgent). Therefore, it doesn’t matter how busy your schedule is, you always have time for urgent and important things. Yes, items will have to get rescheduled, but this is the only way.
Additional note: I try not to touch regular 1-1’s as much as possible so people don’t feel they’re constantly less important. Therefore I try to schedule them on the parts of the day when the chance of something getting urgently important is relatively lower.
Take Back The Control
One can develop a feeling that the calendar purely drives your work (and maybe even personal) life. Waive that feeling away - you are the one controlling the calendar. Do it ruthlessly and systematically, prune things that don’t bring value out, and make space for breathing and doing tactical work.
And: make some time for thinking!
This is The Way.
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