I have begun listening to your podcast recently, and I particularly liked your episode about not using to-do lists and instead, scheduling your day in 15-minute chunks. As someone who is naturally chaotic but desires discipline and order, this sounded very appealing — especially as I appreciate the “head space” that good organisation frees up.
I do have a question that has emerged from my first day of attempting to schedule myself.
Picture the scene; I am there on the train at 6 am, heading into work. I spend the hour train ride scheduling the entire week into 15-minutes chunks. (Side note: This made it clear to me how much “free” time I have to go and focus on growing the business and not working on it.)
However, disaster strikes in the office when a series of events transpire to remove me from my office and send me on a wild goose chase around the city of London. This blows my carefully scheduled day out of the water!
I want to ask about your thoughts on scheduling carefully and yet still allowing for flexibility within the schedule, given that I work in an industry where clients will often request meetings at the drop of a hat and I am expected to oblige. These guys pay the bills and so it’s not really advisable to keep them waiting for the next “scheduled opening.”
Is it about accepting that these guys form part of my Most Important Task (MIT) and risk a loss of focus on bigger, wider goals, or is it just the case that you need to be flexible? Thanks again and please keep up the amazing work!
Related Article: The List Vs Schedule Debate For Productivity
Congratulations on your commitment to giving up the to-do list and working and living entirely from your calendar. Although it will take some time getting used to it, this practice will put you in the top 1% of productivity.
I get some version of your question quite often.
What do we do when our well planned, minute by minute day, is thrown into turmoil because of unexpected “fires to put out,” meetings that run long, family emergencies, and so on?
First, let me share that these problems happen to me as well. In the last week alone, I went to pick up my son early from school because he was sick, returned an “urgent” call of a prospective client, took a long call from a journalist from the Wall Street Journal who was on a deadline, and even rushed my cat to the veterinarian when he suddenly fainted. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
While we are all alive, we’ll find that unexpected and unscheduled events will continue to intrude upon our days. Problems, both professionally and personally, are part of life. But there are several things we can do to mitigate the impact they have on our schedule and on our overall productivity.
First, actually schedule some “buffer” time. Most eager high achievers toss out their to-do list and put an activity into every minute of their day. Truly they want to squeeze every drop of productivity from their workday. While noble, it’s unrealistic. True productivity ninjas will actually just leave some padding.
One CEO I know never schedules meetings or phone calls back-to-back. If a meeting or call runs long, it doesn’t overrun anything else, and if it ends on time he has a few minutes to re-energise and prepare for the next meeting.
LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, even wrote a blog post about scheduling nothing into his day. He can quickly put the time to good use, but it lets him make an “audible call” in real time as to how to use those minutes.
While having multiple buffers throughout the day may seem counter to our efforts towards extreme productivity, remember that the true key is to maximise our energy and focus. If we need to put out fires during those buffer times, so be it. But if there are no fires to put out, those time blocks can be used to rest, refocus and tackle the next item with more vigour.
Second, create general recurring time blocks for high-value tasks. My old boss and business partner, Rudy Karsan, was great about always returning calls quickly. Whether to his employees or to customers, if you left him a voicemail, by the end of the day he would have gotten back to you. I once asked him how someone in his position could respond so quickly to unexpected calls. His answer was, “It’s easy, I just reserve 4:00 – 5:00 every day on my calendar to ‘Return Phone Calls.’”
I can imagine busy consultants and sales professionals might benefit from similar time blocks. Perhaps a daily 30 minutes of “Client Calls” would be useful for either returning calls, or initiating high-value check-ins if there are no calls to return. For real demanding situations, perhaps a daily two-hour chunk of time from noon to 2:00 p.m. could be labelled “Client Visits.” That way, for any client who calls with an emergency in the morning, you can say, “Hey, I was going to be in your neighbourhood at 1:00, could I stop in then?”
Third, train your clients what to expect from you. This was a difficult one for me to learn. I used to be of the mindset that if a client called I should always answer it, preferably after one ring. I used to ask them when they would like to meet and I’d move anything but another client meeting in order to accommodate them. This was all in the spirit of client service excellence.
But later, I realised that while service is important, they weren’t hiring me for the speed of my response. They were hiring me for outcomes more than anything else, and often for my knowledge as a proxy for outcomes.
The key is to view your work with your clients as a partnership. You bring many things to the table including good service, but responsiveness isn’t the only thing. If new clients are told up front that you’ll always return their call by the end of the day, and give them a special number or phrase to indicate when it’s truly an emergency, they won’t mind if you wait to call them during the scheduled block. Similarly, if you explain to them honestly that your firm has a process that includes teamwork in the mornings and client meetings in the afternoon, you might be surprised that they’ll always be fine with afternoon meetings.
One consultant I know manages expectations by changing his voicemail message and email out-of-office response each day. For example, “This is Kevin Kruse, and today is Wednesday, April 13. I’ll be in meetings and unavailable until 1:00 p.m. today. For true emergencies please hit zero and speak to …”
Fourth, protect your MIT time at all costs. While servicing clients, putting out fires, and handling unexpected crises are all important, don’t confuse those things with your most important task. Your MIT should be the task that will have the greatest long-term impact on your firm.
It may be that given your current workload you can only spend one hour a day on your MIT. Or perhaps you need to schedule your MIT hour at 7 am before you even leave for work. But the consistent focus on your MIT is what counts more than the total minutes expended.
Finally, accept that some days will just be one of those days. Some projects may go awry and need every waking minute. Some days will bring a multitude of crises that expand beyond any number of buffer times. That’s OK. Even productivity ninjas have those days, too.