Do you ever feel like you’re a slave to your calendar? Are you running from one meeting to the next with little time for productive work and no sense of accomplishment at the end of the day? If so, you’re not alone. According to Doodle's 2019 State of Meetings report, 44% of employees feel that poorly organized meetings prevent them from getting their work done. The same study estimated that this year the cost of poorly run meetings would rise to $399 billion in the U.S. and $58 billion in the U.K. Ready to reclaim control of your workday? Here are five productivity hacks to try.

“When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.”

― A.W. Tozer

Hack #1: Block Off at Least One Half-Day of Uninterrupted Time Each Week

The average American worker faces a long list of distractions during the typical workday--from text messages to social media posts, watercooler talk, and you guessed it: meetings. While meetings and collaborative brainstorming are an essential part of the workweek, they shouldn’t be the driving force behind your schedule. However, for most people, they are.

When was the last time you had an eight hour block of uninterrupted work time? How about a four-hour block? If you’re thinking, “um, never?” you’re in good company. Now think about all the things you could accomplish if you had an extra four hours each week. Probably quite a bit! Try this: go into your calendar right now, and pick one day of each week over the next month that you can use to focus a dedicated block of your workday on, well, work. It doesn’t have to be the same day each week. And you don’t have to start by blocking off a whole day. Start with a four-hour chunk of time. If that seems unreasonable, start even smaller with just a one or two-hour block.

Once you've got that time blocked off on your calendar, write down a quick list of the things you plan to accomplish during that time. You can add it directly to the description of the calendar invite. If someone sends you a last-minute meeting invite, resist the urge to give up that time. You might feel FOMO or guilt at first but stick to this new practice for four weeks. Once you see how much more you've accomplished, you'll likely decide to keep up with this hack in the long run.

Hack #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Hit “Decline” on Low Impact Meetings

Any people pleasers out there? Yeah, me too. This one is especially difficult for me, but I've learned that sometimes hitting that decline button is the best way to keep everyone happy. That means you, your team, and your boss. Why? Because every minute that you waste in a meeting that you didn't need to attend is a minute that you could have spent working on something more impactful. Those minutes add up over time. If you're struggling to tackle every item on your to-do list or you're struggling to reach peak effectiveness, it might be time to learn to say "no." Easier said than done. I know. Here's what I suggest.

The next time you receive an invite to a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda, reply and ask for more information. Here’s an example:

“Hi, John--Thanks for including me on this invite. I noticed there’s no agenda. Can you share a bit more about what you plan to cover during this call, and how you expect me to contribute to the conversation?”

If their response conveys that you won't be expected to contribute or that the topic of conversation doesn't directly concern you, feel free to decline politely.

On the flip side, if you receive an invite that does include an agenda and you notice that you won’t play a clear role in that meeting, go ahead and decline.

You know the quote, “be the change you want to see”? You might be the trailblazer who encourages your colleagues to start treating invites the same way. Imagine how many hours and dollars your company would save!

Try hitting decline on one meeting invite you receive over the next week. Notice how it makes you feel and pay attention to what you do during that time instead. You’ll likely feel empowered to make the same decision the next time a similar request comes through your inbox.

Hack #3: Schedule Your Top 3 To-Do Items Into Your Calendar Each Week

There’s nothing more defeating than reaching the end of another workweek and realizing you didn’t accomplish half the things you set out to do. As you add those items to the queue for next week, your to-do list gets longer and longer, and after a while, burnout starts to set in. One possible solution? Take 10-15 minutes every Friday afternoon to map out your top three priorities for the next week. Block out some chunks of time in your calendar to work on progress towards each of those goals. As you’re doing that, think about the times of day when you have the most energy and focus and structure your calendar in a way that will support better productivity. For example, not much of a morning person? Save the more laborious tasks for later in the day. Reworking your calendar in a way that best supports your energy is a powerful way to ramp up results, which brings us to a related hack number four.

Hack #4: Schedule Meetings in Blocks

Here's a fun fact: every time an employee is distracted from the task they're working on, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to that task again . Now imagine this cycle gets repeated multiple times throughout the day. Thirty minutes of work time here, a meeting, then another hour of work time there, followed by another meeting. Rinse, repeat, recycle. That's a recipe for a lot of wasted, distracted time, which is why it's best to schedule meetings in blocks if you can. Carve out solid blocks of time for work, and then chunk out a specific time of day for meetings. Again, try to work with your internal clock if you can. Think about the times of day you’re best suited for tasks that require a high level of concentration. Carve out that time for your most difficult productive work. Tend to get bored in the afternoons? That may be a good time for interaction! Consider saving a two-hour window of your afternoon for meetings.

Hack #5: Set Aside Time in Your Calendar for Self-care

Do you wish you had more time to go to the gym? Read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf all year? Maybe you’d like to pick up a meditation practice, join the walking club at work, or head out during lunch to take your dog for a walk at the park. Self-care and wellness can take a variety of forms. It’s up to you to choose the activity that brings you the most joy, restoration, and fulfillment. It’s also up to you to schedule the time to make sure it happens.

“Position yourself to succeed by doing the other things in your life that rejuvenate you. Exhaustion affects your quality and productivity.”

– Jeff VanderMeer

Think you’re too busy? Consider these fun facts:

  • Barack Obama worked out 45-minutes a day, six days per week while in office. He also read every day.
  • Mark Cuban says he does one-hour of cardio every day.
  • Anna Wintour wakes up at 5:45 am every day to play an hour of tennis.

There will always be more to do. Life may always feel busy, but being "too busy" is never an excuse to neglect your health. Start small, and commit to scheduling 20 minutes of self-care time each week. After a month, bump that up to two times a week, and then three, and so on. You might be surprised to find how much your productivity increases as you block off more time for self-care. Also, as you master hacks one through four, you'll naturally free up more time to carve out for yourself.

Bringing it All Together

Reorganizing your calendar is no easy feat, but it’s well worth the effort. With just a few small tweaks, you can reclaim your sanity, boost your productivity, and inspire others to do the same. It’s often the people who work smarter, not harder, that produce the best results. Commit to trying one of these five hacks in the next week. The outcome may surprise you.

Which productivity hacks have helped you manage your calendar? Drop a comment below, or join the conversation on social media. Use the hashtag #WorkSmarter to share your best tips!