Do you ever feel overwhelmed at work? Like you have too many meetings and no time to actually do your work?
One of my students recently shared with me that he had been going through 5:00 am to 5:00 pm days, where he is constantly on calls. He starts doing "real work" after 5:00 pm which leaves him exhausted. He also acknowledged with this unrealistic schedule he is unable to deliver his best work.
That’s not a sustainable situation. It's not good for him, his team, or the company.
I know it all too well... I used to do the same. Luckily I learned there's a better way. If you are struggling to manage your own calendar and your days feel like an endless compromise, this advice could be exactly what you need.
The Cost of Letting Others Own Your Calendar
You may be thinking: ...I'm not letting anyone own my calendar, these are just the requirements of my job.
I hear you. However, accepting calendar invitations from other people means you are prioritizing their needs over yours.
Here's what usually happens as a result:
- We accept everyone else’s priorities
- We let them schedule time (any time) on our calendar
- Real work is pushed to the end of the day or on weekends
- The quality of our work drops
- We have less time for family, hobbies, or just unwinding
- We start resenting work
- We decide to leave and find a job that will provide a better work-life balance
- We get a new job, let others own our calendar, and restart the cycle
Here is the sad truth, leaving is usually not the answer. It's not your environment that needs to change, it's you.
Taking back control of your schedule is something you need to do for yourself. No one will just hand it to you and say "sorry we took so much of your time". It's up to you to set your boundaries and teach people to respect them, by respecting them yourself.
Let me show you how you can get started.
Design Your Workday It's hard to set boundaries if you don't know what they look like. The first step toward designing a workday that works for you is to get clear on what you want.
I like to use blank paper or an empty Google Doc and start from scratch. Forget about constraints - we'll deal with those later.
Ask yourself: If I could design the perfect work day, what would my calendar look like?
When do you do your best work? ( morning/afternoon)
What type of work gives you energy? What feels draining?
What are some top categories of work/meetings you need to accommodate?
These guiding questions could help you decide when to block focus time, when to schedule meetings, and when to have 1:1s.
It will also tell you what you are missing: Lunch breaks? Workout? Creative work?
Here is what I came up with a few years ago when I did this exercise:
I know I should do strategic work early in the day, that's when I have the most energy and focus.
That's why I prefer to spend time with my team early in the day. I can do "thoughtless" work in the afternoon and then unwind with a podcast or a walk outside.
On lighter days like Friday, I can take a yoga class at noon. I know it gives me a ton of energy which means I can do more creative work in the afternoon.
The goal is to find what works for you and design your ideal day around it.
Time Block Your Calendar
I talked about time blocking before so I won't go into details, but the goal is to create dedicated time blocks for different types of activities.
Grouping similar activities help reduce context switching fatigue and keeps you more productive.
For example - I would have the weekly team meeting and the weekly 1:1s with my team members on the same day. That way I could start the day by sharing the main updates with the whole team, instead of updating each team member individually. It also meant we all looked at the same metrics within the same time frame, which made it so much easier to evaluate progress and share feedback.
In the same vain I would try and schedule all of my weekly 1:1 with my manager and colleagues for the same day, so I can share the exact same update with everyone (think one update report instead of 5).
And lastly, I would block 2-3 hours of focus time to do deep work. I need more than 30 min between meetings to do good work.
This is what you'll end up with:
Turn Your Ideal Day Into Reality
That sounds great Maya. But it will never happen with my schedule/company/manager.
I used to think the same way, and then I tried something radical. I redesigned my schedule. I was on the verge of burnout so I figured I had nothing to lose.
I removed meetings I didn't *really* have to attend
I moved around meetings I own to create blocks of similar activities
I created DNS (do not schedule) blocks and protected them as if my life depended on it
The most amazing thing happened. It worked!
No, I didn't magically make my calendar look like my ideal schedule, but after some planning, rescheduling, and mild threats, I was able to own about 70% of my time.
It was a welcome change, but the real value came from realizing how I manage my time is a choice. There will always be some constraints, but I can plan for what I want instead of just accepting whatever is coming my way. I also learned that for the most part, people will respect my boundaries, if I respect them.
With the ideal day in mind, ask yourself these two questions:
1. What needs to change/move to make this happen?
2. What do I need to add/create to make this happen?
Remove or reschedule all meetings before 10:30 am
Group team meetings and move 1:1s to the same day
Add focus/work blocks
Add breaks/walking meetings
Set international call days (so you don't start at 5:00 am or end your day at 11:00 pm every day)
Now start implementing these changes.
You won't be able to move every meeting and apply every change, but you have to start somewhere.
This is an updated version of the calendar we started with:
Just like everything else in your career, when it comes to your calendar - you can be in control, or let other people call the shots.
You can design your time to support your goals and your needs, or you can let other people decide for you. The choice is yours.
What would it be?
I believe in you and I'm rooting for you.