Editor’s Note: In an earlier part of his career, PF team member Steve worked in corporate America for a dozen years, both as an individual contributor and as a manager. He still remembers the struggles to apply time blocking to carve out productive time amid the onslaught of meetings and emails…
Here at PF HQ, we often get feedback or questions about time blocking from Creative Giants who are working in a corporate office environment. “Time Blocking sounds great for Creatives and Entrepreneurs,” they say. “But how do I apply time blocking to my schedule when I’m not in control of my schedule? My boss sets my hours, my team schedules meetings right on my calendar via Outlook, and some days I have meetings from first thing in the morning until it’s time to go home.”
If you’re like me when I worked in a corporate setting, most days I went from meeting to meeting, and by the time the day was over, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything important — at least not the things that were part of my best-work projects. I would only make progress on those projects if I took work home in the evening, or spent time on the weekends (when no one in the office was scheduling meetings for me!).
If this sounds like you, Corporate Creative Giant, then I have some tips on how you can apply time blocking structure in your corporate workdays, so you can accomplish more of what your company hired you for in the first place.
Get Clear on Your Time Blocks
When corporate folks talk about their struggles with time blocking, it’s typically two of the four block types that are missing: focus blocks, and recovery blocks. The corporate world seems to thrive on social blocks (meetings!) and admin blocks (email, anyone?).
And so what tends to be lost in that shuffle of urgency are focus blocks, for those important but not urgent, high-value tasks (which is what the company is REALLY paying you for, whether they understand that or not); and recovery blocks, because most companies don’t understand the importance of recovery to help employees do their best work.
Some of the tips that follow will apply to both these block types, though the application might be slightly different.
There’s one thing I want to clarify before we dive in: sometimes focus blocks are meetings. Depending on your role, and how your team works together, meetings may be where you as a team do some of your deep, focused work: brainstorming ideas, designing products or services, working through problems, and so on. These meetings (and others) may require other focus blocks to prep for them, but these types of working meetings definitely are both social and focus blocks.
Control Your Social Blocks (Meetings)
The first challenge you’ll face when attempting to insert more focus and recovery time into your workday is controlling meeting creep (both length and frequency). Here are a few tips for taking control of your meetings:
- Ask for information on the meeting. Before accepting a meeting on your calendar, ask the facilitator:
- What is the meeting purpose (what decisions will be made or work accomplished)?
- What is the agenda?
- What is my contribution to the meeting expected to be, and is there anything I need to prepare? Asking these questions ahead of time not only helps you decide if the meeting is something you need to attend, but it also may help the facilitator decide if a meeting is even warranted (often, they are not), or if the business could be handled another way (via Slack, Confluence, etc.).
- Share meeting attendance with a coworker. Meetings often only need one representative from each team to attend them. If you find that you have multiple team members attending meetings (other than your team’s meetings, of course), arrange to rotate attendance of that meeting with members of your team. This might mean a once-a-week meeting becomes a once-a-month meeting for you instead, and you’ll gain back three hours a month of productive time. That’s a focus block or two right there!
- Make an agreement to shorter meetings. Meetings, like most other work, tend to expand to fill the time available. Rather than schedule the customary 30-minute or 60-minute meeting, shorten meetings by 10 minutes. Likely as not, you can get all the business done in 50 minutes that you could in 60, and this gives everyone 10 minutes back in their day. This is especially appreciated when meetings are scheduled back to back, so everyone has 10 minutes of recovery time to address their human needs. (NOTE: this is likely a company-, division-, or department-wide conversation. See the section on Communication and Culture Change for more information.)
- Make an agreement for one day a week without meetings. Discuss with your team about selecting a day where you all agree not to schedule any meetings. Maybe it’s No-Meeting Mondays, or Fridays, or even Thursday mornings. (You could even make this a half-day, if that sort of un-scheduling is particularly difficult in your organization.) Other teams and departments might still schedule meetings during that time, but making an agreement like this — among your team/department — can help reduce the number of meetings on the selected day, and your team can get some real, focused work accomplished. (And see more under Communication and Culture Change.)
Find Time for Your Focus Blocks (and Recovery Blocks, too)
In addition to controlling your social blocks, you might also need to find or create some focus block time to get your projects completed. As Charlie says in Start Finishing, “Focus blocks fuel your best work. No or too few focus blocks equals no finished best work.”
Some of these options might be a little uncomfortable for you. Keep in mind that if you can put in place some of the scheduling discipline to “buy back” time from your organization, you won’t need as many of these.
- Schedule your focus blocks early in the morning, or after close of business. What you choose will depend on your particular chronotype, your personal schedule, and your company’s “standard business hours.” Even if you can grab an extra hour a day, that’s five short focus blocks per week you can use to move your projects ahead. Which leads to the second point…
- Focus blocks don’t need to be 90 minutes. You can schedule shorter focus blocks, if that’s the time you have available. Look for ways to chunk down your project work into smaller segments that will fit in the time you have available. Consider “work sprints” or Pomodoros, which are focused work blocks of 20 or 25 minutes, interspersed with short breaks. If you have an hour in the morning or evening, set a timer for 25 minutes, blast out some work, take a ten-minute break, and repeat with a second sprint before starting your “official” workday. This is a great time to tackle some of those frogs.
- Request a “Momentum Day.” AKA: focus day, cave day, distraction-free day. This is where you schedule a period of time (half a day or a day) for distraction-free, focused work on your project. This can be in the office (schedule a small conference room for the day), at home, or even at a coworking space. Someplace that will keep you free of distractions and interruptions, and focused on moving the needle on your important project. This one might require approval from your manager and/or team — and it might be something you can get the whole team on board with. Imagine all of you making significant progress on your high-value projects!
Communication and Culture Change
One of the biggest challenges to incorporating these kinds of changes into your organization is the existing culture, particularly if that culture is very structured. Getting the buy-in of your manager and team first is the most important step.
- Have a conversation with your manager. Fill them in on what you’ve been studying about productivity, and suggest how some small changes might really improve the productivity of the team.
- Get other members of your team on board. Even if you don’t get official approval from the company or your manager, there’s nothing stopping you and your colleagues from having an unofficial agreement not to schedule meetings on Friday afternoons.
- Suggest running small experiments to start. Request that you have a no-meeting half day one day a month to try it out. Have everyone track their productivity that week versus another normal week, and report any differences.
- Look for other ways to prove the value of these changes. Show your manager that the team is more productive, accomplishing more in a shorter time, and is happier in the doing. (A quick survey should give some basic data. Look for other ways to quantify the improvements based on your organization’s operations.) Giving your manager data that they can use to show the effectiveness of your team to their boss increases the chances that the changes will become official. If your team starts really knocking it out of the park, other parts of the organization will be looking to you to see what your secret is…
- You might dovetail these experiments and ideas into a request to work from home. Working from home will give you even more time autonomy, and if you use it wisely, you’ll be able to accomplish even more work in less time. This assumes your home is a more distraction-free environment than the office!
Regardless of whether you make small tweaks to your own schedule, or orchestrate sweeping changes to your company culture around time management, you’ll find that the more you take charge of your own time (as much as you reasonably can given your work situation) the happier, more productive, and more purposeful you’ll be in your work. And that’ll show in the results you achieve. (Tweet this.)