PM Notebook
Too many meetings and not enough time?  These tips can help.
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.          

One essential element of any time management focus is getting control of your calendar.  In my work, I am constantly balancing the multiple pressures of working with others, getting important items completed, handling a never-ending stream of urgent items, and working in solitude.  Rather than letting the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ dictate each day, I get more control over each day by explicitly reserving time for important items, allowing flexible time to handle urgent items, and giving thoughtful consideration to how I should allocate my time amongst the many contending demands.  This article contains tips that work for me (most of the time) in managing my calendar.



Actively Managing Your Calendar - Clear the Clutter & Focus on the Important

Some of my colleagues don’t need to actively manage their calendar – they find sufficient time in the day to get their own work done and are able to schedule, with relative ease, collaboration work sessions with others.  If this describes you, then you can probably save 10 minutes and skip the rest of this article.  However, if you find it a struggle to get your own work done, schedule time with others, or respond to the requests from others to meet with you then this article may have tip or two on calendar management that might be useful.

I'm not an advocate of being a slave to the calendar.  Rather, I am a proponent of exercising control over my calendar to accomplish my goals and ensure that I am working on those items that are “most important now.”     This control is primarily in the decisions I make on those items that I permit onto my calendar and the amount of time I allow for each of those items.  In essence, I allocate time to my priorities, which are a composite of “the important” and “the urgent.” 

I recognize that more time in my work day will never let me get to everything;  prior to adopting an aggressive set of calendar management techniques, I found that even working as much as 70 hours a week still found me on Friday afternoon with an overflowing inbox, many important meetings missed, and my own work tasks incomplete.  I've developed and constantly apply various filters to those items that are demanding my time;  thus I’m not only deciding those items that will get some portion of my time, but also those items that get reduced amounts of time, or perhaps even none of my time.  These are tough decisions to make, but in making those decisions I am able to focus more on the task at hand, and worry less about those other demands on my time that I just cannot (and don’t really need to) accommodate. 

 

Quick Diagnosis – Are You Managing Your Calendar Adequately?

Take a glance at how well you are managing your calendar.  Do any of these describe a typical experience people have when working with you?

  1. You complain to colleagues that your time is double- and triple-booked or that you are constantly in back-to-back meetings – as a result, you are unable to participate and contribute as expected. 
  2. A person needing to meet with you finds that your next available free slot is way off in the distant future.
  3. You initiate a meeting invitation without any clear agenda or necessary preparation identified.
  4. You accept a meeting invitation, but don’t attend the meeting.
  5. You decline a meeting just because your calendar shows that you are occupied at that time.  Basically, “first come, first served” (i.e., the first meeting proposed for a given time slot is the one that will be conducted at that time) is your approach to accepting meetings.
  6. You respond to an invitation (involving many attendees) with a decline, but with no counter-proposal or other helpful information back to the originator.
  7. You don’t respond to a meeting invitation that has come to you; you aren’t able to make a definitive statement (even to yourself) on whether you will attend.
  8. You arrive late to a meeting, explaining that your prior meeting over-ran.

If you’ve found even one of these statements to be an accurate description of your situation, then there’s a chance that the use of some calendar management techniques can be helpful.  If most these behaviors describe you, then you are probably having an adverse impact on the effectiveness of others, as well is on yourself – for you, improvements in controlling your calendar can be of benefit not only to you and but to your colleagues as well.

 

Tips for Managing Your Calendar

Much as we’d like to think so, being overbooked and persistently unavailable is not a badge of honor.  To the contrary, it is a call for some first-aid on calendar and workload management.  

These tips are oriented towards project managers and individuals who manage a group (or multiple groups) of people.  You probably find yourself frequently proposing meetings with team members – these are typically collaboration sessions that bring project members together to work through project work items or review progress.  As well, you probably have categories of meetings (e.g., quarterly executive status review, annual feedback to group members) that can be planned long in advance.

 

Deciding What Should be on Your calendar - Only “Most Important Now” Remain on Your Calendar

If you don’t schedule time for your most important items, your risk having these displaced by urgent items.

  1. Reserve time on your calendar for your important items – many of these can be planned and scheduled months in advance.  Think about the next few months and how you want to be spending your time.  Here are some items that I put onto my calendar because they are important to me:
    • One-on-one meetings with my direct reports and other key people in my organization.  I know with absolute certainty that I need and want to allocate time to this activity.  By putting these meetings onto my calendar (generally many months in advance) I make it more likely that these important activities will take place.
    • Vacation time.  Getting this onto my calendar prevents me from scheduling other activities during this period.  I also put an ‘On Vacation’ event onto the calendar of people in the organization who need to know of my planned absence – the event information is for the duration of my planned absence and indicates my delegation of responsibility, emergency contact information and rules for engagement during my absence (sometimes I welcome calls and may be checking email; in other instances I wish to be undisturbed).
    • Solitude.  This is my think time, away from the hectic activities of each day.
    • Training.  Nearly everyone I meet tells me they have no time for training.  My approach is to reserve training time onto my calendar.
  2. Review your calendar at start of each week.  A quick scan can help you discover meetings that don’t necessarily require your time, so take action to remove these meetings or shorten their duration.  Discover any double bookings, making priority calls on which meetings to attend or rescheduling those that must be moved.   Search for any incoming meeting proposals still awaiting a response from you and respond appropriately to meeting organizers.
  3. Hold some open time on your calendar that is similar to a college professor’s office hours.  Let people know that you will be available for ad hoc, impromptu discussions.  This is particularly helpful if you are typically unavailable and difficult to reach.

 

Scheduling the Meeting – Getting It On Everyone’s Calendar

  1. Schedule meetings in advance.  Some meetings are easily foreseen, and it can help all attendees to have these meetings scheduled well in advance.  Early scheduling helps everyone reserve the time, thus ensuring full attendance.  Knowing the need for a meeting but delaying the meeting invitation will surely make it all the harder to get acceptances from all of the invited attendees. 
    • Here’s an example situation familiar to project managers: If you are creating a project plan you could take steps (on your very first day of working on the plan) to schedule the various information sharing sessions, planning sessions, commitment sessions, etc.  Those meetings might span several weeks, and your meeting invitations would help clarify the actions and time commitments you need from project participants as you go through your planning phase.
    • For directors of organizations: If you periodically conduct an all-hands meeting, then you are asking a large population of individuals to reserve a specific date/time time on their calendar.  Scheduling these sessions in advance can help.  If your personal schedule is sufficiently stable such that you could schedule these meetings across the next several months without any noticeable risk of changing the date/time, then locking those dates/times into the calendars of everyone in the organization can help drive attendance up.
  2. Don’t delay in scheduling a meeting.  Today’s calendaring systems make it almost trivial to propose a meeting.  It makes clear sense (to me, anyway) to act almost immediately once the need for a meeting has been identified and validated – in most instances, this scheduling task consumes under a minute of time.
    • If you are in a conference call and someone mentions having a follow-up meeting or other detailed working session, take the sixty seconds while on that call to get the new meeting onto everyone’s calendar.  This helps everyone reserve that time for your meeting and increases the chances of getting the required attendance.
  3. Check the availability of your required attendees.  Within an enterprise, MS-Outlook gives you a method of checking a person’s availability.  Make good use of this capability when initiating a meeting proposal for a small meeting (perhaps up to three or four participants). 
    • Abandon the practice of sending an email that says ‘when can we meet’ – this just creates a valueless transaction that should be replaced by an actual meeting invitation for a time when your other participants show as ‘available.’  
    • If a person is fully booked and thus has no availability for a meeting that is needed, here’s what I do:  I proceed with a meeting proposed for a time that is convenient for me, accompanied by an explanation (in the meeting invitation) that I couldn’t find a free slot, I recognize that the person is busy and I’d like their help in identifying and counter-proposing a suitable time to meet – this almost always works and results in a scheduled meeting.

 

Responding to Meetings Scheduled by Others

  1. Respond promptly and helpfully to a proposed meeting.  Help the meeting organizer know your willingness and availability to participate in the meeting they have proposed - let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'.  No fair giving a “tentative” response that means “I don’t know if I am attending;” such a response makes it all the more difficult for the meeting organizer to effectively assemble all of the participants.  (Many teams have a modus operandi in which a ‘tentative’ response means “I’m not attending buy still want this meeting to appear on my calendar.”)  If you cannot attend, decline the meeting along with a proposal back to the originator with a helpful approach – this might be an alternative meeting day/time or an alternate participant.
  2. When resolving a schedule conflict, give thought to resolving these contending demands.  You obviously can’t be in two meetings at once, but don’t automatically conclude that the first meeting to arrive on your calendar is the meeting that you should attend (which you would signal by declining, with little thought, the more recently proposed meeting).  Surely the importance of the contending meetings is a consideration, but here’s another: if the first meeting is an easily rescheduled meeting (say, a 1:1 meeting) and the newcomer is a meeting with a group of people who can all attend at that time, then take these factors into account.
  3. Ensure an appropriate duration.  When a meeting proposal arrives to you, recognize when that proposed meeting duration is not appropriate and take the initiative to suggest a with a more suitable duration.  Just about every meeting proposed to me is 30 minutes (or a multiple of 30 minutes) in duration.  But there’s nothing magical about our time system that makes these proposed meeting durations correct.  Consciously limit meeting duration for those topics that are less important or complex – time box the discussion.  Likewise, if a proposed meeting on a complex topic is too short, then you run a risk of not completing the goals of that meeting. 

 

Executing the Meeting – Starting and Ending as Scheduled

  1. Put valuable meeting into the meeting invitation, not in separate email messages.  Make it easy for your meeting participants to locate information about and for the meeting.  Follow the typically recommended practices for effective meetings: have an agenda, be clear on roles in the meeting, alert people to required preparation, and make reference information readily available.  
    • Your meeting invitation should be the location for all of this valuable information: put the agenda right into the invitation and include a link to a project repository that holds reference documents needed for the meeting. 
    • Abandon the practice of sending the agenda or actual documents in a separate email – separating the meeting invitation from this other information unnecessarily introduces a chore upon the participants of coordinating various information streams; I’ve rarely encountered a meeting in which this coordination was easily accomplished, and instead it just delays the actual start of the meeting as people search for the proper email.
  2. 5 minutes left on the meeting clock, but over 45 minutes of discussion remain; another meeting is needed.  Recognize when your scheduled meeting duration is just not long enough.  When only a few minutes remain in a scheduled meeting and there is still much material yet to cover then it is time to change your approach.  Don’t try to cover all the remaining topics, it just frustrates everyone as you rush, inevitably causes the meeting time to over run (probably delaying everyone from their next meeting), still doesn’t allow you to cover all the agenda topics, and probably gives an ambiguous close to the meeting.  Instead, immediately switch gears to briefly cover any extremely urgent items and then agree that a follow-on meeting is needed.  Determine how urgently that meeting must be conducted and get it on to everyone’s calendar right away. 

 

Reducing Disruptions and Checking Work Completion


Here are two calendaring ‘tricks’ I use to manage expectations:

  1. Pre-empting the Urgent Request for Information on an Assigned Task.  Suppose your boss asked you to get something (complicated) done.  You’ve made some progress, but if your boss asks you today to give an update you won’t really have a good story to tell.  Instead of waiting for that request (which might come in as an urgent request for an update, thus disrupting your day), take the initiative to schedule a meeting, for a week or two from now, for the purpose of briefing your boss – then work like crazy to get the task done so you will have a good report to give.   Now if your boss asks for an update you can reply “I’ve already scheduled time on your calendar for us to go over that information.”  I’ve had only a few instances where my boss said “no, let’s not wait for that meeting; please brief me today.”  Of course, if members of my organization adopt this strategy, I’m wise to them and occasionally will insist on a briefing today or tomorrow.
  2. Ensuring Satisfactory Completion of a Complex Task.  Suppose someone is working for you on a task that is complex or important.  You’ve agreed on a completion date/time.  Go ahead and schedule a ‘completion review’ or ‘turnover review’ meeting for that very date and time.  Having that meeting on the calendar meeting will reinforce the importance of completing as agreed, help eliminate communication errors in the turnover, and just might eliminate any need for additional ‘recovery’ meetings (which would be needed if the work item was not completed as needed).

 

What’s Next?

Assess your own situation.  If you find that management of your calendar is lacking in some areas then assess whether you are willing to try some new techniques.  Select a couple of tips from this article or invent a few on your own, and try them out for a few weeks until they become second nature.  If they work for you, then share your results (and this article) with your colleagues.  Good luck!