Take your calendar back, take your time back

As the recovery continues to a slow new normal, it may be time to jump start your productivity with calendar tools. Here's how.

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Image: iStockphoto/Kwangmoozaa

The slow coronavirus recovery has many of us working from home with more free time than ever. Yet, for some reason, if you're anything like me, you're getting less done. Not just less per hour, but less overall, with more hours in the day. Childcare challenges are part of it, but honestly, procrastination and poor time management is a lot more.

So I decided to jump back into calendar planning, using the tools I had learned over the years.

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Schedule your time

"An empty calendar is the devil," or at least it is according to Grant Cardone, the sales training guru. His argument makes sense. With something on the schedule for one hour, we can eliminate distractions and focus on that thing. With an empty calendar, it's too easy to sit at the desk, check email, check Facebook, check Slack or Skype, maybe open a YouTube tab. Those distraction and work-avoidance techniques can run on a loop. At the end of the day, you've gotten nothing done.

So plan the day. Break the work into chunks, and chunk your time. Exactly how you chunk it will depend on your role. Most of us in IT have some sort of input queue, which could be a ticketing system, agile "story cards," traditional requirements, or a project plan. Instead of a calendar that is a bunch of meetings, block out time to work on those projects, by name. During that time, be focused and effective on the task at hand. Managers, support reps, and other outward roles might want to schedule time to send emails and build relationships.

If you want to block out time to goof around, you can do that too. I suggest a half-hour of discretionary R&D time, twice a day.  You can also block 15 minutes for email at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. Outside of those times, stay out of email; you can use our tips here to make that time count, or consider these Gmail productivity hacks.

Make your focused time effective

If your role is as a heads-down contributor, then eliminate distractions. When working, shut off Slack, Facebook, Twitter, and focus on the task at hand. The Pomodoro technique is as simple as setting a timer for 30 minutes, blazing through the work, and rewarding yourself at the end.

If I run YouTube in the background and type, I am roughly one-eighth as effective as when I just work. My work comes out disjointed and awkward. Better to focus on one thing at a time and do it well. I am suggesting turning off all distractions to work. If you have to, do it after the kids are in bed. 

In the 1980's in PeopleWare, DeMarco and Lister said that effective contributors in unhealthy offices were coming in early, staying late, or finding a "private office" like a corporate cafeteria off-meal-hours to work. It may be time to re-envision that for a remote work workplace, where the interruptions are a buzzing phone or screaming child.  

Park facing downhill

My old company, Socialtext, was founded with a remote work focus. From 2008 to 2011, I was a QA Lead for the company, which made social media software for business. I worked from home in Michigan for the company headquartered in California, which housed some sales and executive types. At one point the CEO, Eugene Lee, suggested we "park downhill" at the end of each day. That is, review what you have to do tomorrow and schedule your time, so when you start in the morning, you get productive fast, instead of getting trapped in the loop of work avoidance.

You also end each day with the work in a good place. I find if I start this 15 to 30 minutes before I leave, I can review the to do list, schedule the next day, and create a little to-do or small Google Doc notes for how to get started. That small brain tickler reclaims the time between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. For that matter, it can allow me to skip email in the morning entirely, moving my 15-minute check to 10:00 a.m. A good, solid two hour push can produce more output than an unproductive new normal day--If you haven't experienced one of those yet, then you are more fortunate than most.

If you use Google Calendar, you are in more luck, as the company has a small army of people building features for calendar hacking. The biggest problem may be finding the features, so I wrote a bit on my favorite little-know google calendar features. As for me, I used the techniques in this article to separate my personal life from work, then supercharge my work. I wrote this article, for example, in about a third as much time as I had initially planned.

How are you doing?

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