Written by Bruce Eckfeldt, an Inc. 500 CEO, a Gazelles Certified Coach and leader in performance management and organizational development.
Many executives who I work with complain that their schedules are overloaded. They can’t “find the time” to work on key priorities. They show me calendars that are full of meetings and phone calls scattered across the day. These individuals run incredibly complex and expansive organizations, and yet time management eludes them.
While I have infinite understanding, I also have little sympathy. One of the best tests of executive skill is an ability to control time and set priorities. Executives who excel don’t find time; they make time for important tasks. They accomplish this by designing their optimal schedule and protecting themselves from low-priority or unnecessary tasks.
Over the years, I created an approach that helped executives in this situation improve their time management. I call it the defensible calendar, and it’s created by designing an ideal day based on your high-priority tasks and your personal energy flow through your day and your week.
Follow these steps to create a system that stands up against the onslaught of perpetual distractions.
1. Understand your natural energy pattern during the day and the week.
Start by determining your natural highs and lows. Keep a journal for a week or two and track your energy peaks and valleys. Do you think clearly in the morning or evening? What do you do right before and after your best times? What factors improve your focus and flow? What patterns and correlations do you notice? Understanding how your natural attention and enthusiasm maps out over the day is the key to unlocking your higher productivity.
2. Inventory the work that you do and determine your personal priorities.
The most productive people focus on the most high value work that only they can do. To figure this out, first make a list of all of the projects you’re working on. Now sort them by two criteria:
- how much value the project creates
- how critical you are to the success of the project
Your personal focus should be on those high-value projects that only you can do. High-value projects other people can do should be delegated. Low-value projects that only you can do should be your targets for training others to do as soon as possible. Low-value tasks that others can do should be delegated or outsourced to third parties.
3. Design your ideal day and week based on maximizing your productivity.
Armed with your energy map and your list of personal priorities, sketch out your ideal week by identifying what type of activity you should do during each hour of the day. For example, do you do your best thinking in the morning after the gym? Then that’s your time to focus on critical work that requires you to be at your best. Are you braindead after 3 pm? That’s your time to work on non-critical tasks and answer emails.
4. Use time blocks to hold those key spots and defend them.
Once you have your ideal map, create blocks of time in your calendar based on the type of work you should be doing during that time. I suggest that executives designate 40 to 50% of their calendars for critical work blocks. When someone asks for a meeting or call, the executive can then protect these times and instead slot the meeting or call in other available slots.
5. Create blocks for distracting, but necessary, activities.
For obligations like standing meetings or calls, I suggest separate time blocks. For example, I set aside blocks for phone calls in the afternoon, which are my low energy and low productivity periods. I know I don’t need to be at my best for certain phone calls, so afternoons are a good time to schedule those calls. I also create blocks for recurring tasks and meetings like prospecting, following up on social media messages and employee one-on-one meetings.
6. If you must: Move it, don’t delete it.
There will be occasions when a meeting or task comes up that conflicts with one of your critical blocks. The key is to avoid scheduling over or deleting those blocks. Rather, force yourself to figure out where to move them, and, if needed, move other commitments to get that block to fit in another place. The new time slot might be a less ideal time. I might even need to cancel a subsequent commitment. Even so, rescheduling that block of time reminds me that the work is important and that I still need to do it.
These strategies—mapping your daily energy patterns, setting your priorities based on value, using time blocks, and protective scheduling—are critical ways to developing a defensible calendar.
Done right, you can dramatically increase productivity and engagement in your work.
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