Defensive Calendaring: A Method For Controlling Your Time

Written By Carlos Perez

Your calendar shouldn’t give you the Sunday Scaries. A quick review of your upcoming week on a Sunday evening can unleash waves of nausea as you feel you’ve lost control of your own time. The weekend’s mental break is fleeting as you prepare yourself for another week of defeat as you begrudgingly accept dozens of meeting invites. It can be easy to get caught in the mindset that you are at the whims of your calendar, and those who fill it in, especially in workplace cultures where meetings reign supreme. With no boundaries or techniques to push back against that wave, it can be truly demoralizing.

Are you ready to take back control of your time and get out of the rut of endless meetings that are getting in the way of you doing your best work? Taking some evasive actions and being deliberate about defending your time can start to put the control back in your hands. I’ll share some simple defensive techniques that I have employed while working in a grinding, meeting-laden environment. I call it Defensive Calendaring. Turn off that camera, mute your mic, and read on.

This past year has already been challenging for most, and what hasn’t helped is a familiar pattern of days run ragged with back-to-back-to-back meetings. There’s plenty that is going on outside of work that might have you burnt out, never mind that every single minute of the day seems to be accounted for. The frustration of never feeling like you have the time to make the impact you know you’re capable of is, in no small part, to the fact most of your time is spent on calls. The concept of focus time can feel like a pipe dream when all you’re looking for are a few minutes to rush to use the bathroom. The bar is low. By the time some “free time” rolls around you’re probably already too tired to put anything that resembles energy into any project or task. We’ve all been there, and you’re not alone.

The trick with making some changes to reclaim control over your calendar is acknowledging you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of meetings that must stop. While I can’t offer calendar nirvana, these techniques will put you on a path to reclaiming control of your time.

Scheduling Personal Time

Scheduling time for yourself can be as simple as setting aside short blocks to grab a snack, eat lunch, or go for a walk. Larger blocks can allow you to carve out focus time during the times you know you’re most productive — Mike Bromley has a great post on time blocking you should check out.

It can already be hard enough to take the time you’ve reserved for yourself, but it’s nearly impossible if you aren’t obtusely deliberate about it. Seeing these blocks booked in your calendar serves as your own reminder that you need that time to be successful in your day. To up the effectiveness, name those scheduled blocks for what you intend it for. I literally have Snack Time in my calendar because I know if I miss that, I’ll be a wreck before I get a chance to have my next meal. If I just saw it as Busy in my calendar, I could find a million other ways to keep myself busy and still forget to get that snack. Be intentional.

I’ll admit it — this sounds easy enough, and you’ve probably already tried this. The problem is that these are the blocks of time you’ll easily want to schedule over. Guilt can set in when someone asks if you are available, or if you can move things around. It’s you that has to take a firm position to protect it. What if you were in a meeting with your company’s CEO or your biggest client? Would you book over it all willy-nilly? No, you wouldn’t. You know this time is just as critical to your success and your organization’s. You don’t only deserve it, it’s what’s expected. Protect it fiercely.

The Delayed Meeting Start

Here’s an easy tip on shortening meetings by delaying the start time by a handful of minutes. While this won’t reclaim swaths of time, it will inject short breaks into your schedule when you need them. Even if it’s not time away from the computer, it can be a chance to catch-up on some messages or notes. The idea is to simply start meetings 5 to 10 minutes after the typical start time. An hour-long meeting for 10:00am becomes a 10:10am start…a 30 minute meeting normally starting at 2:30pm becomes 2:35pm… you get the picture.

While you can set the shifted start time manually when you’re scheduling events, some calendar apps let you set these rules by default. This saves you from maneuvering awkward inputs when scheduling a meeting. Microsoft Outlook even let’s admins set organizational defaults so all meetings follow these rules.

You’ll notice I’m not recommending an obvious alternative — the early end to a meeting. Google Calendar’s Speedy Meetings setting, for example, allows you to shorten your meetings by default. While it looks like a meeting ending 5-10 minutes would be equally effective, in my experience, it doesn’t result in the same breaks. 11:50am easily becomes 12:05pm before people are filing out of a Zoom call. Starting late, rather than ending early, forces attendees to find something else to do before a meeting, rather than continuing a conversation that has already started.

This might throw off some of your meeting attendees at first, as people aren’t typically used to meetings starting 5-10 minutes later than usual. This can be missed even if the time is clearly set in the meeting invite. Once they get used to it though, don’t be surprised that people will thank you for it as they’ll start to take advantage of those breaks as well. Let’s be human to each other!

Book Long, Meet Short

One of my favourite defensive techniques is switching the long meeting for a short one, but keeping the original time booked. It’s something I stumbled upon as a clever way to protect my time while still making myself available to those who need me. While we would love to have our calendars free all the time, we know that isn’t practical, and we do need to meet with others to get work moving forward. This is how the technique works: say someone wants an hour of your time — if you have the availability in your calendar, have them book it. When the day comes around for that meeting, send a simple message to the scheduler: “Do you mind if we try to wrap this up in under 30 minutes? Let’s keep the full hour booked just in case.”

A few things will happen with that simple question. Firstly, you’ve set the expectation that you can accomplish the meeting’s goals in less time, giving attendees the nudge to get to the point. Chances are they’re also dashing between meetings and will appreciate it. Secondly, you’ve also kept the full hour booked, signalling to others that might be trying to fill your calendar that you are unavailable. Now that pesky project manager that is feverishly refreshing your availability won’t be sneaking in to snag that time (sorry project managers, I love you too). And thirdly, in the event you actually need to use more of the scheduled time, you already have it booked, and saves you from scrambling to find time elsewhere.

This might appear to be counter to the very solid best practice of scheduling shorter meetings to begin with. After all, you don’t want to spend more time than you need to in meetings. If that just means you have more time slots available for more meetings, though, that time will typically get filled unless you’re proactive in blocking it off.

Tag Team Meetings

There’s a good chance you see familiar faces in many of your meetings. Use this to your advantage to divide and conquer your meeting schedule with your peers. Having a peer catch you up on important details gives you the space to comfortably decline a meeting. When using this technique, it’s helpful to specify a particular individual will be covering for you when declining the meeting so you are setting the expectation with the meeting owner.

And just as you can ask this of your peers, make the same offer to them — giving them a break they are craving for as well. For recurring meetings, you can even alternate who shows up. It takes a little more coordination, but offers a welcome respite.

Use a Calendar Scheduler

There’s perhaps no better way to take control of your availability than using a calendar scheduling tool like SavvyCal. You can make broad rules, or get very granular on specifying your preferred schedules, while still allowing your invitees to book other times that might work better for them.

This is a no-brainer when you’re an agency or contractor dealing with external clients. The time savings in figuring out times that work for all parties alone make this worth it.

For internal company usage, where teams are more accustomed to looking you up on Google Calendar or Office 365, this might be a dramatic change. You will always have people using the internal tools to book your time. This can still be very valuable in helping to schedule any external meetings though. You can block time off in your internal calendar, but make that time available for external vendors, helping you to navigate your scheduling more confidently, whilst juggling internal and external demands.

Check Recuse Yourself, before you Wreck Yourself

This one is very much important for managers and leaders that find themselves invited to nearly everything under the sun. There’s a good chance you often find yourself in meetings where you really question whether you need to be there or not. Rather than losing a chunk of your day to fake-smiling and head-nodding, give the scheduler a heads-up that you may need to recuse yourself shortly after the start of the meeting. Being defensive with your calendar doesn’t require you to be rude, so it is fair to set the expectation up front so people are aware.

If you’re sitting on the fence of leaving, you can alternatively set the expectation that you’ll be a quiet participant — mute yourself and turn off the video. This might throw people off though as having a leader in the room that’s invisible might be a bit unnerving. Use this technique seldomly and only when you know the attendees will be comfortable with it.

Getting yourself out of the vicious cycle of meetings is possible. You need to empower yourself to take control of your time in order to make that happen. Guilty feelings can be squashed by acknowledging that giving yourself your time back is what’s best for you, your team, and organization. Try one of the simple defensive techniques this week and see how you can start to weave them into your routine. Don’t forget that your peers are likely caught in the same loop, so talk to them about it and see if you can support each other in protecting each other’s time.

While it might be ambitious to set your initial goals to change the organizational culture around meetings, you can at least start on what you can control. As you make the changes, find allies along the way, as they’re likely looking for improvements as well. Reclaiming ownership of your time will go a long way in making your calendar the useful tool it can be, rather than a source of anxiety. Hopefully, Sundays might even stop being scary.

Carlos Perez is the Co-Founder of Purple Sector Strategy. As an Alignment Strategist and Product Leader Advisor at Purple Sector Strategy, he helps product teams align around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Schedule a quick chat with Carlos using SavvyCal.