The Executive Productivity Tool You Should be Using

Pete Ross

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If you go to any large company, trying to book time with an executive is different from getting time with any other employee. That's because they don't manage their own calendar - they have a gatekeeper, more commonly known as an executive assistant. They have so many demands on their time that the assistant manages it and blocks it out, so you can't just take their precious time whenever you like.

The average employee doesn't do this. Apart from the fact they don't have an assistant, they usually have a to-do list and spend most of their time constantly reacting to the many requests that come through, not realising that it doesn't have to be this way. You might not have an executive assistant, but that doesn't mean that you can't use a calendar in the same way as an executive. The best part is, you'll instantly become far more effective and productive than you ever thought possible.

Here's how you do it.

The basics

If you struggle to maintain focus, to complete tasks, to fit it all in, a calendar — be it Outlook, Google or the one that comes with your iPhone can pretty much solve all your problems. That’s because unlike a to-do list or an email inbox, it provides something really important: structure and time management.

Here’s how you do it.

  1. Take your list of action items and open up your calendar.
  2. Work out how long each will take to do
  3. Allocate time in your calendar to each one

That’s really all there is to it in terms of actions, but let’s introduce a few important guiding principles and look a bit more deeply at the method, so you can really maximise this simple tool.

Don’t get too ambitious

Always over allocate time, rather than the other way around. For example, if you have to make a phone call that you think will take 5–10 minutes, give it 30 minutes in your calendar. That gives you plenty of leeway if the person wants to ask you about something else or have a chat (relationship building). Doing this removes stress because even if something small comes up or it takes a bit longer than expected, it’s not an issue.

If you under allocate your time though, your stress levels will skyrocket and you’ll feel the opposite of what your calendar should make you feel: in control.

By being generous with the time you allocate to tasks, you invariably end up with at least a few free minutes here and there. Sometimes you might end up with a whole half an hour because something actually took a lot less time than you anticipated. You can use that time to take a nap and recharge, go for a walk or if you have a lot on, you can move something up in the schedule.

That leaves you feeling both accomplished and with a sense of power and control over what you’re doing.

Don’t be a tyrant to yourself

So you’ve got your list and put it in your calendar, and now the entire 8 hours of your day is scheduled with work tasks. Ambitious much? Unless you work in a research lab, you’re going to get phone calls, unexpected requests, and how about just the time you might need to go to the bathroom? You need sufficient gaps in your schedule to ensure flexibility and that you have the capacity to do all the little things, otherwise just like being overly ambitious, you’ll start to feel out of control.

So ensure you leave time for walks, the bathroom, eating, basic admin like clearing your inbox and so on. Whether you actually put it in the calendar, or you leave a 5–10 minute gap in between tasks is up to you. Just make sure it’s there.

Schedule based on energy levels and need

Do you need time to warm up to the day? Then you shouldn’t schedule the review of that 100 page contract first thing in the morning. Need to call that client and smooth over the issue with their order? Don’t schedule it just before lunch, when they’re likely to be irritable and hungry. The point is, don’t just schedule based on some blanket rule like “do all the hard things first.” You’re an individual doing a job that you know best. This is not one size fits all.

Use the calendar to your advantage and schedule tasks at the optimal time to do them, rather than priority or urgency (where possible). Always underestimate your energy and allocate with that in mind as well. If you have more energy than expected, you can always do more. If you over estimate and schedule a bunch of things back to back, you’ll probably just burn yourself out.

Why is a calendar so effective?

Structure

You’ve gotta treat your brain like a dog. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid little dog that is easily trained. — Jerry Seinfeld.

Putting your work in a calendar is like putting blinkers on a horse: it’s now all you can see and there are no distractions. The weakness of a to-do list is that it’s open ended — at any point you can cross something out, and then because you feel like a break end up YouTubing for an hour. A calendar stops your mind from wandering like that. You don’t wonder what’s next, you know what’s next because not only is it there right in front of you, but you know because you planned it yesterday.

I don’t know exactly what evolutionary part of our brain is involved in this process, all I know is that it works. It almost feels like I’m tricking myself into doing things.

Time burglars

Apart from providing structure and time management to your day, calendars fill another incredibly important function: meeting management. In the business world when people book meetings, they’ll generally use something like scheduling assistant to see when everyone is free. If you don’t schedule your work in the calendar, it just looks like you’re free all the time. So even though you planned on using the afternoon to knock out that presentation, now you’ve got a meeting invite that you can’t refuse, because you had nothing in your calendar.

With it scheduled, your time is now protected.

It doesn’t just work with meetings either. When you schedule your day in the calendar and your boss or someone else tries to put yet another item on your plate, rather than stammering “I think I can squeeze it in,” you can respond immediately that you either have space somewhere in your calendar, or you can’t get to it until tomorrow.

Both of these scenarios help you on another level: they make you look professional, orderly and in control. The kind of person who can really be relied upon. They also show that you’re in demand and busy. Both of those are going to help come promotion time.

On another note, you can use a calendar for just about anything. I don’t use a calendar for my personal life, but when I’m trying to start a new habit I’ll schedule it in my calendar, because if I don’t I’ll often just forget it in all the noise. Right now for example, I wake up at 6:30am and I have “drink a glass of cold water” scheduled for 6:40. No way of forgetting it or putting it off. Notice the 10 minute gap? There’s your perfect example of not being a tyrant to yourself. That gives me time to properly wake up, check my phone and make my way downstairs. Having that reminder for 6:31 wouldn’t work so well.

I’ve previously scheduled meditation practice, stretching and even set a reminder for bed time, just in case I’m doing something and lose track of time. It works.

What does it cost you?

I did say that this method was free, but it’s not without cost. The cost is that at the end of every day, you need to take an extra ten minutes to set your calendar for the next day. The upside of that is that you can schedule it in your calendar too! Seriously though, day before prepping on this is mandatory, because not only are you setting your aim for the next day in a calendar, it’s also in your head what you need to do. That provides an extra layer of motivation and purpose the next day. It loses its effectiveness and the likelihood of following through if you leave it until the next morning.

Personally, I usually wait until about 8pm, when dinner and cleanup is done, and my daughter is in bed. I’ve received all the emails that might have come through after I logged off for the day. I’ll then schedule my calendar for the next day, thinking through each one so not only is the item in the calendar, but the details are in my head, ready for execution.

Final thought

I used to think all I needed was a to-do list. I was wrong. I’m one of the converted. If you have doubts, all I can say is give it a try. I can almost guarantee your brain will like the structure and time management, not to mention the lack of stress and feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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