Calendars suck. Oh my goodness it is much easier to let the meetings come in as they may and do just-in-time shuffling than to try to wrestle and wrangle them.

But that doesn’t get me what I want to achieve anytime soon, so I have been doing experiments to get more intentional with how I spend my time. It’s hard, but worth it.

While I do have separate calendars for work and home, I no longer treat my life as two separate entities competing for the same space. I’m talking about the space around the standard work day times specifically, where work would often bleed into personal time.

Here’s what I’m trying:

  • Be intentional with how I spend all of my time
  • Say yes, later (and when), or no to every request for my time from myself or something else

What My Current Calendar Experiment Looks Like

One-time Setup

  • Earlier this year, I invested [1] in coming up with a list of the general things that are most important to me to develop and maintain: connecting with others, staying healthy, and having a bigger purpose. Having vision statements about these and other areas of life give me something to refer to often to make prioritization decisions. I call thisΒ My Map, and it’s essential. Going through the priorities on My Map one by one, I figured out what strategies to try to get closer to them. Also, I have a recurring scheduled event to spend time revisiting these periodically and keep them current.
  • I gutted my calendar. Not really. I very much wanted to, but found it easier to start with a new calendar and copy over the things that I knew I’d need to keep and were already scheduled. Like the previously mentioned recurring event, and a lot of work meetings. Basic essentials things like sleep, eat, and sports practice went on, too. [2]
  • NEW: I tracked how I spend my time by category for a week or two on a fresh calendar. Based on that, I created a daily target schedule. Here’s the breakdown I’m going to aim for each day to avoid overcommitting myself and squeezing into my valuable non-work time:
    4 hours of sync meetings, 2 hours of working without distractions, 2 hours of async work split up around meeting blocks, 1 hour break. 🀞

Weekly Steps

[3]
  • Considering all the inputs (My Map and related strategies, existing calendars, To Do lists), only review My Map, and hide the rest for now. I mean it. No peaking.
  • With those priorities in mind, think deep for a couple minutes. “What do I want completed by the end of this week?” Note that these should be specific actions and real results–observable trials and/or measurable value out of something I created that didn’t exist before.
    • Write it down.
    • Break it down right now into all the detail. That will help figure out how much time it will take, and give an easy plan to execute when its time comes up. Keep things in 2 hour or less chunks to make it easy to schedule into focus time blocks (keep reading, those come up soon enough).
  • Brain dump anything else on my mind that I need to get done. Again, no peaking at my other lists yet, go with the top of mind.
  • Break each thing down into specific plans, or decide to postpone itassign it, or don't do it. Capture follow up items for things I’ve assigned out, and put a target date on things I’ve postponed. Otherwise they’re things I won’t do. Tip: Daily, weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly routines and matching recurring calendar events are super helpful. [4]
  • NOW bring up my other inputs and see if I’d like to adjust anything on my clean list.
  • Do another pass and see what I can combine or string together! My fave combo: beach and workout and family time, with a bit of planning time if my partner drives, and a quick trip to the store on the way home.
  • Put the list in priority order.
  • Now, back on my calendar. I’m not slotting anything in yet. First, create blocks of times by every major category, like sleep, meetings, free time, interruptions, exercise, meals. Yes, Liz, take breaks [5] and eat. And most importantly, schedule slots to disconnect and be present and focus. When it comes to my priorities, this is the time to do that work.
  • And here’s the fun part: go through that list in order, and put it all on my calendar into those blocks. When I’m out of available time slots, the rest of the doing this week list moves into one of those other three categories.
  • That’s all the hard work! Now, go through the week and just follow the plan. It’s all as good as done. When things come up, move things around as needed if I choose to do them, or I can choose to postpone, assign, or skip.
  • At the end of the week, do a retro (what worked well, what kept it from working well, what do I want to try next). Celebrate what I did accomplish, note tweaks to make for next time, and capture anything not done under postponed. Schedule that, too.

Timing

Well. This has seriously been a series of experiments and activity consuming quite a bit of time this entire year, and I’m not done yet. So there’s that, but I am not about to let it deter me. I’ve heard people can do it in an hour once they get into the habit of it and there’s a lot of rinse and repeat. I’m not there yet. It still takes me a couple hours, so my next tweak is to do an hour on Sunday night (focused on me) and an hour on Monday morning (focused on work).

What I’ve Learned So Far

  • I don’t say yes to things right away as much as I used to, and respond with when I think I can get to it, and I schedule it. What I see is that people come to expect this from me, and will either ask things of me less often or wait. This is a good thing.
  • I still schedule more things to do than humanly possible, and don’t get some of it done. I’m a work in progress.
  • My self-confidence increases as I come to realize I’ll accomplish whatever I set out to do. I’m getting better about being in charge of my time and setting expectations.
  • While on the surface I still think calendaring is hard, in my reality it can be easy if I stick to key decisions I’ve made about my priorities, and rinse and repeat more. That said, if you want to watch a grown woman bite her nails for the first time in a dozen years, watch me try to dig in and get serious with my calendar. πŸ˜…
  • Many times it takes me longer to do things than the time I schedule for them, usually because I don’t account for context switching, interruptions, and fatigue. And other times because I’m trying to make it better than it needs to be.
  • I am a lot more reactionary than I realized, and usually dig in to address something that just came up more than sticking to plan and scheduling the new thing for later. It’s something I want to unpack to see if I should schedule time for this specifically, or if I want to dig in about how I value what I have already scheduled and if I’m avoiding it for reasons.

I’m absolutely convinced that being intentional with my time is more effective for me, so I’m keeping at it, coming up with a plan and sticking to it. It is taking less effort each time.

In fact, I’m going to stop writing about this (which I didn’t schedule) and sit and do another attempt right now.

(Update after that attempt: having the previous attempts behind me, having the steps written down here and following them without thinking about how overwhelming they are was a lot easier! I have a full plan for this week, and it is glorious! I’ll report back on how the week goes and subsequent trials.)

More Updates

I’m using this exact post to do my weekly planning, and have been capturing learnings as I go. I’ll eventually work these back into the plan or create a more streamlined post from it. I created that more streamlined post.

(17 Oct 2021) It’s been about six weeks now of doing this routinely. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The hardest part was getting the recurring things set up so that I never have to think about doing them again. Now that they’re set up, it’s so much easier to get them done and move them around if I need to.
  • Put in more “down time” for task switching and unscheduled activity.
  • Plan additional time to respond to small action items that come out of big meetings, so block time for it whenever a big meeting comes up. Bit action items go into my to do list for further breakdown and calendaring.
  • I need a lot more time for disconnected work that isn’t related to big goals.
  • It’s easier for me to keep a running list that I can create work blocks from, rather than create it from scratch each week.
  • I absolutely need to do more than one week at a time, so I do three weeks. Then as things come in, I can purposefully shuffle or postpone them. I also create blocks of time that are labeled as “schedule here” to make it easier for folks to schedule time with me.
  • I’m still struggling wrapping things up at the end of the day, and feel this is when I frequently get into a groove. I will try to position my work blocks at the end of the day to match this energy, and make it easier to wrap the day up according to my desired schedule.
  • It’s easier for me to have more meetings on some days and less on others, than try to come up with an ideal schedule for each day that is more or less identical. So I’m keeping the same target hours per week, but loosening up the per day targets by category.

(29 Dec 2021) Another six-ish weeks, and more learnings:

  • Using a list to create work blocks from has been going really well, and so has having repeating Work Blocks scheduled on my calendar.
  • Mind maps with MindMeister helped me get started since I could easily brain dump, group things together, and move them around as related sets. Since then, Todoist has been helpful because it integrates with Google Calendar, and I can bulk update schedules and labels. I found individual items fast and easy to create, categorize, and prioritize, more so than Trello, though otherwise are pretty similar.
  • Google Calendar’s Focus Time event types (available for work or school accounts only) are useful for creating recurring Work Blocks, though this automatically declines event invites so if you are flexible then consider doing this manually.
  • Keep a running list of things to triage has been key to making this easy, especially since I don’t immediately jump on things. Going over it at the end of the day has helped me make adjustments to upcoming plans accordingly and rest well knowing things are settled.
  • While I do still schedule more sync time more on a few days of the week, I no longer aim to keep two days a week fully async. I like having a few things scheduled to help me stick to my desired time allotments.
  • If I skip making a plan for the week for whatever reason, I’m much more reactive and less productive, and often end up disconnecting from myself and my family more. If I miss this, I should prioritize doing it ahead of other things.
  • I still need more time in my many roles (at work and at home) to be reactive, though, so I’m making more explicit time for that. I still need to commit to fewer things, and focus on priorities and delegate more.
  • Don’t count on being able to task switch so quickly, and account for time needed to get into a task. Schedule more transition time in between meetings and focus blocks, and tasks within focus blocks.
  • I’m trying to see how this is similar to leading an engineering team or group. And a family. I’m aiming for sustainable growth for each of these, though there are times that we’re more rapidly changing or expanding, and things evolve to be a little more spontaneous and reactive until we can settle back into easier patterns again.
  • Looking at my map each week is great, but breaking that down is too much to do each week. I’ve shifted this to a monthly planning activity, where I’ll build out the next chunk of strategies and activities that feed Output Goals to achieve items on My Map. I’ve also set up a larger monthly retro for myself to capture what I want to keep, stop, and start.
  • I was also starting with a blank calendar each week, and that was likewise too much to go through each time. I needed to keep up with upcoming weeks more to respond to incoming meeting requests and keep space open for my own commitments, so have to look ahead more than one week at a time.

Too Distracting for In-line Reference πŸ˜

[1] Thank you, Kate Byers and Corporate Women Unleashed and Jadine Cleary for helping me come up with My Map! Sundance forever! (Inside joke I’ll explain to anyone interested, and related — if anyone knows a good graphic designer looking for small kine freelance work, hit me up)
[2] This is really easy to do with Google calendars, acknowledging their data privacy policies.
[3] Inspired by Monday Hour One and Lauren Cash. This program is good, but I haven’t yet invested all the time to fully digest and implement it.
[4] I used mindmeister on my laptop or tablet for this right now, though I’ve tried text files, Trello, GitHub personal project boards, Google tasks, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. One drawback with mindmeister is it’s a little challenging to use on mobile — not prohibitively so for general reference and tweaking, but I’m definitely not doing this process with it on my phone.
[5] Fun fact: I play Wordscapes, and noticed how often I can solve a word that I couldn’t previously figure out after I step away from the level for about an hour and come back fresh! I never believed in the power of a break before that discovery, despite all the evidence I’ve heard to support it. I’m a stubborn learner sometimes. So unusual for all of us I’m sure.

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