There’s an old newsroom trope that is generally thought to have originated in a 1989 cover story for New York Magazine by Eric Poole. The piece, “Grins, Gore, and Videotape: The Trouble with Local TV News,” was a sweeping critique of the sensationalism of violence in the spirit of newsy entertainment, especially at the expense of nuance, perspective, and thoughtful context.
Poole’s full quote reads: “The thoughtful report is buried because sensational stories must launch the broadcast: If it bleeds, it leads.”
At its foundation, the quote references what happens to us all too often: We have no time to think, reflect, strategize or plan. We’re too busy dealing with the unexpected daily crises that hit our calendars and our schedules. We’re triaging problems, emails, issues, and whatever else might unexpectedly unfold.
In some ways, we do this to ourselves. Our calendars are filled to the brim with meetings, calls, and pressing tasks, and we fail to plan for the real work we must do each day, let alone debrief sessions, exhale time, strategizing time, exercise, or anything else.
But in other ways, we’re victims of this trope. Those who need to find me – and even plenty of people who don’t need to find me – know where I generally am. They know the office hours I keep and my physical presence often results in “pop in” appointments. I am both guilty of encouraging this and also forcing these “pop ins” on others. “Oh good, you’re here. Do you have a second?” They also know how to access my calendar online, so surveying my availability is easier than ever. This makes scheduling meetings more efficient, (I certainly participate in fewer “Are you free during this time slot” email exchanges, which might be the biggest waste of email server space ever), but it also means every possible available moment is bookable.
So what can we do about it?
We can make thoughtfulness a discipline. We can refuse to subscribe to the sensationalism of our schedules. We can reclaim our calendars.
This is a little easier said than done, but there are some relatively easy practices that can help.
I once had a colleague who blocked out the first 30 minutes of his work day each and every day for planning time. I admire the idea behind this practice, but I wonder at its effectiveness. (Often “planning time” seems to be an excuse to run a few minutes late, exercise a bit longer at the gym, or indulge in some inbox clean-up each morning. There’s nothing wrong with these activities, but I wouldn’t call them “planning” activities.)
For me, planning time works best on a weekly basis, rather than a daily one. (And for me, this practice is more aspirational rather than actual, although I am continually trying to make it an actual practice.) Sundays tend to be a perfect planning day for my calendar, and it is already a day when those in my world (my family, my dog) are gearing up for a natural week. But we are heavily focused on an academic calendar; we have a school-age daughter and both my partner and I work in higher education. Sunday works for us.
Two or three hours of planning on a Sunday ensure I have a handle on what I need to do during the week, whether it is planning for regularly scheduled tasks (Who is picking up our daughter on Tuesday? Do I have my lecture planned for Thursday’s class?) and out-of-the-ordinary ones (Am I prepared for my travel on Thursday and Friday? Do we have sitter lined up for Saturday night’s gala?).
I make a to-do list, which starts with a standard list of tasks that happen each week and is supplemented by the non-standard tasks. Starting with the standard list saves me time (do I really need to add “Update blog” to my to-do list every single week?) and allows me to focus on the non-standard items (special coaching sessions, extra classroom visits, etc.).
(Side note: We’ve started experimenting with this “standard list” idea for groceries as well… By brain-dumping my standard inventory knowledge of our kitchen and go-to meals into a standard shopping list, I empower anyone else to grocery shop on my behalf without having to transfer knowledge each and every time. Whew!)
And there is something really fulfilling about starting a week with a list of tasks, and finishing the week having made progress on all or some of them.
In my latest smart phone update, my calendar app added a “travel time” feature. Not only is this brilliant and overdue, it saves me the time of booking an extra 30 minutes before and after meetings for which I have to travel. (It also saves me the brain power of having to remember if a 12:30 meeting is really at 12:30 or if it is at 1:00 and I simply booked the time on my calendar to include travel time. No longer do I have to search through my email correspondence to remember why I booked an appointment when I booked it.)
The travel time feature can be GPS-based (so it syncs with your location and the expected travel time to a meeting’s location) or it can be manual. I, personally, favor manually setting the travel time and adjusting my calendar reminders so I’m alerted at the beginning of a travel time appointment or five minutes before (“It’s time to leave!” fashion), rather than simply defaulting to a 15-minute reminder before meetings (which sometimes only make me anxious or annoyed if I am already en route or not quite ready to leave).
Capturing travel time—an already occurring time that we often forget to plan adequately for—is a simple way to reclaim control of your schedule. Especially during winter, when travel time often doubles, especially during the day when important task bleed into other important tasks. Especially when we’d rather not be rushed and forced to text our meeting partners while we’re in route.
In addition to scheduling travel time, I’ve been trying to schedule “follow up” time after each meeting or event. This is the time I need to address any to-do items that may come from the meeting, update and finalize my notes to reflect the substance of our conversations, and send follow-up correspondence. (My smart phone doesn’t automatically add this, but I do. And certain meeting scheduling tools, like Time Trade, do build this in.)
The reflection and follow-up time varies, but I try to never make it less than 30 minutes per hour long meeting. If the follow-up relates to a coaching session or a workshop I’ve led, I always make it at least an hour.
That allows me to go to the bathroom, top off my coffee, drink some water, and follow up on whatever I need to do, whether it is sending emails of thanks, sharing resources from a webinar, or updating notes from a coaching session.
If I don’t schedule this time, the follow-up tasks (and the are always follow-up tasks!) bleed into my other meetings and commitments. I often end up running late to other meetings, dinners are cut short, and I have less time to spend doing other important things. Like sleeping.
I don’t like running late. I don’t like feeling rushed. I don’t like having to curtail parenting responsibilities in favor of work. And I really don’t like losing sleep. Building in some extra time – what a luxury! – ensures I don’t have to do any of those things. (Usually.)
I say usually because these are really best practices that are aspirational. There will always be moments when work bleeds into life. There will always be emergencies that cause all plans to go out the window. (And by the way, those emergencies are just as often not work related as they are work related.)
But dealing with the unexpected and emergencies takes energy. And if we’ve used up all our energy in failing to plan for “emergencies” we can reasonably expect (like the fact that nearly every meeting will require some level of follow up afterwards), the true emergencies are much, much harder to deal with.
Your Presence is a Present
Include some unscheduled time in your day for the unexpected visits to your office, for the voice at the other end of the phone, and for the unanticipated crisis you’ll be asked to solve. Your presence—your real presence—is a present to those around you.
There will always be “pop in” appointments from our colleagues. There will always be found moments of conversation in hallways or near the coffee pot. There will always be accidental encounters that interrupt our calendars.
Plan for these unplanned moments by leaving some room in your schedule. With a bit of unplanned time in your day, you give these experiences the chance to unfold, instead of rushing through them or avoiding them entirely. They are as important to your long-term success as whatever else you had planned for the day, and by planning for them—or at least leaving room for the unplanned—you ensure whatever else you did have planned doesn’t get trumped by other activities.
This time is a present to yourself as well. When we are present—really present—we focus more on the task at hand. We’re more efficient. We enjoy our tasks more. We feel better about what we’re doing. We get more done. We get more good done. We have some room to breathe. And a bit of fresh air does wonders for our creativity, our professionalism, and our general outlooks.
And at the end of a good day, we are ready for more good. We are present for our families, our friends, and ourselves. And we are energized for whatever comes next, whether it bleeds or not.