We are tired. We are busy. We just cannot seem to get to everything on our list. I have this conversation almost daily with clients and colleagues, and what’s worse is that many of us have reconciled that this is our normal. Unfortunately, this “normal” is also what leads to lost productivity and burnout. Which is why each of us must use the tools we do have to take control of our time, and to use it well.

I’ve found that calendar management — simple as it may sound — is one of the most overlooked and easiest-to-employ tools in the face of this challenge.

If you’ve attended my webinars or trainings, you know I’m passionate about calendar management. Our calendars can support focus, deep work and balance. And yet many of us are not using it this way, and that leaves us feeling overwhelmed.

We can use our calendars to ensure the things that are most important (both professional AND personal) are prioritized. Whether for a vacation next year or donor calls tomorrow, blocking your most important activities ensures they’ll happen.

To truly get ahead of the game and stay focused on the important (versus the urgent, or someone else’s fire), we need to use our calendar as a strategic tool. These tips will help get your calendar back to manageable:

Set ground rules for your calendar. My personal ground rules include 30 minutes for lunch, and three 10-minute blocks a week to handle anything urgent or to make quick calls. Your ground rules may include a personal break (walks, journaling), or time for productivity, strategy, or to-do lists. Share your ground rules with others so they can support you.

Know your own patterns. As an early riser, I’m at my best in the morning. As such, I block that time for my most important tasks (strategy development, creating of a presentation, creating two touches with clients or donors). On the other hand, I have a colleague who doesn’t like to make donor outreach calls until after lunch, so she books as many meetings and other tasks for mornings and leaves afternoons for donor outreach. What patterns can you formalize on your calendar to support your best work?

Break the big things in to smaller pieces. For example, if you’re holding time for an employee evaluation in a few weeks, block time now to write it. Consider switching your 60-minute meetings to 50 minutes, allowing time each hour to handle immediate, quick needs.

Start your day with an activity that sets the tone. During my years as an in-house advancement professional, I started each day by making two outreaches to donors. It allowed me to begin the day focused on my purpose and doing something rewarding. Consider an activity that you might use to kick off each day, and how that can support your best work.

Look back and reflect. Look back at your calendar and identify the activities that were not a good use of your time. Whether those are meetings, a type of responsibility that would better live elsewhere, or another activity, talk to supervisors and natural partners, and then take steps to remove them.

Build your calendar with intention. Rather that allowing your calendar to become a patchwork quilt (accepting any meeting, at any time), set boundaries around how you schedule meetings in a way that supports your best productivity. Block times for the most important parts of your job, and do not give those times away (this may require some coaching up and across, but the results are well worth the fleeting discomfort). If you lead a team, book all team meetings on the same day so you can immerse yourself in that perspective for a few hours. If you are frontline, use a pattern to block holds for frontline activity so you can book meetings in a predictable way — and then support that work afterward. A week full of engaging donor visits will miss the mark if you have not blocked time for follow up, strategy updates and time to get things into your donor database.

The time of having too much to do is most likely not going to change. But how we approach our “get to do list” is ours to manage, and we should use every tool we have to manage it well. Intentionality does us all good.

Looking for more tips on prioritization, balancing competing priorities, and calendar management? The KDD Philanthropy team is available for calendar management coaching calls!

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