Focus On This Podcast

110. How to Clear Your Calendar in Your Busiest Seasons



Do you feel like you don’t have space to breathe during the fourth quarter? Work has picked up. Meetings seem to be multiplying. Family demands are increasing. Your calendar is packed, and you’re jumping from one thing to the next. How can you keep yourself from feeling spread thin, burnt out, and unable to actually enjoy the “fun things” you’ve said yes to? 

In this episode, Courtney, Verbs, and Blake walk you through the four keys of calendar triage. You don’t have to feel swept away by this last quarter of the year. You can take back your calendar, redefine what full looks like, and set yourself up to win.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • The filter you must have clarity on before you do calendar triage
  • What to ask yourself as you reevaluate the necessity of meetings 
  • How to get out of an existing commitment with integrity
  • Why it’s essential to schedule time for margin



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Episode Transcript

Courtney: So, last week, guys… Obviously, normally, I would say my schedule is pretty full in the sense that I have a full-time job. My husband has a full-time job. I have a 10-month-old. That’s the big kicker.

Verbs: A few things.

Courtney: Yeah. Last week was one of those weeks where it just was too much all of a sudden. I, very sadly, had a death in my family. Obviously, there were funerals and visitations and just a lot of mental/emotional energy around that. I was packing for a vacation, which, for those of you who pack with small children, it’s like, “Do we have to bring the whole house to the other location? Because that’s kind of how this feels.”

Verbs: Yeah, just about.

Courtney: “I mean, should we even ever leave? I don’t know.” We had family pictures, which I had not planned ahead before this death in the family had happened. So, no plan for family photos, and then we had friends in from Brazil. It was too much all in one week.

Verbs: In a week. My goodness.

Courtney: In a week. Honestly, between Monday and Friday, all of these things happened. It was completely overwhelming. So, I’m curious today. I think we’re going to be talking about when your schedule all of a sudden becomes chaotic like that. What advice do you have for me in that situation?

Blake: Did you try curling up in the fetal position in the corner of a room?

Verbs: Right. Can we use your life as a case study as we go through these points for today?

Courtney: Yes. I think we can. I did not try that one. I definitely tried some things that I think were helpful, but I’m just always curious to pick up any tips you two might have along the way.

Blake: You could go the opposite route as well. Did you try yelling? Just at anyone. “Get over there! No, not over there. Over there!” That’s what I do sometimes: just tell people to get over there.

Courtney: Great. I’m going to try that.

Verbs: Mortal Kombat.

Courtney: That feels like solid advice right there.

Verbs: Well, Courtney, with all of that going on in the course of one week, the good news for you and those listening today is that we’re going to be talking about the four keys that help us to triage our calendars so you can leverage those during your whole week, not just at work but also at home. That way you can get back to some regular breathing room, a little space, a little margin. So, let’s talk about those.

Courtney: And, guys, I just realized I didn’t even say… We had strategic planning last week. So, that’s just for y’all…

Verbs: You’re making this up now. You’re writing stories.

Courtney: I swear! It was bananas.

Verbs: How? Like, how?

Courtney: I don’t know. Every day I was like, “Okay. I just have to do the next hour.”

Blake: You were like, “All right. The marketing team’s strategic objective is going to be wearing purple every Wednesday. I don’t know!”

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. I’m Verbs, here with Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton. Happy Monday to both of you, individually and collectively. How’s it going?

Blake: I felt that “Happy Monday.” I have a warm little bakery of “Happy Monday” goodness in my heart. I don’t know, but I’m in a good mood. Thanks, Verbs.

Verbs: Absolutely. Good to see you guys.

Courtney: Yeah. Happy Monday. Verbs, we had our first onboarding webinar, and it was amazing. Right?

Verbs: It was.

Courtney: When Verbs and I got on there to start the webinar, Blake, I said… I like to pretend nobody listens to the podcast, because it’s just the four of us sitting on this Riverside/Zoom thing, talking to each other.

Verbs: Down by the riverside.

Courtney: There’s no real back and forth on hearing from the audience. It’s kind of a one-way street here. Sorry, guys. But we get on this webinar, and Verbs and I start talking, and the chat, Blake… I have never seen a webinar chat move as fast as the chat was moving in this Full Focus webinar. I looked at Verbs, and I was like, “I think there are a lot of people here with us today, Verbs.”

Verbs: I was trying not to watch just so I could stay focused. See what I did there?

Courtney: I do see what you did there. But I was going to say, for everybody who joined us, thank you for doing that. Just know we’re going to have another one of those here in the next couple of months, so be looking for that.

I think today we’re just going to dive in. We’re going to go straight into the meat of this episode, because I think this is something everybody struggles with, especially in the fourth quarter. There are, a lot of times, vacations. You may be going on a vacation this week, actually. A lot of people are out for fall break. You have the holidays coming up. It can get overwhelming really quickly. This episode is all about how to triage your calendar and still leave margin for you to flex and be successful this quarter.

Blake: Absolutely. We have four keys to triage that calendar, make it more livable. Let’s just dive in. What’s the first key to get back some breathing room in your life this quarter?

Courtney: Okay. The first key is clarify your priorities. I find myself falling into this trap a little bit. Sometimes I realize I haven’t clarified my priorities, and I find myself… I feel like this especially happens on the weekends, where it’s like I have something I need to do, but all of a sudden I’m like, “I should probably fold these clothes,” and it’s like, “No, no, no. That’s not the priority.” Obviously, that’s a life example, but I think that happens with our work priorities as well.

Calendar triage really starts by identifying what you most want to prioritize, and then your time can be allocated appropriately once you’ve determined that. It’s hard to do until you’ve taken the time to identify what you want to prioritize. In that moment, when I get sucked into “I should probably fold these clothes right now,” because I’m a doer… I’m like, “Let’s check these things off.” It’s not the thing I need to prioritize.

Blake: The challenge with this step is it’s the most important step, because it’s the filter for everything else… If you don’t know what’s important, then it’s going to be really hard to do any triaging, because then you’re just eliminating stuff, and you’re not certain what the cost is. The challenge is that if you’re unclear about your priorities, you need to take some time to get clear. You actually need to pause the rush for a minute.

It’s part of why we emphasize things like a Weekly Preview, taking a little bit of time to consider your week ahead and what your top three priorities would be for the week, or even a daily preview. We don’t call it that, but that’s kind of what it looks like for me in the morning, where you’re looking at your day and identifying what’s most important.

The reason those are so important to install as habits is because it’s hard, when you’re feeling so busy, to say, “You know what’s going to be the most productive thing right now? For me to pause and reflect for a minute.” At least for me, it feels like the last instinct I have, because I’m just trying to go, go, go. So, I think that’s kind of the key with this key. A double key for you.

Courtney: That’s really true. If you define productivity as thinking intentionally about your work, then that’s what it takes to be productive: that second to stop and say, “Okay. What is important for me to do?” It is counterintuitive. I think that is why it’s hard. So, having these things built in to help you prioritize is really key. That’s what it’s all about.

Verbs: I think, too, the distinction of “What’s important for me to do…?” And that might mean not just work-wise, but also personally, as, again, we look at ourselves as holistic people. I’m with Blake on that Weekly Preview setup. That self-care portion of the Weekly Preview helps you think through those questions, like, “All right. What people do I need to spend time with or do I need to prioritize during this next season?”

Maybe it’s somebody you haven’t connected with all year, and you say, “Hey, I don’t want this year to pass without connecting with [so-and-so] or my best friend or the uncle I haven’t spoken with in a while.” What sorts of things, personally, do you want to prioritize as well, and make space for that as you reflect on how you want to land Q4?

Blake: Absolutely. One last thing. I had this same thought when I was thinking through the upcoming quarter, getting into the fourth quarter. I had this thought of, “Man! I remember how I felt…” Trying to take myself back to the beginning of this year and going, “What did I really hope would happen this year?” Maybe it was a friendship. Maybe it was a specific goal to hit. This is kind of that time.

I’m like, “I don’t really want to have another New Year’s time where I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish that…’ or ‘Maybe we can do that next year.’” To me, that was a visual, emotional filter for what really needs my time, what needs my money, what needs my energy. So, I don’t know if that would help anyone listening, but thinking through, “Oh yeah. The next thing that happens is New Year’s after the fourth quarter. What still is on the table that I want to take advantage of?” is going to be a great filter for you.

Courtney: The second key is to evaluate your commitments. Obviously, if you don’t look ahead at what’s coming, it’s going to start feeling like life is just happening to you. Listen. We all have those seasons. Frankly, that’s how it was for me last week. It felt like, “Wow! This feels like, all of a sudden, I’m not really in control of what’s happening. Things are coming so quickly.”

Sometimes that’s unavoidable. It just happens based on circumstances. But what we want to do is be ahead enough so we can plan for those things. Again, at this point, your calendar is probably already feeling full. I think we all walk around with pretty packed schedules. Culturally, that’s kind of our MO. I mean, do you two agree with that?

Verbs: Absolutely.

Blake: Absolutely.

Verbs: Again, you have work calendars. You have personal calendars as well. I think just with the introduction of the holiday season, automatically the tank goes up, because it’s family stuff, it’s other personal stuff, it’s work stuff. So, for sure, full calendars. Full calendars for everyone.

Courtney: Yeah. Coming off a week like I had last week, it was really important for me this week, as part of my Weekly Preview, to look at the calendar ahead and say to myself, “This is really serving me, not the other way around. I’m not going to continue to let last week run into this week.” Again, that’s why that Weekly Preview time is so important, for us to have that time to reset. We talked about that in a recent episode. It’s kind of like a fresh start. It certainly was for me this week.

Blake: One of the best ways… When you’re evaluating your commitments, what’s on your calendar, you’re going to see appointments and meetings. Some of those meetings will have been booked months ago. Sometimes they’re just recurring meetings. A question you can ask yourself… If you are taking some time in a Weekly Preview, for instance, look ahead at the next week or two weeks and just go, “What is the key outcome I’m trying to get from that meeting, and why is that so important to have this week?”

Sometimes you can eliminate a meeting, but you still need that outcome. What I mean is if you can identify that question and be like, “Oh, all I really need to know is what my boss thinks about X process,” or something, maybe that’s something you can send in a quick video, voice memo, or email and just eliminate the meeting, because you identified the key outcome and what outcome is so important to have this week by that meeting.

Sometimes if you can’t identify it, then just volley it to the people you’re meeting with and be like, “Hey, do I need to be there? I’m kind of overloaded. I have these other priorities.” So, yeah. Consider those commitments. Make sure you’re clear on why you’re doing it and, like Courtney said, if it’s serving you.

Verbs: That’s good, because even just to get a meeting on the books… We know this from trying to organize podcast recording days. Getting everybody’s calendar, and the time it takes to have that conversation… It could be a week and a half before we all get on the same page. So, I like what you said, Blake. “Hey, can this just be a message to whoever I need this information from to keep things on track?” Then asking that question, “Is this important right now or is it something that could wait to the top of the year?” or what have you. I think all of those will help us get clarity on matching our priorities and aligning our commitments with those.

Courtney: So, the third key is exercise your “no” muscle. For me, what really helps me is to reframe my yeses to think about, “Okay. If I say yes to this, I’m actually saying no to something else.” To have that in my mind, like, “Okay. I’m saying no to X, Y, Z by saying yes to this,” really helps me flex this muscle. Frankly, there are probably already commitments on your calendar that shouldn’t be there.

Verbs: That’s good. Yes.

Blake: Well, let’s talk about that, because it’s one thing to say, “Hey, I am going to start saying no a little bit more,” but if people are already feeling like they’re overbooked… What about “Well, I said I would do this” or “I’m committed to this. Is it an integrity issue or is it going to reflect poorly on me to back out?” I’m asking for a friend, Courtney.

Courtney: You can totally… Actually, we go into this in more detail in Free to Focus. Obviously, if you’ve made a commitment, you need to… You’ve given your word, and you need to follow through with that, but here’s a tactic you could use. You could say, “Hey, I know I committed to doing this, but I’ve realized it would be better for someone else to fulfill this commitment. I would love to help you find that person, and I’m willing to help you source that. If we can’t find someone, then I’m going to follow through with what I’ve committed on.”

It’s basically a win-win for everybody. You’re helping them find somebody who’s better, because they probably have more time to do it or might be more invested, but you’re still saying, “When I give my word to something, I’m going to follow through with it.” Again, we’re not saying just back out of all of your commitments. I know sometimes that does feel tempting. It would just be like, “Let’s just reset all this.” Long-term, that’s probably not the best move forward, but there is a way you can talk to the commitments you have made and try to provide a good path forward without you being involved.

Verbs: Yeah. What Blake mentioned is it’s an integrity thing, and it all comes from the posture of how you… It’s going to take humility for you to go back to whatever you said yes to and say, “Hey, I realize I said yes to this. I’m not just writing it off. I do want to be a part of it, but I’m recognizing that I’m limited with my time here, and what I’ve said yes to… I want to be able to give focus and attention to that the way I know it deserves to be given.

So, can we delay it, or can I help you find somebody else who could probably do much better of a job at this commitment than I can currently?” Yeah, I think integrity drives that as well as just a humility of not trying to push through, knowing you’re going to give a half-cooked job on whatever the commitment is also.

Courtney: I don’t want to speak for all people who manage people out there, but I have to say, for my team, when they come to me and say, “Hey, I have this meeting, and I’m not sure it’s the highest-leverage use of my time. Here’s my reasoning behind that…” It is a gold star for me. I’m like, “This person is thinking really intentionally about how to use their time in the highest-leverage way.” To me, that’s such a great sign.

So, for those of you out there who think, “I just have to go to all of these meetings. I have no agency in what I attend and don’t attend,” I have to say, for me, I think that’s a really powerful tool. So, I would say, try it out. Especially standing meetings, guys. I feel like a lot of times they’re just there. People are sitting around. Not so much in our company, but former companies I’ve been a part of. It’s not high leverage for people.

Blake: And if all that doesn’t work, just ghost them. Let’s move on to the fourth key: plan for obstacles. This is maybe my favorite key of all of the keys: planning for obstacles. So often, I’ve been guilty of saying, “Well, I would have done this or that, I could have accomplished that, but this unexpected thing happened, and I was stuck. It’s not my fault.” What I’ve noticed is you can actually expect the unexpected. I journal essentially every day, and I have for several years. If I look back… Sometimes I’ll even look back… It’ll be like, “On this day a year ago…”

It’s wild how much sometimes history can repeat itself. Like, “Oh, there was something that came up September of last year and something that came up September the year before.” You can expect the unexpected. In fact, to not expect obstacles to happen… It’s not the obstacle’s fault. Ultimately, where you take responsibility is where you can find some power over your life and over your calendar. So, expect the unexpected to happen, and plan accordingly.

Verbs: I think, Blake, what’s important is… Kind of like the other keys we spoke about today, as far as priorities, examining or evaluating your commitments… Just because we have a calendar, we don’t have to cram a day with commitments and tasks and projects. If we have white space and margin, then that’s good. We shouldn’t feel the need to put something in its place, because often, that can be a commitment to yourself of just having think time or just a time to think about what needs to happen or time to just kind of be offstage for a minute.

Having to feel like everything has to be scheduled so tight throughout the day is not setting us up for a win for the end of the year. It’s okay to have a space where there’s nothing planned, because, really, that’s a commitment to yourself that you probably need that space to reset a little bit before you continue on to the next commitment and get that buffer time to be able to set yourself up for a healthy win.

Blake: For me, I notice when I get really busy weeks… And I’ll be transparent. I’m still not as good at this as I would like to be, but a great example was… A couple of weeks in mid-September had a lot of personal stuff that happened in our family, as well as it was a really busy week for my team and myself, and my calendar got so overscheduled. The first thing that falls is a lot of, what I would call, low-leverage admin tasks.

They’re the things that aren’t super important, and they don’t have to happen right now, but if you don’t do them, eventually you lose money or you miss appointments, you miss opportunities, or you have to pay more, or whatever it is. I had to recommit to doing a habit I used to do, which is not just leave white space in my Google calendar for appointments, but actually making sure I’ve scheduled at least an hour during my workday that’s just admin. I call it the admin hour. It just functions as a buffer.

Sometimes I don’t even need it, but I’m so grateful I had it. It’s really easy to move around. If someone says, “Hey, can you meet at 2:00?” but 1:00 is wide open, I’ll just move the admin hour up to 1:00. It’s flexible, but I keep that block of time available, and I redefine what full looks like in my calendar so that I’m not overscheduling and then paying a price for it, staying up late trying to send emails, and that sort of thing. So, build buffer, everyone. Plan for those obstacles.

Verbs: “Bob the buffer builder.” So, the good news is you don’t have to feel swept away by the fourth quarter. You can take back your calendar by clarifying your priorities, evaluating your commitments, exercising your “no” muscle, and planning for obstacles. So, Blake, Courtney, any final thoughts for the listeners today?

Courtney: Well, we talked about this earlier, but I’m going to hit on it again. Part of this you may need to negotiate with others. Here are some ideas, some questions to kind of guide you through that. Maybe your one-on-one with your boss this week… You don’t feel like you need their guidance, so maybe you ask, “Hey, this week, I think I’m all caught up on the things I need from you. Would it be a possibility for us to skip our meeting this week?” Could your team meeting accomplish the most important work if it were 30 minutes shorter?

I’m all about this, guys. I love to challenge how short I can make a meeting. In the book Shorter, there’s actually a company that reset all of their meeting times to 20 minutes, because we just naturally… Sixty minutes. That’s how long a meeting is. There’s no rhyme or reason. That’s just what we do. So, maybe challenge yourself on “Could we do our meetings in a shorter amount of time?” Hopefully, those are some helpful ways that, again, this week, and as we go into the holiday season, you can negotiate with others to build in some of the things we talked about today.

Verbs: Thank you for joining us on Focus on This. This is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so share it with your friends. Don’t forget to join our Full Focus Planner Community on Facebook. We’ll be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

All: Stay focused!