Most executives I work with who struggle with productivity complain that their schedules are overloaded and they can't "find" the time to work on their key priorities. They show me calendars which are full of meetings and phone calls scattered across the day.
While I have infinite understanding, I have little sympathy because one of the best tests of someone's executive skill is their ability to control their time and set their priorities. Executives who excel don't find time, they make time for important tasks. They do this by designing their optimal schedule and protecting themselves from unnecessary distractions.
Over the years, I've developed an approach that has helped many 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 week.
Here are the steps to creating a system that will stand 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 during the day and the week. Keep a log or 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 contexts improve your focus and flow? What patterns and correlations do you notice? Understanding how your natural attention and enthusiasm varies 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: 1) how much value that project creates, and 2) how critical you are to the success of that project. Your personal priorities should be on those high-value projects that only you can do. High-value projects other people can do should be quickly 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 ideal week and your list of personal priorities, create an ideal week by mapping out what type of activities you should do during each hour of each day to maximize your productivity. 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 4:00pm? 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 tell most people to go out one to three months since their calendars are typically full or they have prior commitments that are difficult to move. I suggest that executives have 40-50 percent of their calendars booked with 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 the spaces between.
5. Create blocks for distracting, but necessary activities
For things like calls and standing meetings, I suggest separate time blocks. For example, I schedule blocks for phone calls in the afternoons which are my low energy and low productivity periods. I know I don't need to be at my best for phone calls which are naturally engaging, so afternoons are a good time for me. I also create blocks for recurring tasks and meetings like prospecting, following up on social media messages, employee one-on-one meetings, etc.
6. If you must, move it don't delete it
There will be times when something comes up that conflicts with one of your critical blocks. The key here is not to just schedule over them or delete them. Rather, force yourself to figure out where to move them, and, if need be, move other commitments to get that block to fit in another place. The new time slot might be a less ideal time and I might need to cancel a subsequent commitment, but rescheduling that block of time reminds me that the work is important and 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 all keys to developing a defensible calendar. Done well, you can dramatically increase productivity and engagement in your work.