How To Take Control Of Your Diary At Work

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

If your outlook calendar is clearly out to get you, & leaving you feeling powerless over your day, I've got a few tricks up my sleeve that can help put you back in control...

Take a look at your diary - how many meetings are in there this week (or today)?

I recently heard somebody say “my week always looks nice & clear on a Monday, but by Tuesday afternoon I can see I’ll have my headset glued to my face for the rest of the week”

Sounds great... and frustratingly familiar.

I also often hear statements such as “ideally I’d get out for a run at lunchtime, but when I plan to have a lunch break, someone ends up puts a meeting in it because that’s the only space I have”

Soap box moment: if the ONLY gap in someone's diary all day is their lunch break, can we agree that common sense suggests we leave it there?!

Something I find interesting is the mindset many of us (I’ve been there myself too) have around meeting requests - we say ‘put it in my diary’. The outlook calendar invite is in fact a meeting request (you literally have to accept it for it to go into your calendar)…but there’s something in the way the invite comes in, or maybe the culture of our environment that makes us feel we have no choice but to accept it.

The fact is, this is a mindset, a belief & a reaction based on that belief - we always have a choice.

Actually putting this into practice with your management or your team might seem like a no-go, but I’m going to show you not only why it’s possible, but how you can make it happen (regardless of who you work with).

I once worked for a company where a rule was implemented that meetings could only happen on Tuesdays & Thursdays - it was pretty controversial but for me, it made total sense.

There were too many meetings happening all the time...nobody was ever getting any actual work done!

By condensing all meetings into 2 days of the week, it meant that most people did have a couple of intense, busy, tiring days - but they also had 3 days where free & clear to get on with what they needed to do without interruption (and actually, when you know on a meeting day that you’re not expected to be squeezing work in between, it’s much less draining than when you’re trying to switch your focus all the time, or get something important done in a 15 minute break!)

The implementation of that specific rule definitely didn’t work for everyone, but the concept is what provides a different perspective to enable you to use & protect your time more effectively, so you can work on & deliver what you need to, to the best of your ability.

This rule was implemented because nobody felt they had any control over their diaries. Nobody ever said no to a meeting, because of course, the assumption is that if someone is asking for your time, they must need it (and everyone likes to feel needed!)

Think of all the other reasons you’ve ever invited someone to a meeting:

  • They need to know the outcome

  • They want to know (or, let’s be real - you want them to know) that you’re working on or in control of something

  • You don’t want them to feel left out

  • It would be good exposure for them

Looking at it like that, how else could you achieve the same result without taking an hour out of their day?

When we’re at work, we’re often so busy that we take everything at face value.

We make assumptions about people’s motives or what it is they want from us, or why. It’s easy not to stop & think about the wider perspective - especially when half the time, the person making the request of you is in the same boat...not thinking about what that means for you or what assumptions you might be making.

We all know communication is key, but it’s hard to live up to that rule when there are a million other things going on (& we don’t want to drag office politics into the mix).

So there are some really easy things we can do to better manage our diaries, our relationships & therefore our time:

#1 Make sure that your meetings are meaningful

Scope out what you need to talk about & most importantly what outcome you need from it. If you’re having a discussion without a purpose, you could be there all day! It’s the worst feeling sitting down to a meeting & nobody taking control of the conversation or being able to call it when you’re done.

Have an agenda, know what you’re aiming for & then invite the people who need to contribute.

#2 Use the ‘optional’ section in meeting invites

If you’re inviting someone from an awareness perspective, but it’s not essential that they’re there to contribute - let them know it’s happening if they have time & the inclination to attend but it’s up to them - give them that control back of their diary.

#3 Build in time for making tea!

There’s no point in even trying to deny it. When you have a meeting, you cut it to the wire before you get up from your desk because it’s usually interrupting work you’re in the flow of...but you also know to sit through an hour’s discussion you need to be comfortable (that includes a wee & tea break - I’m just being realistic!)

It's so frustrating when you make the effort to get to a meeting on time, only to find you can’t start because someone is taking their comfort break. So accept that it’s just going to happen. Most people (including those who rushed to get there on time) would prefer to have that space to transition from what they were doing into the right headspace for what you’re going to talk about, & build in the time. That might look like a 1 hour meeting actually being 40 minutes (with 10 either side for this transition time) - so work your agenda around that & stick to the point during the conversation.

When we take part in meaningful meetings, with progressive discussion & clear outcomes - we feel useful, valued, like we’ve contributed. That in itself is incredibly rewarding, & makes us feel great about ourselves...which sets us up for more motivated work afterwards (then a relaxing evening)!

When we join meetings where we know we don’t need to be there, or where people are late, distracted by their devices or answering emails - we feel disrespected.

"We also have better things we could be doing but we’re here, we’ve shown up, so why can’t you?"

What happened the last time you joined a meeting that made you feel like that? Was it productive? Did you go back to your desk fully energised & smash out the rest of your to-do list with a smile?

Didn’t think so.

Awareness of how we’re using our time is such a key part of how we manage it, & we can start to take control back of our diaries by giving others control of theirs.

If you want people to respect you & your time, act like theirs is just as important (it is!)

That means questioning your attendance if you don't think it's necessary, & but also means if you accept a meeting, you need to be showing up with your full attention so you can get the thing done well, efficiently, & get back to it.

Maybe you have some recurring catch ups in your diary - & when it comes to line management & checking in with your team these are probably more important than you might be giving them credit for.

These are typically the ones where you put them in with good intentions to prioritise your team’s wellbeing while things are quiet...then things get busy & you say "I don’t have time for this this week - are you OK?" but never reschedule them!

It’s more than OK to move a meeting that isn’t critical for one that is but - here’s what you need to think about:

  • How often are these meetings scheduled in & what’s the purpose? Could you schedule them less frequently (monthly instead of weekly) or more frequently so they don’t take as long (monthly instead of quarterly reviews)?

  • If you are going to push them out, how can you capture the purpose in another way that means you’re not losing touch or missing something important? Rather than asking someone "are you ok" (expecting them to say yes), give them a set of 2-3 questions that gives you an insight into what really is going on for them, so you know whether the catch up needs to be rescheduled soon with importance, or you really can skip this one & move on with your day.

Be smart with your time.

Respect yours & others' time (as well as the energy it takes to focus & switch focus) to actually empower you (plus your team) to perform at your highest level in the quickest time with the least energy - that’s the real meaning of efficiency.

Meaningful meetings are the easiest switch you can make towards this way of working. Just one person taking this approach has the power to influences others to do the same.

If you'd like to learn how to implement this (plus other strategies) to improve your performance & increase your impact at work (especially if you think you might face a management block when it comes to applying such a concept), you can find out more about how I can support you to transform your career from ordinary to exceptional here

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