I Can’t Keep Up! Six Principles For Using Your Calendar To Get More Done

Through my years I’ve seen many leaders at all levels struggle with getting things done either by having to work late in the evenings and on weekends or by completely missing due dates. As I’ve talked with these leaders, they just consider it part of the job, unable or unwilling to do anything about it. I found myself early in my career doing the exact same thing; setting unrealistic expectations and killing myself to try to meet them, only to have a limited success rate of delivering on time. I hated that hamster wheel.

The good news is you don’t have to accept this as the status quo. Here are six simple principles to get better control of your work and be more deliberate about what you get done:

1. Make your to-do list a “done” list – It’s commonplace to keep a to-do list. My approach is to apply four changes to the prototypical to-do list:

  • Express what needs to get done in terms of the final deliverable, not the action to produce it – For example, instead of saying, “Research hotels in Venice,” say, “Decide and book hotel in Venice.” The wording focuses on a definitive end to the activity, versus something which has no defined end.
  • Add a date the to-do needs to be done – By adding the due date, you by default prioritize when something needs to be done, which is the same as prioritizing the list.
  • Add an urgent/not-urgent indicator – By adding the urgent/not-urgent indicator, you are forced to think about not only those things which need to be addressed right away, but also those which are important but not required immediately.
  • Subdivide dones into deliverables that can be completed within a normal work week – For bigger deliverables that may take longer than a week to produce, break the deliverable down into smaller deliverables that can reasonably be completed in a week. For example, if you have a done called “produce competitor report,” break the deliverable into smaller deliverables that align with the report’s table of contents, i.e. “Create strengths and weaknesses analysis for each competitor.”

2. Ensure your calendar includes everything that consumes time in your day, not just meetings – I’ve seen countless examples of people only putting meetings with others in their calendars, making their days crammed with meetings, then burning the midnight oil to get non-meeting work done. Any activity that consumes time in your day–meetings, work time, personal time, professional development, or other activities–deserve time scheduled in your calendar.

3. Schedule a recurring Friday afternoon progress and planning meeting with yourself – Near the end of your day on Friday, block out 30 minutes on your calendar to do three things:

  • Review what you committed to get done – For those items you committed to do in the prior week, look at what you actually got done. For those items you either didn’t get done or spent more than your allocated time completing, ask yourself why. Were you too optimistic? Did you let yourself get distracted? Was there legitimate activity that was higher priority? Doing a retrospective analysis on your planned vs. actual done activity will help you be more realistic in future planning.
  • Plan out your calendar for the upcoming week – This is the time to review your “done” list for urgent and non-urgent deliverables needing to be completed and slotting the work time to produce the deliverables into your calendar. It’s important to be realistic with yourself on how much time is needed to complete the deliverables and not set yourself up for failure. Remember to ensure your calendar includes all activity that consumes time in your day.
  • Document what you plan to get done for the following week – For items you are committing to getting done, update your Friday planning meeting for the next week to include the dones, which you’ll review in a week’s time.

4. Make difficult calendar choices – If there just aren’t enough hours in the week to get things done, look to see what needs to change. Perhaps it’s a change in due date or altering or deferring other items in your calendar that are taking up time. Whatever the case, be willing to make some decisions about what you do and who you meet with.

5. Find hidden time in your calendar – Are there meetings you just don’t need to be at? Are there one-hour meetings that can be done in 30 minutes? Can the frequency of recurring meetings be reduced? Can some things be done through offline communication, i.e. email? Ask yourself where time spent in meetings can be reduced or eliminated without materially adverse business impact.

6. Remember that you own your calendar, it doesn’t own you – Certainly things may happen during the week which could alter what you get done (or when you do it). Don’t beat yourself up if it does happen, just look at the frequency and reasons behind the changes. If they’re happening on an exceptional basis because of unforeseen work hitting your plate, then accept it as part of the job. If they’re happening frequently, then it could be you’re either not realistic in your planning or you’re allowing yourself to be distracted. It’s up to you to decide, just be honest with yourself.

A common thread through these principles is discipline. You can put the best-intentioned techniques in place but if you don’t follow them, you’re dooming yourself to emails at midnight. Seriously consider the principles, put your spin on them, and put them into action.