Finding time in full calendars and other challenges

Answering reader questions

Hi there,

Today I’m answering reader questions. We’re talking about some of the situations that can arise when you use a calendar to schedule your own work. (Here’s more on the basics of using a calendar at work.)

Combining fixed times for meetings with customer-friendly scheduling

I’m a mortgage broker for private clients. I set fixed blocks of time for meeting with customers, but of course I have to be responsive to their scheduling needs. I try to be as flexible as I can in setting up meetings, which then has an effect on my workdays. How can I balance my own workload with being available for my clients?

This is a familiar dilemma: How can you reserve time for important work and still make yourself available for clients? Perhaps you can manage to say “no” to internal requests sometimes, but that’s a good deal harder with outside requests.

A few thoughts: 

  • Start by defining how much time you’re already available for clients and how much time you can make yourself available. When it comes to customers, that could be: as much time as possible, preferable 100% of my time. But usually it’s less, say, half your time. After all, you still have to prepare for those meetings and perform all follow-up tasks. Making yourself available for more appointments will affect the quality of your work. That’s a clear reason not to accept ever more appointments. 

  • Everyone has their own take on being flexible. I can imagine that in this case, it’s fine to say: “I’m available for appointments Monday through Thursday from 2pm to 6pm and Fridays until noon. Pick an open timeslot on this one-click form.”

  • When it comes to internal availability, you could experiment with setting clear guidelines for your coworkers. Or when you’re asked to join a meeting, you could say, for instance: “I’ve noticed it’s harder for me to focus if I’m always available. Would you guys try to come to me in the afternoons with any requests? I’m experimenting with using the morning hours for concentrated work.”

Colleagues and deep work

I have quite a few meetings in the course of a week and also try to reserve blocks of time for deep work. What calendar do you plan that in? When I add it to my shared work calendar, it makes it hard for others to schedule a meeting with me because it looks like I’m almost never available.

I think availability inhouse—as long as you clearly communicate what you’re working on—is loads easier to organize than availability outside the organization. But it can still present a puzzle.

Tips:

  • Indicate what you’ll be doing in the time blocks you reserve for your own work. If people see Deep work: recruiting a senior software engineer on your calendar, they know what you’re up to and can weigh whether their own request takes priority. 

  • Indicate whether the time blocks are movable. When I worked at Blendle, I’d put movable tasks in square brackets. My colleagues then knew it was okay to schedule something for me that went into one of those time blocks, if need be. 

  • Earmark time for any ad hoc matters that come up inhouse. Don’t just set aside the time, but make sure your coworkers know they can always book that time with you.  

  • Share why you reserve time for deep work. This is key. I believe that taking time to focus on your own work is important for all of us. Otherwise you end up chasing deadline after deadline, without a larger sense of what really matters. Setting aside that focus time will be new for a lot of people. So don’t just start doing it without letting your team know. Make sure you tell everyone how they can reach you during those blocks—or even schedule you—if necessary. 

When coworkers’ calendars are booked solid with work

These days I run into calendars packed with the work people have scheduled for themselves. Planning meetings for people to come together seems nearly impossible. Sometimes it’s 3 weeks before I can get just a few people together for a meeting. Surely that’s not the idea? How can you make space for putting heads together in your calendar?

Waiting a couple weeks to get together with people for something that’s not terribly important doesn’t have to be a problem. Yet for urgent issues, even waiting a day can be too long. In other words: as far as I’m concerned, coworker availability doesn’t need to be a goal in itself. Neither does speed. The aim is structured work on what’s most important for the organization—the things with the greatest impact.

Coming up with a concrete solution is tough, but here are some ideas: 

  • I encourage everyone to plan at least one week ahead. That means it can prove difficult on a Monday or Tuesday to find a time to get together that same week. 

  • If calendars are perpetually full, that may be worth taking a look. What are they filled with? Do the calendar items correspond with truly important matters? 

  • I think everyone should be able to tell you what their top projects, goals, or activities are (up to 3) at any given time. That’s also true of teams, and certainly for organizations as a whole. Once everyone’s clear on that, you can talk about what has priority. Availability follows from there. 

  • It can help to talk about expectations for time and effort, particularly in larger organizations, if the help of all kinds of different divisions is needed. For some, “within 3 weeks” can feel like an eternity. For others, that may be the most urgent timeframe possible.

Thanks for sharing your questions and have a good week, 

Rick