Who Owns Your Calendar?

Bruce showed me his calendar and said, “This is ridiculous. There is more here than I can possibly do. New meetings show up by the hour. And everything on there is critical.”

Bruce is a director of sales operations for a firm in western Arkansas. Like many managers, Bruce feels squeezed by his calendar commitments.

“During my last review,” he went on, “my boss went over all the things that the company expects me to do outside my regular duties. It is all good stuff: ride with a sales exec, visit key accounts, spend time with finance and participate in a mentoring program. It goes on and on. I added it all up. If I did all the stuff they want, I would spend 22 hours a week on things that have nothing to do with order processing, fulfillment or forecasting, which is what my job is!”

Although the situation is probably familiar, finding a way to break free from too many commitments can be elusive. The solution to keeping yourself from being dominated by your calendar is not what most people expect. When I ask those like Bruce what steps they’ve taken to control their commitments, the answer is pretty predictable.

“Getting Things Done,” a program of organization and time management – and a book by the same title – developed by efficiency guru David Allen is usually the first thing people try. It is a great first step since it emphasizes the critical skill of prioritization. But programs about efficiency usually fall short because they assume that we each are the master of our own fate – or at least in charge of our own day.

Next is delegation. When I work with clients on delegation, they normally find much more that they can delegate than they thought. Skilled delegation can increase an executive’s effectiveness and scale. It provides development opportunities for those who are taking the projects. And looking at delegation takes us a step closer to the reasons for calendar woes as well as discovering the most often overlooked skill needed to resolve them. The reason most managers under-delegate has more to do with their need for control than the ability of others to deliver.

However, identifying what should stay on the calendar and what should be delegated or eliminated is only half the job. The real challenge lies in dealing with the invitations you decline, and the people who sent them. No manager wants to disappoint his or her staff. Few bosses want to hear from a subordinate, “I am sorry, but unless there is something critical in that meeting that you have not told me about, I need to give it a pass.”

In short, gaining control of the calendar means more than prioritizing and delegating. It requires a willingness to reset expectations and be clear with those who think they need your presence at a meeting.

We can think of regaining control of our work time as a four-step process:

  1. Change habits that reinforce poor time management.
  2. Delegate as skillfully and as thoroughly as you can (usually more than you think).
  3. Learn to politely decline meetings that don’t directly advance your primary goals and critical deliverables.
  4. Talk with those who feel your presence is critical to find other ways to accommodate a business need or politely decline to attend.

No program is a silver bullet. As with most leadership changes, truly engaging with these steps requires courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable for a time while old habits change. I’m certain Bruce would tell you that. But today, he would also tell you that his willingness to stick with it helped move the entire culture to a more leveraged and effective working environment.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 14, 2010.