People may not realize just how time-consuming it can be to keep up with email, social media, and other forms of online communication. For example, the average screen time for Americans is 5.4 hours per day. That’s not even taking into account meetings and other in-person interactions throughout the day.
Suffice to say, the intense, rapid pace of our communications can lead to communication overload when not addressed. And that may not seem like a big deal. But, not only can this zap your energy, but it can also prevent you from fulfilling your priorities.
The good news? You can use your calendar to handle communication once and for all.
Audit Your Time
Do you know how you’re spending your time? It’s perfectly okay if you don’t. After all, humans are terrible at estimating time.
Imagine that you need to respond to an email. You assume that it will take you under 5 minutes. After that, you can get back to your day. But unfortunately, you needed to look up a critical piece of information that wasn’t easy to locate. In addition, you also spent several minutes choosing the right langue and proofreading the message. Suddenly, you’ve just eaten up 15 minutes of your morning.
Or, maybe in this new hybrid work era, you’re spending more time than usual on Slack. There are even those hour-long virtual meetings every Thursday. And that’s not even taking into account the number of times that your business partner calls you throughout the day.
If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no doubt that your days will become more hectic. And you’ll most likely fall behind on your priorities. That’s why it’s essential to conduct a time audit to see how much time you’re spending communicating with others.
Time audits are most easily accomplished using software that tracks events on a calendar. There are many free software providers, but Toggl Track is the most convenient, with applications for almost any device. Of course, you can also go back and review your previous Calendar entries as well.
Another idea would be to keep a time journal to record and analyze how your time is being spent. For example, if you discover that you’re spending 3 hours a week communicating with your team electronically, you can find solutions to cut back or eliminate.
Block Out Communication Time
And, by this, I’m actually referring to a popular time management technique known as time blocking.
For the uninitiated, time blocking involves planning your day’s schedule in advance by assigning specific tasks and responsibilities to each hour of the day. Basically, it’s like making a to-do list, except you know exactly when everything needs to be done. In turn, this makes you more focused and helps reduce multitasking.
For instance, you could break up your 8-hour day by scheduling 16 30-minute time blocks for specific tasks. So, maybe a 20-minute block could be dedicated to email and social media, while another would be for a 30-minute team meeting.
There are actually several variations of time blocking, but these are the three most prevalent;
- Task batching. When similar tasks are grouped together, they can be completed simultaneously. By eliminating context switching, you will save time during the day. For example, you could return phone calls or Slack messages daily from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m.
- Timeboxing. A specified amount of time is set aside to focus on one particular task or activity. For instance, to make meetings more effective, you could have a weekly catch-up every Friday at 3 p.m.
- Day theming. A form of next-level time blocking. It’s ideal for those who wear multiple hats. So, with this type, you could schedule all of your meetings on the same day.
While timeboxing isn’t perfect, but it can be used to handle communication overload by setting limits. And, since time boxing also involves you identifying your priorities, you may be able to remove unnecessary communication from your schedule, like pointless meetings.
Leverage Communication Tools
Nowadays, you can connect easily with your team thanks to everything from email, text, or direct messaging. However, while undoubtedly convenient, this can also make it more difficult to unplug. After all, as a result of these technologies, we’re expected to be connected 24/7.
The good news? These tools are also designed to make communication easier and less stressful, notes Andre Oentoro, founder of Breadnbeyond.
“But, you need to remember that every communication tool comes with its notifications,” he adds. “So, it means more communication tools you use, more noises. And with all those noises, it is easy for you to feel overwhelmed and burned out.”
Put another way; if you deploy too many communication tools, it can be overwhelming.
“So, ease it up,” advises Andre. Avoid using multiple tools for the same task. If you can, keep your communication tools to a minimum.
“The managers in the company must learn about their employees’ preferences,” he says. “For example, maybe some employees prefer instant chat that is more personal, while others prefer the messaging feature within project management software.” And, by doing this, the manager can decide what communication tools their employees prefer to use.
“Meanwhile, you can also consider figuring out who likes what, assume good intentions, and then try to communicate in a way that meets their needs,” Andre continues. “You might also want to consider taking as much time as you need to confirm your clear understanding of everything being said in the message you send.”
“It might seem like a back-breaking job, but this method can ensure you get a fast response and more accurate, conversational dialogues with your colleagues,” he concludes.
Create an Effective Team Calendar
A team calendar can help you and your staff stays organized by keeping track of important dates like holidays, meetings, deadlines, and vacations. When everyone is on the same, this encourages everyone to focus on their priorities, while also holding everyone accountable.
Another perk of team calendars? It can limit the back-and-forth between you and your team. For example, let’s say there’s an upcoming project deadline or meeting? Instead of them asking you when these dates are through an email or direct message, they have this information at their disposal.
Furthermore, if you use a smart calendar, it can use machine learning to suggest why to schedule important events like meetings. So, again, it’s another way to minimize those back-and-forths.
To get started, you’ll want to use a cloud-based calendar app, think Google Calendar or Microsoft. After that, you want to assign one person to be the calendar keeper to prevent clutter and conflicts. And make sure that non-negotiables are added before anything else gets scheduled ahead of them.
Schedule Heads-Down Work Time
What exactly is this? Well, the definition may vary depending on who you ask. For example, Cal Newport would dub this as “deep work.” But, in simplest terms, this is all of your attention directed towards heads-down, focused work.
“This is based on the idea that making any real progress on thoughtful work requires more than a 30-minute increment of time and that it takes 15 minutes to return to a productive state after an interruption.” Ryan Fuller wrote for HBR.
Blocking off time for focused work can be beneficial in this situation. You will be able to avoid saying yes to too many reactive requests from others if you intentionally set aside time for deep, focused work. And you can also prevent interruptions by blocking Slack, turning off your phone, or implementing a “No Meetings Day.”
Make Your Boundaries Known
“Communicate your boundaries clearly to your colleagues and even your family,” writes Calendar co-founder John Hall in a previous article. “Avoid setting too many boundaries all at once, however.”
Rather than tackling multiple topics at once, focus on one at a time as you learn to set boundaries. Then, as you go along, keep an eye out for what works, modify what doesn’t, and continue to improve.
Some examples are;
- You should inform your team when you are finished for the day.
- Unless it’s an emergency, specify that you will not answer emails or phone calls during off-hours. Also, don’t forget to define what constitutes an emergency.
- Your email signature should clearly indicate that you will answer emails only during certain hours.
I would also share your Calendar with key stakeholders. It’s a simple, albeit effective, way to show others your availability. So, when you don’t want to be distributed, you would block out those times.
“What if a boundary gets violated?” Hall asks. “Don’t be shy. Speak up.”
“In your response, discuss how you plan on maintaining your boundaries to support yourself — and potentially your team and your organization,” he suggests. “Ideally, it’s best to do so right after the violation, so it retains its poignancy and the person who violated it understands the significance of it.”
In addition, be compassionate when you discuss this topic with others if you feel your boundaries aren’t being respected. Likely, people don’t realize how their actions impact you. Furthermore, they may appreciate knowing they stepped over the line. In turn, they can avoid repeating the same mistake.
Give Yourself Some Wiggle Room
As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to overfill your calendar. You should purposefully leave blank spaces throughout your calendar.
Why? In the first place, there’s the possibility that you might need this time to handle an emergency, such as a frantic call from a client. Secondly, it provides you with an opportunity for creative thinking.
“The limited space on a paper calendar also provides a visual trigger that a day is getting too full,” notes time management expert Laura Vanderkam. “When I’m scribbling calls and appointments in the margins, that’s a sign I need to start scheduling things farther out.”
“Alternately, if I see nothing on a day — an absolutely pristine open day of white space — I’m generally inclined to try to keep it that way,” she adds. “I love completely open days. Maybe something amazing will come along, or else I’ll get to do whatever I feel like!”
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