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Meeting Calendar Makeover: The Power of Heads-Down Days

When you spend most of your days in meetings, be sure to schedule blocks of focus time.

Several weeks ago in a morning stand-up with my partners at Postlight, we lamented once again how hard it was some days to get work done outside of meetings. Then we made a radical decision: To free 2 days a week of meetings. We decided to call them Heads-Down Days. 

I was skeptical–both that we could achieve full days without the interruption of meetings, and that this was truly going to have an impact on our productivity. In fact, when we floated this idea, my first thought was: Impossible. We were going to clear our calendars of recurring meetings, 2 days a week, in an attempt to better manage our time and try to limit the paralysis of constant context switching. Tuesdays and Fridays were going to go from being peppered with one-on-one’s and bi-weekly recruiting update meetings and weekly staffing to being a single 8-hour hold on our calendars: To focus on tasks and projects that required time to dive deep into them for stretches of time.

I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, before to shield my calendar from the constant onslaught of meetings that fracture my day into tiny slivers that don’t allow for focused work, but I have never dared to clear 2 full days every week of meetings. The nature of my job in operations, and our company, a digital product agency, is that the work is always changing. With employees stretched across time zones and clients across industries, it can be hard to plan for your day, let alone your week. But if we all know that this is so valuable to have time to really focus, then why is it so hard to do in practice?

It’s only been a couple of weeks since we committed to Heads-Down Days and the change is immeasurable. It’s not just the value of having days when I can have uninterrupted time to work, it has also markedly increased my ability to be present in the meetings I do have and not feel like I am constantly multi-tasking. 

As I celebrate the change, I’ve also reflected on what was critical in successfully implementing it. Here are the steps that worked for me and could work for others faced with similar dilemmas:

  1. Edit those recurring meetings. I was starting the week with 15 hours of meetings that were cemented to my calendar. Many of these meetings were the relics of over-correcting when something went awry, “We might have prevented this issue if we were more in sync. Let’s get a weekly one-on-one scheduled.” Scrutinize your meetings to see which ones are truly necessary as regularly scheduled, and which ones should become as-needed. Also ask yourself, and your colleagues, if your attendance is required or if you could be “on-call” rather than in the room. For the meetings that need to remain on the calendar, try to group them together. Accept that your meeting days will be busy, but they will be followed by a Heads-Down Day when you can catch your breath and get to inbox zero. 
  2. Don’t just use an app. There is software (there is always software) that wants to help you manage your calendar better. Clockwise, for instance, will find blocks on your schedule and hold them for Focus Time. But an available hour on your calendar doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to go heads down, particularly if that hour comes after a series of meetings and context switching. It’s more likely that your Focus Time will be used for catching up on missed Slack conversations (and probably replying solely in emoji). Real focus time requires more than just a hold on your calendar–it has to come with clearly set ground rules. Which brings me to my next point.
  3. Just say No. Or better yet, ask if you can be optional for a meeting, or if that meeting can move to another day when you are taking meetings. Challenge yourself to figure out what meetings could be replaced by async communication or more transparent project management. To really get the benefit of focused, productive time, you need to accept not always being in all the meetings. 
  4. Communicate and set expectations. An obvious one, this is always essential to the success of anything that will impact your colleagues. I’ve put an all-day calendar block on my Tuesdays and Fridays that is public and says “Message me if you need to schedule a meeting during this time”. Things happen which can be time-sensitive and shouldn’t have to wait a day. Our 2-day calendar block was mainly to attack the scourge of the standing meetings. I’ve found that having this available time every week actually makes it much easier to schedule a longer, more in-depth one-off working session when you can whiteboard out a solution without the interruption of everyone having to leave when the clock switches to the next hour and we all have to again switch gears.

For the first time in I’m really not sure how long, I am not just keeping up with my work, but I feel like I am getting ahead, and the momentum is energizing. I am not entirely sure how you scale this with a business like ours (believe me, it’s been consuming my thoughts), but I do know this: We all need less noise and more time to focus. 

Meredith Franzese is a Managing Partner and head of operations at Postlight. Drop her a note:

Story published on Nov 13, 2019.