A couple of weeks ago, I was having a coaching conversation with an executive whose story is all too common in this pandemic year of leading and working from home. Since the pandemic started, Susan’s been working around 15 hours a day. With her permission and a name change on my part, here’s the story of how we solved her problem in the hope that it might help you too.
Susan’s workdays typically start with a 7:30 am online meeting and end around 5:30 or 6:00 pm. In between those bookends, her day is filled with back to back meetings and whatever lunch she can grab at the desk of her home office. Starting at 6:00 pm, she has a couple of hours with her family and then, when her kids go to bed, she spends around three hours a night responding to the emails that she didn’t get to because she was in meetings all day. Susan goes to bed around midnight or 1:00 am with her head full of the work thoughts she was engaged in until just before she turns out the lights. Then she wakes up the next morning and starts the cycle again.
After talking me through her routine, Susan said to me what she realized in the moment, “I can’t keep doing this.” When I asked her which part of “this” was most unacceptable to her, she immediately said the three hours a night of responding to emails. She recognized that it was keeping her from really enjoying her family, giving herself a rest and doing things she loves like reading good books. So, in an effort to make her best-case scenario actionable, I asked her if it would make a difference if she could get that three hours a night of email management down to one. Her response was an immediate, “Absolutely.” Now we had something we could work with – we needed to find a way to get ten hours of Susan’s workweek back so she could spend around two hours each day attending to her email traffic and other non-meeting related work that she had been doing at night.
It was then that I shared one of my favorite tactics for getting your time back. It comes from Caroline Starner who, when I interviewed her for my book, Overworked and Overwhelmed, was the head of human resources for the sunglass and sports apparel company, Oakley. Recognizing that her calendar and life was becoming overwhelmed with more work than any human could reasonably do, Starner started a Friday afternoon routine with her administrative assistant. They would spend around 15 minutes reviewing her two-weeks-out calendar for meetings she could cancel, decline, delegate or postpone. The goal each Friday was to cancel 20% of the meetings two weeks out. When they were successful in their pruning, Starner would get around 10 hours of that week back that she could use to do the work during the day that she had been pushing to her evenings. She wasn’t always successful in finding ten hours a week, but she could almost always find at least four or five hours she could get back. Even that reduced amount of get back was better than the zero hours she would have had if she hadn’t made the attempt. (For guidance on how to decide which meetings you can skip, check out the post I wrote a couple of months ago.)
Susan was beyond excited when she heard about Caroline’s pruning process because she knew she could do it too. When I asked her what she was going to do with some of the evening time she was reclaiming for herself, she immediately said, “I have a stack of books on my bedside table that I haven’t gotten to. I’m going to read one of those.” My next question was, “Which one?” I asked that because I wanted to help make Susan’s reward for following through on her calendar reclamation project as tangible as possible. She thought about it for a bit and answered with An American Marriage, a recent novel that she’s really been looking forward to reading. We both agreed that reading an old-school analog book was a much better pre-bedtime routine than answering one more email.
While your reward may be different than Susan’s, you can improve the quality of your work and your life by proactively reclaiming some of the time you’re losing by clicking in for meeting after meeting all day long. Why not get started by looking out on your calendar a couple of weeks from now to see which ones you can skip? You may not immediately get ten hours back but you’ll almost certainly get back a few and that is a significant step in the right direction.
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