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How to control your diary before it controls you

I recently conducted a LinkedIn poll, asking the network ‘How busy do you feel compared to 2020?’ and 800 people responded – with a 80% reporting it’s a little or a lot busier.  Studies also show that we are busier, with email traffic increasing 30% in the last 5 years, and a constant flow of new work and social platforms to engage with.  Every spare second we have is used playing a game of ‘whack a mole’ as we flick between platforms to keep up with hundreds of alerts. Controlling the pace of work has become an essential skill for anyone at work today.

Busy is your brand

Being busy is an unconscious badge of honour for almost all of us. When someone says ‘how’s work’ the standard response is to smile, shrug and say ‘I’m so busy’.  How busy you are has become a way of defining your value and importance.  Ever heard two colleagues comparing (and competing with) stories about how busy they are? Of course you have.

Busy is your happy place

Busy is easier than productive, impactful or strategic.  It uses the System 1 part of our brain, so we can do it with our eyes closed.  Deeper thinking requires heavy intellectual lifting – it’s tiring, so we avoid it (and use busy as our excuse).  Busy is also addictive. Every time we respond to an email or a notification, we get a hit of dopamine which gives us a momentary high.  Like most addicts, we are conflicted about our relationship with busy.  We smile proudly when we say “I’m so busy” yet we hate it at the same time.

Don’t waste (your) precious time.

We give our time away thoughtlessly and we need to start treating it like the precious commodity it is.  Most of us are in the habit of accepting meetings without an agenda.  We don’t question the necessity of our presence when we are on a long list of attendees. We habitually schedule 60 mins for meetings, and 30 mins for calls – it’s a system default setting.  Break the habit; reset your calendar default from 60mins to 30mins and calls from 30mins to 10mins and ask others to do the same.

Time management is not the answer

Yes, your diary is full – and the bad news?  No amount of time-blocking, list-making or colour-coding is going to change that.  Instead of trying to find clever tricks to add more busyness to your day, focus your attention on subtracting it instead.  Can you remove yourself from a meeting? Can that meeting be an email? Do you really need to read anything you are cc’d on? Removing yourself from things in your diary might give you FOMO but stick with it.

Set your priorities

Stephen Covey once said “schedule your priorities, don’t prioritise your schedule” and he’s 100% right.  But most of us don’t even know what our priorities are – and that’s the reason we are always at the mercy of other people’s.  The Eisenhower principle (urgent v important matrix) is a gold nugget if you actually use it to plan your day.  You’ll be able to identify the most important things you need to do today, and you’ll be able to ruthlessly prioritise any new requests that come in – rather than get carried away by them.

Ultimately, the reason that our diary controls us rather than the other way around is because we let it.  Make a decision about who is the boss here – and stick with it.

Rebecca Houghton is the founder of BoldHR and author of IMPACT: 10 ways to level up your leadership ($29.95)