A well-managed diary is much more than a glorified to-do list. Rather than hold you hostage to a list of tasks, it should work for you, optimising your day to ensure you’re getting the absolute most out of yourself.
But managing a diary well is no mean feat, with some senior executives even employing a PA purely for diary management while another manages everything else. Depending on your industry, your diary may have varying degrees of complexity: allowing strategic time for deep-focus tasks, ensuring travel is organised as efficiently as possible, and allowing ‘breathing time’ between difficult meetings to ensure you remain energised and focused.
This is why, for many entrepreneurs, a PA is so vital: managing a tight and rapidly-changing schedule while thinking critically about your own performance is laborious and time-consuming, with that energy better spent elsewhere. Diary management is a skillset, and a good PA should ask you how you like to work and organise your schedule with that in mind. They are the custodians of your time and it is their job to make sure it’s not being wasted.
Many entrepreneurs, however, are not in a position to hire a PA, particularly if they are just starting out. While it means you won’t have that extra pair of hands, there is still plenty you can do to make sure your diary is working as hard for you as possible.
Here are some of our top diary management tips for busy people.
Play to your strengths
Your diary needs to be structured around how you work, and how you work best when doing different tasks. The goal is to organise your time in a way that best preserves your energy. One way to do this is to break your tasks into three broad categories:
- ‘Doing’, and
You’ll need to think about the state of mind you need to be in to perform your best in each of them.
Generally, you will use the most cerebral energy for strategic and creative ‘deep thinking’ tasks, so should schedule time for these when you’re at your sharpest. For most people, this is in the morning.
According to Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, 70% of executives prefer to have meetings in the morning, but others have argued that meetings are best for the afternoon, after you’ve done your deep thinking for the day. Figure out which works best for you and plan your time accordingly.
Think in weeks as well as days
‘Week view’ is the default for digital calendars for a reason. Think about the ‘flow’ of your entire week rather than just what’s scheduled for a particular day, and the impact this is likely to have on your energy and motivation. Will you have late nights three nights in a row, or breakfast meetings all week? Have you left enough time to proofread or come back to a piece of work with fresh eyes before the deadline?
A popular way to gauge the demands of your week is through a simple colour-coding system. You should be able to get a feel for your week at a glance, and instantly get a sense of whether it’s properly organised to support your priorities.
Plan meetings strategically
Two thirds of UK professionals feel that face-to-face meetings are important, yet 72% reported losing time every week to poorly organised meetings, including unnecessary and cancelled meetings. Not to mention the time lost to poor travel planning.
Think critically about the value of each of these meetings. Nearly a third of British professionals spend five or more hours in meetings per week, with the average length of a meeting being one hour. That’s most of a full day per week in meetings. Are they all bringing you value?
If you’re someone who has a lot of meetings, try to organise those in a similar location on the same day, to reduce time in transit. It can often take longer than anticipated to travel across busy cities, so ensure you leave yourself a bit of wiggle room to arrive calmly and on time.
Schedule in time to work
It might feel strange to schedule in time to sit at your desk, but what you’re actually doing is committing to working on that particular task, uninterrupted, for a block of time. Research has found that on an hourly basis, our primary tasks are interrupted by an average of 4.28 email alerts and 3.21 instant messaging alerts — and this research was done before Slack came along. The average time it took to return from email to the task was 9 minutes and 33 seconds.
When you block out time to focus on a task, commit to blocking notifications during that time. If you receive a high volume of important emails, you might consider setting an OOO email, with instructions to ring your mobile if urgent. Don’t forget to schedule in time for breaks, too!
Be decisive, yet flexible
Not all priorities are created equal. Be clear on what your most important tasks and meetings are for each week and plan the rest of your week around them. Things always happen and your diary will need to allow for a degree of flexibility, but if you’ve identified which things it’s more difficult for you to move on, it’s easier to be accommodating with minimal cost to your workflow.
Set aside a weekly time — Monday or Friday are the most logical — to plan your top priorities for the week ahead, and mark these in your diary. At the end of each day, write a list of your priorities for the coming day, ordering them from the most important to the least. You might choose to split or colour-code these into priority one, two, and three. Each day, your goal should be to at least complete your highest-priority task.
Organising your priorities in this way would usually be the province of a PA, but can also be handled by virtual personal or executive assistant services. With their deep understanding on which tasks and meetings are most essential, virtual assistants can provide daily support in getting through a heavy workload while taking care of the operational aspects.