Reclaiming Your Calendar

Call it what you want — overextended, overbooked or meetingitis — the challenge of out-of-control schedules is endemic, and especially with meetings. While managing a schedule may seem to be management 101, an executive’s control of his or her schedule is a direct indication of leadership capacity. So, take out those daytimers, Treos and Blackberrys and let’s look at some ways to reclaim your calendar.

  • Whose calendar is it, anyway? Try this quick exercise. Print out your calendar for the last 60 days and highlight every meeting and event according to this simple formula. If you added value to the meeting or it was a highly valuable use of your time, tint it green. If a meeting does not meet both criteria, tint it red. Be stringent about your choices. In this case, a maybe is a no. So, is your calendar bleeding productivity or fertile green? How much of your time was spent in meetings because someone else invited you and you did not say no? Want extra credit? Have everyone in a given meeting score it by the same criterion. You may find that fewer, better run meetings eliminate a lot of demand on everyone’s time.
  • Understand when and why to say no. When you have more demand on your time and attention than you can possibly accommodate, you have the luxury of making a choice. However, unless you make it clear why you are not attending and provide useful alternatives, the demands you do not choose will continue to come back and ask for more of your attention. As a leader, your best ally is a set of priorities that enable you to be clear about where you are allocating your personal time- and why. For this, it is helpful to think of your calendar as the top level of a pyramid.

Underneath that top level (your schedule) is a level we can think of as projects — the ones you choose as important enough to justify your time. That means you will have to either eliminate some projects or delegate key roles in them to others. I hear your next question coming: “How do I decide which projects require my personal attention?” The layer beneath projects contains your goals or strategies. What are the critical business goals for the organization you lead? Projects that lead to completing those goals are the ones on which you stay focused. OK, you are way ahead of me — “I have a lot of goals for my business. How do I choose?”

Now we get to the foundation of the pyramid. Call it purpose or vision or mission depending on how you and your organization express it. Your overarching purpose is the ultimate guide to deciding which goals are most critical, which projects serve those goals and what gets onto your schedule, and especially what does not. If you get good at this, your schedule will begin to reflect investment of your time and attention to your own and your organization’s purpose. Imagine how you would feel about a schedule with little to nothing on it that did not reflect a direct connection to vision.

So why is this so hard? Because working with a calendar this way means saying “no.” It means prioritizing and making hard choices. It means admitting that you and your organization cannot do all of the projects that you think are valuable and that you have to have staff who are capable of running projects without participation in everything from the very top. Prioritizing based on purpose provides a structure important enough to make hard choices and reclaim your calendar. Who knows, you might even find yourself going home before 6 p.m. a little more often.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, November 13, 2006.