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This Scheduling Hack Will Make You Happier, More Productive, and More Impactful

Most accomplished individuals became successful by pushing themselves to the limit. To be successful is to know what it means to stretch yourself and challenge your assumptions. I know it, I’ve lived it, and I see it in the vast majority of my clients. But what if doing more means planning to do less?

It may sound counter-intuitive but if you want to do more, achieve more, and be more successful, my suggestion is that you start by aiming to do less. Specifically, I advise that you start scheduling only 80% of your time and leave the other 20% unscheduled.  I know what you’re thinking but as Marshall Goldsmith puts in the title of his book, “What got you here won’t get you there.” In other words, if you want to keep achieving more, you need to think outside the box, and the 80/20 scheduling split is a powerful way to do this.

Scheduling at 80% Helps Build Bandwidth

If you think scheduling at 80% is the wrong way to work at 100%, think again. The primary reason we struggle at work is that we lack bandwidth – the ability to think deeply and do actual work that is important. Yes, bandwidth is directly connected to time – which is why managing your commitments to no more than 80% is vital. When you lack bandwidth and start to feel depleted, it is usually because you don’t have enough time and are attempting to do too much with too little. Most often, this leads to one of two things: frenetic multitasking or cutting corners, even when corners shouldn’t be cut.

Scheduling at 80% is one way to avoid finding yourself without the bandwidth needed to give your attention to everything that deserves your attention. But there two other reasons to schedule at 80% rather than 100% or worse yet, at 150%. Scheduling at 80%:

  • Supports sprinting: We are our best when we work with focused intensity and then step back.  It is the cycling of intensity that expands and builds capacity. To learn more, read about HIIT (high-intensity interval training/thinking), and its impact on our work.   
  • Forces edits: With less time “available” to schedule, we become much more selective about what we do and how we allocate our time.  This includes asking for intended outcomes and agendas before agreeing to attend meetings.  It also means proactively asking for data so that when we do meet, the meeting is actually effective.

Don’t worry – Life Is Unpredictable – You’ll Use That 20%

Our lives are full of uncertainties. You can’t always predict when you’ll need to bring your car into the shop for a repair or when you’ll wake up with a migraine. If you have children, you can’t always predict when they will come down with a stomach virus or just need you to show up for a special event. Likewise, if you are caring for elderly parents, you can never know for certain when you’ll need to be available to offer support. The 20% you don’t schedule makes life’s little bumps on the road much easier to handle.

Of course, uncertainty is also an issue at work and the further up the ladder one climbs, the more unpredictable one’s work becomes. Lower-level managers deal with many challenges, but in most cases, their challenges are predictable. For example, a lower-level manager may deal directly with turn over on their team but this is often the type of challenge one can anticipate in advance. The higher one rises in any organization, the more likely one is to face challenges that can’t be easily anticipated. For example, challenges caused by external rather than internal factors, including sudden market shifts or the introduction of new government policies or restrictions on trade. By scheduling at 80%, rather than 20%, you’re more likely to have the time needed to grapple with these uncertainties.

Finally, bear in mind that that 20% you’re not scheduling isn’t really empty time. What people historically considered “downtime” is actually a critical time for recharging, refocusing, thinking strategically, and preparing more effectively to do everyone we do when we’re fully focused on the 80% of our scheduled time.

Stop Ignoring the Consequences of Scheduling at or Above 100%

Time and time again, we stubbornly insist that we “can’t afford to schedule at 80% or even at 95%.” After all, we are so busy, so in demand, and have so many high expectations. Unfortunately, the consequences of insisting on scheduling at 100% can be devastating.

Leaders who schedule themselves at 100% are nearly always under stress and as a result, they are also at risk of myriad mental and physical health problems. A 2018 article published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine surveyed 839 executives. Beyond emphasizing that work is often the cause of stress, the study found that workplace stress leads to both mental and physical impacts. On the mental side of the equation, the authors note, “Work-related stress has been associated with increased use of sick leave, poor job satisfaction, cynicism, presentism, and, ultimately, burnout.” On the physical side, they observe that when executives are stressed, they are more likely to neglect self-care behaviors, including exercise.

Scheduling at 100% isn’t just back for one’s mental and physical health. It can also have a devastating impact on one’s personal life. Stressed leaders are more likely to struggle to balance their work and life commitments. One of the more difficult parts of my own job is working with clients whose personal lives are already falling apart by the time they reach out to me for support. The reality is that workplace stress, especially among executives, often impacts one’s personal life even before it becomes visible in the workplace.

Tips On Scheduling at 80%

  • Say no to be able to say yes.
  • Be more assertive in managing commitments (e.g., if there is no agenda for a meeting, don’t agree to show up).
  • Focus on outcomes rather than “to-do” items (e.g., get laser-focused on deliverables and streamline how they can be achieved).
  • Don’t feel guilty if your 20% sometimes turns out to be truly relaxing; while you’re relaxing, you’ll be recharging so you can be fully on when you dive back into tackling the 80% of your scheduled time.