Better Time Management with Smart Calendars

March 12, 2009

Use your calendar to your advantage

Smart calendar done right

Using calendar the smart way

I’ve noticed throughout the years that if something is not on my task list it won’t get done. Yes, I may remember the task from time to time and I write it down in a yellow sticky note, but getting it into my task list (be it in Outlook where I centralize everything, or in a paper notebook that I used back in the day) triggers some type of psychological commitment that is not the case otherwise. And besides, once is in my task list (I use MS Outlook to manage my tasks, see my post on Task Management with Outlook), I can then prioritize and classify accordingly.

But the other side of getting stuff done and being effective at managing your time has to do with meetings.  Seth Godin says there are three types of meetings: 

  • Information: designed to inform
  • Discussion: where the leader wants feedback
  • Permission: where the other side has the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’


Although I think he simplified a bit (I can think of at least 3 other types that are not covered there, but that’s a post for another time), I get his point. Unless you know what the meeting if for, you won’t be prepared for it, and you won’t have a very productive meeting. Unproductive meetings are a drag on your time and therefore on your ability to be a better manager. The subject of running effective meetings has been discussed in several other blogs so I’ll focus at the narrower topic I outlined in the beginning, which is managing your time via smart use of your calendar.


The Five Rules of Effective Meeting Scheduling

For those of us networked and connected to a calendar system such as MS Outlook, we have the advantage of being able to share our calendars with the rest of the company. That is also, of course, a drawback in some cases because everyone with access to your calendar can now see when you are available and when you are out playing golf, I mean, when you are in an important meeting.

But seriously, I think that the networked calendar has more advantages than disadvantages if you know how to use it. Try following these simple rules:


1.       Make your calendar available to your direct reports and your peers: companies differ on their network policies and who has access to what, so you may not need to do this but just in case your company locks down access to other people’s calendar you should proactively let your direct reports (those who work for you) and your peers see your schedule. This will help you in two ways. For one, your staff can now see your availability and schedule necessary meetings directly into your calendar without having to keep asking you, which saves you time once you let them know of your particular preferences (i.e. don’t schedule meetings in the morning, or whether you prefer to leave at least 1 hour after lunch before any meeting, etc.) and secondly, if your peers have access to your calendar, you can also avoid calls and emails back and forth asking “hey, are you available at 2pm tomorrow to discuss Project X? If not, give me a couple of days and times….”. Let them see your availability and let them Mischedule the meeting accordingly. This is a GREAT time saver.

In order to give other people access to your calendar in outlook, do the following (Outlook 2003 and 2007):

  • Go to “tools – options”
  • Click on “Calendar Options”
  • Click on “Resource Scheduling”
  • Click on “Set Permissions”
  • Click on the “Permissions” tab
  • Click on the “Add” button, the contacts list will open upAdding Permissions to Your Calendar
  • Select the person you’d like to add to your permissions list and select from the drop down list of ‘Permission Level’ the type of role that user will have. As you click each role, you will see different options below being checked off. You can also customize yourself the role if the default ones don’t fit. For people to be able to view your calendar items they need to have “read items” checked. If you want to give people the ability to create calendar items (meetings) directly into your calendar, they also need “create items”. I usually only let my staff with “read” permission because I want them to send me a meeting invitation before they schedule something directly to my calendar. 

2.       Don’t simply ask people to come to a meeting by calling or emailing, send them a meeting invitation: Most calendar programs have this option, which emails the person with a meeting request that they need to reply to with “yes”, “no” or “propose another time” (those are the standard options in MS Outlook). This way you ensure they accept the meeting (which will automatically add it to their own calendars), and you can track who responded (I know this works well in Outlook but not sure in other platforms).

3.       Use the body of the ‘meeting request’ invite to add agenda items, links to documents, and other notes so that people can be prepared prior to the meeting.

4.       In your calendar, ensure you have some time blocked prior and after the meeting: This may vary depending on the type of meeting, but you may have to prepare or read the agenda or even collect information. As soon as you invite or accept a meeting invitation, decide whether you need some extra 15 minutes (or more) to prepare. The more prepared you are, the more productive your meeting will be especially if you’re running the show. Block that time prior to the meeting in your calendar as if it was another meeting adjacent to it. The same applies for the ‘after meeting’ time… if you were taking notes and have to prepare meeting minutes or if you know the meeting will give you a bunch of action items, you should allocate some time right after the meeting to transcribe your notes or assign tasks.

5.       Label the meeting appropriately in your calendar: MS Outlook users have some nice options here that few people bother to configure, which is a mistake. Lotus notes users can do the same thing and I bet other platforms have similar functions. In MS Outlook 2003 and 2007 you can color code your calendar items so that you can visually identify types of meetings scheduled throughout your week or month. I like this feature because when planning my week I can easily spot a day in which I have several conference calls and may want to schedule an extra call at another day (we all need a break from conference calls, right?) or vice versa. And here’s where I think you need to go a bit deeper than what Seth Godin recommended as types of meetings, because you will want to clearly see stuff such as:

a.       Off site meetings: for these you will need to allocate travel time before and after the meeting (going to and coming back to the office).

b.      Meetings that involve a conference room or other facility: my company has a video conferencing room, so I know that if have a meeting that will use that room I need to be 10 minutes early to ensure the system is turned on and working, so I like to see these types of meetings with a different color.

c.       Meetings involving your boss: you want to continue climbing the corporate ladder and so you should know not to arrive late at these and ensure you are prepared.

d.      Project specific meetings: you could have a category for specific project types (webinars, advertising campaigns, creative brainstorming, etc.) if those represent different preparations, time, or energy level required.

Want to start labeling your meetings? If using MS Outlook 2003…

a) Open your calendar

b) Right-click on any meeting and in the contextual menu that opens up click on “Label”.

Labeling meetings in MS Outlook 2003

Labeling meetings in MS Outlook 2003

c) You’ll see the default labels with colors showing up. At the very bottom of the labels list, there’s an “Edit Labels…” option.

d) Click there and a window will pop up showing all labels and allowing you to edit each entry.

If using MS Outlook 2007, you are lucky! In Outlook 2007 they got smarter and merged the labels from the Calendar with the categories from the Tasks. This means you can now share the same categories between meetings and tasks. Simply…

a)Open the calendar

b) Right click on a meeting

Creating meeting categories in Outlook 2007

Creating meeting categories in Outlook 2007

c)Select the “Categorize” option

d) A list will show up and you can click on “All Categories” which will bring up a window with all categories, colors, and options to add or modify existing categories.

6.       Bonus rule! When you get an email asking for you to go to a meeting (someone who clearly doesn’t know how to use the meeting invitation feature), simply click on that email and drag it to your Calendar icon (works in MS Outlook 2003 / 2007) and voila! A new meeting window will open with that email’s info in the body of the appointment details. Right after you do this, delete the email.



Know What Your Meeting is About

Labeling or categorizing your meetings can help tremendously in managing your time effectively. The types of categories will depend on the types of projects you’re involved in, the energy required in each type of meeting, and basically what you think will make sense. Start with a couple and you’ll see really quickly if you need more. My meeting types are:

  • Off site meeting: I like to know if the meeting will require me to drive to it, so I can plan accordingly and not schedule something right after it
  • On site meeting: for regular meetings held with my staff or in / around my office
  • Conference call / video conference meeting: for meetings that will require some setup and more preparation
  • Travel required: this means air travel and I use this to allocate my time going to and from the airport as well as time that I’m on the plane (this way no one will schedule a meeting for me while I’m 10,000 feet in the air and wonder why I didn’t show up)
  • Webinar: I have to personally oversee the setup of webinars we conduct so I need to tag these meetings accordingly
  • Work time: for certain projects, tasks and even working meetings with my staff I like to block some time to ensure we’ll get to it, so I created a category for “work time”.
  • Personal: going to the doctor, picking my son up from daycare and other chores that are not work related

Be smart at scheduling meetings and use your calendar to your advantage.

If you’re looking for some more tips (especially MS Outlook users) on meeting scheduling and best practices, check out this blog:

Of course, if you still have too many meeting to manage and that is what you think is killing your productivity, then you may want to read this interesting blog from Lifehack about killing your meetings


Enjoy life!

Effective Marketer Principle 7: Run Productive Meetings

January 25, 2009

Meetings are a necessity of today’s work environment. And are also good source of humoristic material (see Dilbert cartoons) for the fact that they are often badly run and take way too much time. If you have ever asked yourself the following questions during a meeting, then is fair to assume the meeting wasn’t productive at al

  • Why am in this meeting?
  •  Why are all these people in this meeting?
  • Why are we meeting?
  • Haven’t we already discussed this in another meeting?
  • Shouldn’t [name of person] also participate in this meeting?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Who did we decide will take care of the action items?
  • Will anyone notice if I slip out of the room before the meeting ends?

So it is no surprise that one of the principles for effective marketers has to do with productive meetings. Drucker, of course, was right on target when included this principle in his article for effective managers (“What Makes an Effective Executive”, Harvard Business Review, June 2004) since one of the most important aspects one should be able to master in order to become effective is time management, and meetings are, as a general rule, a time drag.meeting1

Following Drucker’s advice, you should first identify what type of meeting is needed, since different meetings require different kinds of preparation. There are meetings to prepare a statement or press release, meetings where team members report the status of their tasks, meetings to inform other executives, and so on. From a marketing perspective, the principle still holds true and you will certainly be able to recognize in your organization all those different meeting types and should be able to prepare beforehand and run them according to their individual characteristics. For example:

Meeting to discuss campaign goals and strategy: this meeting should require attendees to be prepared beforehand by knowing the target market the campaign will focus on, reading results from similar campaigns or from campaigns targeting the same market, and assessing competitors’ actions towards the said market. If this kind of preparation is expected and understood by all participants, the meeting itself will be more productive since everyone will be able to come prepared to discuss the strategy rather than basic principles and background data.

Another example might be a meeting to review artwork, design, or other conceptual diagram related to marketing collateral or advertising. The requirements for this meeting differ from the previous one in the sense that previous preparation may involve having everyone review the proposed artwork or design beforehand and come prepared to the meeting with their observations. The meeting itself can be run also more focused on the specific artwork/design at hand, discussing that element in detail and how it relates to the overall message.

Finally, let’s take the example of a marketing staff meeting where you will review the results of the last quarter campaigns with the team. The way you will run this meeting will undoubtedly differ from the two types of meetings described above.

The takeaway from this principle is that once you realize that each meeting has its own purpose and structure, you can start organizing, preparing, and running meetings more effectively. But regardless of the type of meeting you will have, my personal experience is that you need at least the following:

  1. An agenda:  prepared and distributed prior to the meeting.
  2. An assigned note-taker: someone everyone agrees will write notes during the meeting, avoiding the all too common “oh, I thought you were taking notes so I didn’t take any!” problem.
  3. Published action items: sometimes referred as meeting minutes, it really doesn’t matter what you call it as long as it contains clear action items from the meeting, indicating who will do what by when. The note-taker is the person usually responsible for putting together the action items and sending it to everyone (after all, that’s why he was taking the notes!)

 Sounds simple and it really should be. Don’t let other people take you down with their useless meetings, you have more important things to do. Instead, teach them how to run effective meetings!

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