Making Time for Strategic Work: Designing a Leader’s Calendar

Updated: 10 Mar, 2021 | Alexis Haselberger

When I work with clients, many of whom are people leaders (founders, C-suite, VP/Directors and managers), the chief complaint about their schedule is almost always the lack of time for any strategic thinking time and deep work.  They often jump from meeting to meeting, fire to fire, and it doesn't seem to them that there’s a clear path out.    

Now you’d think that the higher you rise in the ranks, the more control you have over your schedule.  So, why are these folks in this predicament?  If they want more time for strategic work, why can’t they simply make time for it?  

The answers are varied, and often valid, at first glance.  But, the underlying reason is often that our schedules tend to be additive, saying no is hard, and the wider the scope and breadth of our role, the more people need our input and place demands on our time. On its own, every request for our time seems reasonable.  But together, this results in a schedule so chock full of meetings that there’s no time left for anything else.  Instead of leading the strategic agenda, you’re beholden to the needs of your team. 

I will always distinctly remember one client of mine, a VP at a large tech company, who had 37 hours of recurring weekly meetings on his schedule when we first started working together.  When we audited his schedule, each of these meetings had innocently made it to his calendar.  But because the nature of recurring meetings is that we tend to add them thoughtfully, but never remove them, he was working longer and longer hours and had virtually no time, except the evenings, to do any “work”. 

So, how can we avoid finding ourselves in a position like my client.  Let’s take a critical look at the components of a leader’s workload, which will need to be reflected in the calendar.   If we start from the premise that a leader both needs to be accessible to her staff AND protect time for deep, strategic work, what are some of the tactics we can use?   

Most leaders need to split their time between three primary types of work: meetings, communication (email/Slack) and strategic work.  So let’s dive a little deeper to see where we can take action in each realm. 

Make Meetings Work for You  

If you feel like  you're working for your meetings instead of them working for you, 

1. Audit your recurring meetings

Review all your current recurring meetings.  The goal is to determine: 

  • Are the meetings the right length? 
  • The right frequency? 
  • Do they contain the right people? 
  • Are they necessary? 
  • Must you attend? 

To determine if you must attend, ask yourself “Am I gaining something important from being here?” and “Am I contributing something by being here?” 

If the answer is yes to both, then the meeting can stay on your calendar 

However, it’s critical to determine if what you are gaining and contributing can only be done during a live, synchronous meeting.  

2. Let your EA be your gatekeeper 

Define clear guidelines for your EA regarding scheduling.  It’s much, much easier for your EA to push back on your behalf than for you to do it yourself.  If you’re like most of my clients, if people want your time, you’ll say yes!  They need you and you want to be there. You’re a good manager and a good manager is accessible, right?  It comes from a good place, but doesn't put you in a good place.  

Take yourself out of the mix.  All requests for your time can go through your EA, and you EA can help you keep accountable to yourself, by enacting the guidelines you give them.  

3. Consolidate remaining meetings 

For the meetings that remain on your calendar, do what you can to consolidate them so that your calendar doesn't look like swiss cheese.  Consolidating meetings is one of the only ways you’re going to be able to carve out large blocks of uninterrupted time for strategic work. (And that’s the goal here, right?)  

If you’re worried about being in back to back meetings, reduce the meeting length such that 30 minute meetings become 20 minutes and hour long meetings become 45 minute.  That way, you’ll ensure you have a short break to reset and even take a break before diving into the next one.  (Remember, Parkinson’s law is that work expands to fit the time allotted.  It’s very rare that you can’t get through the contents of a 30 minute meeting in 20 minutes, if you set that expectation.) 

If you can theme the meeting consolidation such that you have a bit less context switching to do, that’s even better.  So, if you can do all your 1:1s with your direct reports on a single day, and meetings related to different functional areas or projects on different days, then your brain will benefit from being in one head/problem space longer. 

4. Take social capital meetings at meal times 

If you have meetings on your calendar whose purpose is primarily social in nature, take these meetings at mealtimes (yes, even in remote environments - have a Zoom lunch!).  If the primary goal of the meeting is “staying in touch with” or “staying on top of” but the meeting doesn’t have a clear agenda of what will be discussed or decided, use the more casual nature of these meetings to coincide with meal times.  Everyone has to eat anyway! 

5. Enact office hours! 

If there are frequent requests for your time of an ad-hoc nature, from skip-levels, peers or others in the org, try out a strategy that college professors have been using for years!  Reserve time on your schedule for office hours.  Pick a block of an hour or 2 a week, and let people book 20 minute slots as needed, but only during this block. 

6. Use time budgets 

Think about your time from a budget perspective.  Let’s say you really like being able to mentor others.  Or to network with colleagues outside your org.  How much time, per week, or per month, are you willing to devote to these endeavors?  Ask your EA to help you stay within your defined time budgets. 

Communicate with intention and ease 

If you have an EA, delegate email processing.  Clearly define which types of emails your EA has authority to answer on your behalf.  And then define a simple system such that the only emails that make it all the way to you are those that require your attention only. 

1. Use templates 

I’m willing to bet that you find yourself writing and rewriting similar phrases, paragraphs, even whole emails.  Most of us do.  So how about embracing templates?   

Gmail has templates built in, but I prefer using TextExpander (or another similar tool).  Whenever you find yourself writing something you know you’re written before, save it as a template, or a snippet and never waste time rewriting that same thing again.    

To take this a step further, give your EA templates.  If you want to ensure quality control for delegated emails, write up some templates for your EA to use when responding on your behalf, or better yet, have them write up the email templates for your review/approval. 

2. Batch your communications 

When you do process email and Slack, do so in batches.  Turn off the notifications and don’t leave email/Slack open all day.  Instead, block a couple of times a day to process email/Slack such that it’s not interrupting you the rest of the time.    

Studies show that every time we are interrupted or distracted it takes, on average, 23 minutes to refocus.  So, every time a notification goes “ding or you interrupt yourself from what you’re doing to go check email randomly, imagine 23 minutes of valuable time disappearing from your day!  

3. Communicate your emergency channel 

If you're going to turn off your notifications, then people do need to have a way to get a hold of you in a true emergency. So clearly let your team know what that emergency channel is. Is it a text? A phone call? No matter what it is, let them know! 

Build-in time for strategic work 

Start defining blocks of uninterrupted alone time in your schedule.

Once you’ve defined these blocks on your calendar, protect them with your life!  Think of this like Tetris; the blocks can be moved, but they don't disappear. If you can get a whole day in without meetings, all the better.  If you can only get 90 minutes each morning, go with that.  Any strategic, uninterrupted time is better than none. 

Additionally, be specific about what you’ll do during these blocks.  The more specific you are about what you’ll do, the more likely you are to do it (instead of just ignoring the block). It’s fine to have recurring “strategic work” blocks on your calendar, but make sure that, at least the day before, you clearly define what you plan to accomplish during the next day’s block. 

And finally, schedule strategic time in the mornings (if you can’t build in a full “no meeting day”), before checking email/Slack.  Why?  Well, the second you check messages, you’re bombarded with “other people’s priorities” and because humans are social creatures we’re compelled to respond.  So now we’re stuck in reactive mode, and it’s really hard to focus on strategic work when we’re reacting.  

1. Refine your delegation strategy 

Take a look at what’s on your plate and for every task or project, ask yourself “Am I the only person who can do this?” 

  • If so, it stays. 
  • If not, delegate. 

We’re often reluctant to delegate because 1) we think we can do it better/faster ourselves or 2) because we don’t want to overburden our teams.  The former is often true, but not a good reason not to delegate.  Think of delegation as a growth opportunity for your team, and a way to free up time for yourself.  The latter comes from a very good place, and of course, we want to delegate using kind, collaborative language.  But, I have story after story from my clients (and my own experience) where delegation provides more welcome opportunity than undue burden. 

2. Set crystal clear expectations 

The clearer you are, up front, about your expectations for delegated work, the less you’ll be needed while the work is being done, and the fewer messes you’ll need to clean up. 

Last week, a clear theme in my sessions with clients was how a lack of clarity in expectations was resulting in frustration and extra demands on the leader’s time.  In each case, the leader in question hadn’t been 100 percent clear in expectations because they had either simply assumed that their employees would be thinking about things the same way as they did, or because they were actively trying not to micromanage.  While I applaud the intention, because no one likes working for a micromanager, the execution was flawed.  You want to be super clear on the WHAT of delegation, and then let your employees figure out the HOW.  People appreciate clarity, because it helps everyone waste less time. 

Not sure where to begin?  Try this: 

1. Design your ideal schedule.   

  • What would a perfect day, or perfect week look like?   
  • When would you be in meetings?   
  • How much strategic thinking time do you have, and when is it?  
  • What time would you start the day and end the day? 

2. Then take a look at your actual schedule and define the gaps. 

  • What needs to change to get you closer to what you want, schedule wise? 
  • Do you need buy-in from anyone else to make the changes? 

3. Finally, enact the changes you identified.  Or have your EA help you. 

Related: 6 Strategies to Augment Your Time with Calendar Management

About the Author: Alexis Haselberger is a time management and Productivity Coach at Alexis Haselberger Coaching and Consulting.

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