Have you ever been stuck and didn’t know it? Maybe you knew things were less than ideal, but you believed that nothing could be done to change the situation. Or you wondered if it could be different, but you didn’t have the energy, time, or insight to make changes.
I found myself in just that place a few months ago — regarding time. As the CEO of a small business, I’m constantly juggling sales and hiring, proposals and payroll, speaking engagements and team meetings — the list goes on and on. My work calendar was maxed out from 8am to 6pm every weekday and expanding into early mornings, late evenings, and weekends.
I could feel I was on the edge of burnout, but I was resigned to the fact that this is how leaders live in order to build and sustain a successful company.
Or maybe not.
Because then I met executive coach Matthew Cooke. He looked at my calendar, and we talked through multiple issues I was experiencing. Matthew offered some great advice that I started implementing the day after we talked, and the changes have really added time to my days. I’m getting more done. I’m getting it done with less stress. And I’m now able to leave the office by 5:00pm most days.
Here are five of the calendar changes that transformed my workdays:
#1 Align Your Calendar with Your Circadian Rhythms
When you’re trying to create sustainable high performance — sustainable for many years — build your calendar so it matches your body’s natural rhythm over a 24-hour cycle.
Some people are naturally night owls, and others are naturally morning people. Neither one is “right” or better, so let’s put aside judgment — as well as any guilt or beating ourselves up. Instead, start by putting typical wake-up and go-to-bed times on your calendar. Make them firm and solid times.
From there, consider: When do you have your highest energy? Your lowest? Does a short nap reenergize you? Are you super productive at 3:00am? Be honest with yourself about what works best for you.
Follow that energy pattern as you book your calendar. I’m at my highest level from around 9:00am to 12:00pm. I still have good energy through the rest of day, but at increasingly lower levels. Knowing that, I book my most important activities during the morning hours, and I schedule time for administrative work and errands later in the day.
Daily schedules will be different for each person, but the key is to give yourself permission to structure your calendar in a way that matches your energy.
#2 Block & Batch Specific Tasks
Everyone’s job involves key activities, like writing proposals, making sales calls, strategizing marketing activities, or any number of tasks — you know exactly what those items are for your work. They are important and need to be done consistently for success, but sometimes they’re not the most urgent “hair on fire” activities. And they usually don’t make it onto your calendar.
But what if they did?
Matthew helped me see that instead of hoping space would magically appear in my calendar, I could set specific times to schedule prospecting, sales calls, or whatever else I need to do consistently.
Apparently, our nervous systems like this kind of regularity, consistency, and predictability. If I know that on Tuesdays at 11:00am I make sales calls, my system is primed and ready to go for it. And if I miss that time, there’s a kind of positive guilt associated with it, which makes me more intentional and more likely to do it as scheduled.
Full disclosure: I was a bit resistant to this idea. I was in the habit of talking with clients and immediately diving into drafting a proposal for them. Promising and delivering the proposal in a matter of a hours — and staying as late as necessary to make it happen. Matthew helped me see how stressful this self-imposed deadline had become. In fact, it has been freeing and much better for me and my team to block proposals into a set time each week — and promise delivery afterwards.
#3 Set a “Top 3” To-Do List for Each Day
We all have to-do lists that are a mile long. Each day, we tick off two, three, maybe even five items. And 10 more show up. Matthew suggests that instead of the morale-lowering, never-ending to-do list, we create a “Top 3 for the Day” list.
The night before, pick your top three priorities. These are the items that, if accomplished, would make the day a success (even if nothing else gets done). Chances are those items have drifted to the bottom of your ongoing list — after other less important things you want to remember (check on that one thing at Amazon, walk the dog, etc.). Get primed by writing out your three top priorities the night before, and then work on them first the next day.
This small change has made a big difference for me. I have a long, ongoing to-do list, but now, I also have a little sticky pad next to my computer. At the end of the day, I write my three priorities for the next day — and those are the first things I tackle in the morning.
#4 Create a Cushion Between Meetings
Many of us are consistently booked in back-to-back meetings. We’re trying to pack more into each day, but we end up getting more stressed — and sometimes, stressing (or even irritating) our clients and our teams.
Instead, Matthew recommends that you insert a cushion between meetings. It can be just 10-15 minutes, and it not only reduces stress, it will keep you on time. Those few minutes allow you to have a bio break, get some food, and mentally reset between meetings.
If you use a scheduling app, you can build the buffer into your calendar. I put a 15-minute buffer on my calendar, and it’s given me time to breathe. And, if a meeting goes two or three minutes longer than planned, the buffer allows me time to close the meeting, take a quick break, and prepare my focus for the next meeting.
#5 Schedule Personal Time on Your Calendar
We high achievers are work oriented, and our calendars reflect our work lives. But most of us do not block out personal time on our calendars. In fact, we push back about scheduling personal time because, well, it’s personal. It’s as if we think our calendars can only handle work activities.
Realizing this, Matthew points out that we should have work time and play time, and our calendars should reflect both — distinctly. Designate one as the color black and the other as white (it doesn’t matter which is which). What’s important is that your calendar reflects black time and white time, and that we avoid gray zones, where the two blend together.
A gray zone happens when, for example, you’re on a weekend trip with your kids and you’re sending work emails. Or you’re at the office and you’re planning your vacation. In a gray zone, there’s a feeling that “I probably should be doing that, but I’m doing this instead.”
Matthew suggests setting and maintaining clear boundaries — through scheduling. He recommends scheduling time for work and time for play (family, creativity, or whatever — as long as it is not work). Instead of finishing work and mindlessly sliding onto the sofa for multiple nights, schedule what you’re going to do: meet up with friends, play with your kids, go to the gym, or even chill and watch TV.
How to Start?
These five steps seem simple and like common sense, but if it was easy, we’d all be doing it already, right? In truth, optimizing your calendar reflects radical self-care, and making these adjustments will be different for each individual.
For some people, these changes are not a monumental shift. But for others, you may want to start with just one change — and be compassionate with yourself if it’s not an overnight success.
In fact, you may find that a session (or a few sessions) with Matthew is the catalyst you need for real, lasting change. If that’s you, contact me through LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll connect you with him.