It’s the day we all dread: You open your calendar and realize that you’re in back-to-back meetings with barely enough time for lunch. But your to-do list is still a mile long. How will you get anything done?
If you’re like me, when these days happen, I can often find myself sitting down at my desk for only 15 to 30 minutes at a time, my head spinning, as I scramble to figure out what to do to make the most out of my time before dashing off to the next conversation.
Here are six tips that can help you be set up for success to maximize those short time periods and make even your busiest days productive ones:
1. Set realistic, achievable goals for your day
Start each day with a plan.
I use my Daily Task Pad each morning to clearly set my focus for the day and then list out only the to-do items that I can *realistically* accomplish that day. For me, my daily to-do list is separate from my ongoing weekly, monthly, or yearly goals (which I track in my planner!) because having too many items on my to-do list leaves me feeling overwhelmed when I’m pressed for time. Instead of being able to sit down and get right to work, I’ll find myself jumping from task to task on my list, unable to make a decision about what to tackle first.
To combat this, I try to make sure that my daily task list has no more than two big goals, and then I break those big tasks down into smaller steps.
For example, if one of my goals for the day is to publish a podcast episode, here’s what my task list might look like:
- Save episode file to the shared folder
- Draft episode title and description
- Create episode header image in Photoshop
- Upload episode file to website
- Copy edit episode page
- Set episode live
- Send email alert to stakeholders with link to episode
Doing all of those steps together as one task would probably take well over an hour! But by breaking them down into small, manageable pieces, I now have tasks that will take no longer than 15 to 20 minutes each — the perfect things to dive into in a short break between meetings.
Once I have my tasks broken out into smaller steps, I then use my planner to realistically allocate my time so that I’m taking on tasks that I can reasonably complete in the time I have. It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to completely refocus on a task after an interruption, according to a University of California Irvine study, and on a day where you may have less than a half hour at your desk between meetings, that’s time you just can’t afford.
I like to use the weekly outlook page to break my schedule out into 30-minute chunks and fill each time period with my focus of specific, small tasks for that half hour.
For example, here’s a look at part of my schedule for a recent Tuesday:
- 9:30-10 AM: Content meeting
- 10-10:30 AM: Save episode file to shared folder; draft episode title and description
- 10:30-11 AM: Staff meeting
- 11-11:30 AM: Vendor meeting
- 11:30 AM – 12 PM: Vendor meeting
- 12-12:30PM: Create episode header image in Photoshop; upload episode file to website; eat lunch
- 12:30-1 PM: Filming
- 1-1:30 PM: Filming
- 1:30-2 PM: Filming
- 2-2:30 PM: Copy edit episode page; set episode live
By setting clear and realistic time frames for my work, whenever I come back to my desk, I don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what task to work on first – I’ve already planned for it!
2. Address meeting follow-ups immediately
As if your to-do list wasn’t long enough, you’ve just come out of an hour-long meeting with several new tasks or next steps. Maybe you need to set up some separate follow-up conversations, share a document with the team, or make edits to a project. When you’re back at your desk, take 15 minutes to address those next steps before they slip off your radar, or worse, to the bottom of your to-do list.
If there are any actions that you can complete in under 5 minutes, like setting up another meeting, filing materials, or sending a quick email to share a document, do those first. If there are any tasks that require more time, add them to your to-do list complete with the due dates. Being proactive as soon as you have the time will help you from feeling overwhelmed with new tasks, AND it will make sure you are maximizing the brief time you have back at your desk.
3. Prep for your next meeting or call
There have been so many days where I have left one meeting and realized that I didn’t have the right materials or even the correct location for the next one, leaving me feeling frazzled and a less-than-ideal meeting participant. But by maximizing any free time you have at your desk, you can make sure that you’re bringing your best to each conversation.
Run through this checklist:
- Do I have the physical materials I need?
- If you need to print anything, do it now, and make sure you have the correct number of copies.
- If you’re presenting, make sure you have whatever you need — your laptop, tablet, thumb drive, etc — to get the presentation up and running smoothly.
- Be sure you have materials to take notes!
- Do I know where the meeting is and how I’m getting there?
- Pull up driving directions, if needed, or check the meeting room number if you’ll be staying in the office.
- If you’re calling in, make sure you have the phone number on hand so you’re not late to join.
- Do I understand the meeting agenda?
- (Remember, you should be sure to start all of YOUR meetings with a clear agenda!)
- Are there any talking points you should prepare in advance?
- Any data you should brush up on so you can speak to a point?
- Prep any questions now!
- Do I know who’s going to be in the meeting?
- Reviewing the attendee list can help you mentally prepare for the tone of the discussion — a meeting with your team’s VP will likely look a lot different from a meeting with two of your colleagues, for example.
- Have you been waiting on an answer from the department head who’s going to be in the room with you for an hour? Now could be the chance to ask it!
4. Save emails for once per day
Email can be the biggest time suck of all, and the temptation to check in constantly is high. If you only have 20 minutes at your desk, despite the best laid plans, that time can very quickly disappear into the black hole of your inbox.
Here’s a common scenario: You’re working on a task when you see a new email pop up with a question from a colleague. You open the email, but realize you don’t have all the information you need to answer her question, so you starting doing some “quick” research so you can get her what you need. Before you know it — and before you’ve found the answer — it’s time for your next meeting. Now you’re leaving your desk with a half-finished email, a half-finished task, and more stress, none of which is helping anyone.
At the beginning of your day, identify when your one period of time will be when you’ll respond to email and stick to it! As soon as you take the distraction of your inbox out of the equation, your productivity will increase almost immediately.
5. Take time for your personal needs
Make sure you’re taking time to eat lunch and snacks, drink water, and go for a short walk. It may seem like you’re wasting precious minutes that could be spend checking one more item off your list, but it’s so important to take care of yourself so that you can stay at the top of your game and present the best version of yourself all day long. A hydrated, well-fed you will be MUCH more productive than the you who’s hungry, thirsty, and stressed!
If your busy schedule is really stressing you out, here’s a quick breathing exercise that takes less than two minutes, called the 4-7-8 technique, that will help you center yourself and release tension:
- Breathe in through your nose for a slow count of 4. Feel your belly and chest expand with your breath.
- Hold that breath for a count of 7.
- Slowly release your breath through your mouth for a count of 8.
Repeat the exercise three times (or as many as needed!).
6. Recognize that meetings are part of the job
It can be easy to feel like you haven’t accomplished anything with your day by sitting in meetings. But remember: Most of the time, being present and contributing to those meetings or calls is an important part of your job! Don’t beat yourself up for not checking as many things off your checklist as you might be able to on a day when you’re able to be at your computer most of the day.
Meetings are a place for you to put your great work in the spotlight, contribute to decisions and big projects, and shine, so take advantage! Counting the day as a win, instead of time wasted, can help you start the next day with a positive mindset, ready to tackle that to-do list.