I spend a lot of time with senior executives on strategy and business planning. We conduct a deep analysis of their business and the market to develop innovative approaches to their business and detailed plans on how they are going to execute over the coming quarters and years.
However, all of this is wasted time if the teams that I work with can't manage their schedules to have the time to actually do the work. When coaching executives in this situation, I typically use an approach I call a defensible calendar.
This system focuses on allocating blocks of time based on your priorities and your optimal hours of the day and week. At the center of this approach is the use of time blocking to create interrupted time, which in turn creates flow.
If you're struggling to find the time to work on long-term strategy, try these steps to create more focused time for these important, but not urgent, tasks.
1. Determine your allocations
Start by listing out all of the projects and responsibilities you have on your plate. Figure out how much time you ideally need to spend each week. Note if you need one big block of time or if you need to do a little each day. If you keep a good calendar, look back over previous weeks to catch things you may have missed on your list.
You should end up with a list of weekly tasks with total times and frequency. If you have more than 30-35 hours on your list, your first task is to prioritize and delegate this list so that it's down to a reasonable workload.
2. Identify your peak times
Here is where most people get time management wrong. They assume that every hour in a day is the same as every other hour in the day. In fact, our hours vary wildly in terms of quality and focus. Before you plan your schedule, it's important to know what time of day you should be working on which types of tasks.
If you're a morning person, your best hours might be right after breakfast or even when you first wake up. For others, it might be after dinner when you can focus for longer stretches of time and be more creative. To identify your peak times, create a journal and make notes for a few days on the times you feel like you have the greatest mental focus and clarity.
3. Allocate your time blocks
Once you have your prioritized task list and your peak times have been identified, you can begin mapping out your week. Start with the big blocks of time you need for focused, uninterrupted work. This could be each day, or this could just be one or two days a week. Better to start with too many than too few.
Once you have the bigger blocks scheduled, start putting in the medium and smaller blocks. Make sure to include blocks of time for standard tasks (getting to inbox zero, team meetings, reviewing reports, etc.) I typically suggest you allocate 6-7 hours a day and leave one or two buffer blocks during the day for things that come up last minute.
4. Defend your schedule
Once you have your ideal schedule planned, your job is to defend it tooth and nail. When someone calls you for a meeting, make sure to offer them the box you had allocated for that activity. If you forgot to plan for it, give them one of your buffer blocks. But don't move your other blocks! This is the key to this strategy. Make other people adjust to your plan.
5. Adjust and optimize
Sometimes you have to give: your boss needs to meet with you, your most important customer needs to come to a meeting. These things happen. If they come up and you must accommodate their schedule, do so, but don't delete your blocks! Force yourself to shift things around to keep your blocks together as much as possible. Even if you need to move blocks between days and reschedule other meetings.
If you run out of time in a day, move blocks between days. And if you absolutely need to drop something, make sure you're dropping the block that is the least important of all of your tasks. Don't just delete the block that has the conflict; move things around to optimize your schedule.
Adopting this strategy can be hard at first. It will take time to figure out your most important tasks, optimal block size and timing, and your natural energy flow during the day. But once you dial it in, you'll find yourself not only getting more done but getting more of the right things done to accomplish your biggest goals.