A minimalist illustration with a bowl-like dark purple half-circle in the middle. It is filled with pink shapes in a way that is full, yet looks manageable. On the right side of the image frame, there are edges of the same shape that look like 3 bowls stacked one on top of another, all the way to the top of the frame.
Can you imagine someone else constantly determining the ingredients and the size of your meals? Then why do we let this happen to our schedules?

Shaping your schedule

Managing meeting madness

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Meetings. I think we all know how we feel about them: the carbs and sugars of the corporate diet (the food metaphor ends here). But really, it’s time they go on a diet. Or we do.

I recently did a calendar audit of the past 3 months and realized that I generally have around 5 hours or meetings a day (with double-booked events and learning activities I earnestly want to attend); some days it tips over into 6h and that could mean a missed lunch hour and a fully sedentary morning/afternoon.

If a work day is 7.5 hours, my average day leaves me with 2.5 hours to do work, answer emails, provide feedback, offer help, etc. So most likely about 1h or less to do the work that needs to be done. Never mind finding time to do some sort of strategic planning or prioritization of work or work that requires deep thinking and focus.

Needless to say, I decided it was time to do something serious about it. And it so happens that I saw this Tweet:

Twitter thread about managing meetings

There was so much great advice in this thread that resonated that I decided to pull out the highlights.

How to take control of meetings

Plan and block out time

  1. Block out time for self-care
  • Block out lunch time; if you absolutely have to attend something during your lunch (make it an exception and not a rule)
  • Block out time for a walk or another type of break
  • Use Outlook features that allow you to end meetings a few minutes earlier; use that time for an intentional break or to wrap up some action items from that meeting
  • Block out 15 minute breaks between meetings as a buffer

2. Make time for focused work

  • Try to keep one day completely clear to have space to do meaningful work and professional development (Some organizations have identified a specific day as meeting-free day; while the idea is great, it might not work for those who are on flexible schedules)

3. Manage small tasks

  • Keep 3 x 15 minute time slots for emails daily — Bruce Grant
  • Turn emails that take more than 2 mins to deal with into a task and schedule it in — Bruce Grant
  • Book daily (or another frequency) time for review of materials/approvals for the team — Amanda Bernardo

4. Block time out for work as a team

  • Schedule a working time block as a team (for example Wednesdays 10–12 for heads down work) — Amanda Bernardo

Protect your space and know how to decline

  1. Only attend meetings with a clear outcome and an agenda; and even then, consider if you need to be there now, later or if you can get meeting info in other ways
  • “When I’m unsure of why I’m invited to a mtg I ask what the intended outcome is. If I add no crucial value I tend to say no.” — Christina Pulickal
  • “I normally only accept meeting that includes an agenda so I know what to expect and prepare accordingly.” — Christine Vezina
  • “I also maintain my right of first refusal for all meetings. Does its prioritization match mine? Is there a clear agenda/point? Do I have to be there? Now or later?” — Bruce Grant

2. Talk to your team about when and how to invite people as “Optional”

  • “I also encourage my team to put me as optional if my presence isn’t truly needed and leverage our team meetings for debriefs. If I’m optional, I typically mark tentative and only pop-in if that time isn’t better used elsewhere.” — Amanda Bernardo

3. Avoid back-to-back meetings and limit your availability

  • “When people ask for my availability I don’t mention open space that is tight or will create a back-to-back situation.” — Abe Greenspoon
  • Proactively block out time in your calendar to prevent others from controlling your schedule
  • Set start and end of work time in Outlook; for days you do not work — make it clear that you are out of office

4. Have a limit on a number of daily/weekly meetings

  • Create two recurring blocks of “office hours” for external meetings; do not allow for more
  • “I also started colour-coding my meetings using the “category” function and it’s been really useful to quickly glance at my calendar and know what my day is like/if I have bandwidth for additional meetings.” — Eileen Young

5. Try a different modality

  • Try a short phone call instead of a meeting
  • Try voice notes
  • Start over email or chat first, before committing to a meeting

“I use the magic phrase ‘let’s get started via email’ to avoid meetings and schedule most meetings for 30 mins. If ppl can’t tell you what they want via email it’s prob not urgent.” — Sarah Kunst

  • Try asynchronous methods like reviewing meeting notes/concise memos

“I ask if someone will be taking notes and get those if I can’t make it.” — Christine Vezina

Additional thoughts and personal strategies

What I struggle with, as a connector of people and ideas, is always wanting to learn from others and share ideas. This gets me into trouble of letting my schedule become too packed. So I really had to start training myself to spend more time planning and blocking out time in my schedule. It is not easy and takes some experimentation to get it right.

What I learned over the past few months

  • It’s important to assess you triggers and what does and does not work for you, to help make decisions about your schedule
  • Back-to-back meetings are exhausting
  • Having more than 3 hours of meetings a day, drains my energy
  • 30 minute time blocks don’t seem to be enough for meaningful, focused work!
  • It’s important to have a mix of recurrent blocks of time dedicated to important tasks (such as time for planning and breaks), as well as time blocked-out weekly based on priorities
  • Planning at the end of the week what you want to accomplish next week and blocking out time for it is essential, AND adjusting the plan throughout the week; THEN reflecting on how much the planned and actual work week has changed and why
  • Reflect on when you are most productive and block that time out for focused work

What I do now

  • Use Categories to colour-code my calendar to make sure each week includes important pieces like “Professional development”, “Strategic planning”, “Actual work”
  • Make sure meetings I book/attend focus on outcomes
  • Try to keep my daily schedule to no more than 3h of meetings a day
  • Try to keep my daily plan to no more than 6–7 blocks of booked/committed time including meetings and scheduled work items (approximately 3 items of work per day)
  • Assess my schedule before I take on any new work or commitment
  • Identify meetings where a ‘delegate’ can be sent to represent multiple attendees or alternate with a team-member, taking turns to attend certain meetings

Set up recurrent blocks of time for myself:

  • Daily — lunch and walk 30 mins each
  • Monday mornings — Weekly schedule review and priority setting 30 mins
  • Monday mornings — Strategic planning 1h (bi-weekly)
  • Wednesday afternoons — To do for others (to reply to various requests) 30 mins
  • Thursday afternoons — Planning for next week 30 mins

Set up recurrent blocks of time as a team:

  • Mondays — Team planning for the week 45 mins
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays — Working team meetings (dedicated to specific work items prioritized in weekly planning meetings)1h each

A colleague shared an insightful article about effective rituals to end a work day. It explained that our brain struggles to let go of unfinished work and incomplete tasks stay on our mind. So it’s best to end the day on a simple note:

knocking out simple, completable tasks at the end of the workday — and avoiding complicated ones — is another good way to psychologically disconnect.

Seems like a great strategy to leave work at work and be able to step away and recharge for the day.

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ksenia cheinman

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::