In 2014, when I was working at Twitter, I wrote a blog post called Nobody Is That Busy. At the time, I felt there was an epidemic of “crazy busyness”—of which I was very much a part, but was not wanting to be.
The post centered upon an epiphany I’d had that it’s not the world making us “crazy busy,” it’s us. I wrote about how—thanks to some coworkers and a great book (no surprise)—I’d begun seeing the importance of scheduling our time, not just for meetings, but for everything. I developed a practice of blocking off time on my calendar to focus without distraction on what needed my focus. I coded these spaces green. Four years later, I still have that urge to blurt out how busy I am and let my calendar fill up unintentionally. But, for the most part, I have managed to maintain this practice of daily “green space.” This space has allowed for other healthy, sustainable habits to fill my time, like writing, working out, and reading.
Recently, I was working with a CEO (we will call her Beth) who told me how stressed out she was every Sunday afternoon because she had to prepare for the week ahead and, specifically, for the Monday morning staff meeting. Silicon Valley weekends are commonly 1.5 days long. The workweek starts Sunday afternoon with emails flying back and forth across the Bay Area. I asked Beth if there was any reason that she had to have that meeting on Monday morning. Turns out, there were several. Here’s what Beth said:
- “Everyone is used to that schedule. I can’t change it now. And anyway, it works.”
- “It’s a great way to start the week with everyone sharing what their focus area is—especially for me.”
- “There is a whole cadence across the company. We meet first and then all my leaders have their staff meetings Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.”
I was struck by how stuck she was in this way of working, even though it did not seem to be working for her. So this is what I said:
- “What would be some advantages to creating a new schedule?”
- “Would Tuesday morning make that much of a difference to people in getting updates for the week?”
- “If you did your meeting Tuesday mornings, why can’t the cadence start from there?”
A light switch went on. And with that, she shared the idea with her team. Here’s what happened:
- Her team was both excited and relieved by the prospect of this suggested change. They agreed to try it for two weeks. They worked less on Sundays, knowing they could plan for the meeting on Monday.
- Everyone showed up much more prepared on Tuesdays for the roundtable discussion. And yes, productivity has gone up in just a short time.
- The rest of the company also thinks that the cadence of Tuesday afternoon meetings works better than Mondays.
Building space into our days is less about time management and more about being aware of our systems and practices that are either helping us do good work or blocking us from it. Cal Newport wrote a book about this called Deep Work. (He works so deeply, in fact, that he just wrote another book called Digital Minimalism.) In Deep Work, he emphasizes that we are so used to being interrupted and reacting to what’s right in front of us that we have lessened our capacity to think deeper and longer. He doesn’t use social media, he reads books at night (real ones, where you turn the pages while sitting in front of a fireplace), and he is well known to the people with whom he wants to be connected. Sounds like a well-lived life to me.
I used to dream about having all the green space I could ever want. No office that I had to go into at a certain time, no early morning calls with Europe or evening calls with China. I finally have that. I design my days now. Yet, I still find myself filling up my days with email, social media, and unimportant tasks. When I am writing, I think I should be answering emails. When I’m connecting with clients, I feel like I should be writing. The tension between short and long-term focus areas will never go away.
The biggest myth that we all keep perpetuating is that somehow, someday, we will magically have all the time in the world to get it all done. This myth gets enlivened on Friday afternoons when I think I can carve out some space on the weekends to make up for time I thought I’d have in the past week but never materialized. Then Saturday gets filled up with social events and we’re back to the same calendar, the same habits, the same struggle come Sunday night. We can put ourselves into new environments, but our old habits and beliefs are persistent and resilient. They follow us and hang on until we create other solutions and systems.
Since writing that original post four years ago, life has taught me a few more things about creating space in our days. The green space system helped me considerably. But it showed its vulnerabilities to me, especially when I began working for myself.
Here’s what I have learned and practiced since the original article: We intentionally manage and evolve our ways of working or get managed by them.
After that first article, many people believed scheduling green spaces just wasn’t possible for them. They surmised they simply worked in crazier environments and that’s why they’d never be able to pull it off (hmmm..). Sure, some environments are more intense than others, but that’s irrelevant. Regardless of the environment, we can always fall into the “I’m crazy busy” trap, or we can bring systematic intentionality to our days. I’ve learned that when we bring intentionality to our days, when we continue to review and evolve them, we find more calm. When we find more calm, we think more clearly about what we can change in our days to make them more intentional. And a virtuous cycle unfolds.
Most of the great leaders I know are also the calmest. They are clear about the projects, priorities and issues in front of them at every moment. They ruthlessly prioritize their time and intentionally plan everything they do. They start meetings on time and end them on time. They are the most disciplined, yet freest people I know.
We all have busy lives. We all have busy days. That does not mean that we have to be crazy busy.
Let me know how those Tuesday meetings are going.