How to Get Things Done When You Spend Your Whole Day in Meetings

work space with laptop and tablet

Do you find yourself running from one meeting to another and all of a sudden it’s the end of the day and you haven’t gotten anything done? And worse yet – you need to work extra hours to get that work done. Sometimes – okay maybe a lot – it feels like meetings take over our lives.

Sometimes there’s hope and you see 30 minute increments of open time throughout your day. You have every intention of being productive, but it’s hard to really dig into a project in such small amounts of time. Even if you’re lucky enough to get an hour in between, that time flies by. Those breaks in between are great for answering emails, making quick phone calls, or you know….going to the bathroom or eating your lunch. But at the end of the day you always find that you didn’t get too far on your bigger projects or that you didn’t have a chance to really dive into strategic things.

I’ve always felt like I’ve had a hard time managing my time between meetings. I can’t just switch gears quickly, and it takes me awhile to get into a new task. They say it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back into something after getting distracted. And I am sure it’s exactly the same as when you go from meeting to meeting. By the time you get into something you’re picking up and heading to the next conference room or dialing into the next call.

So what the flying french toast do you do?

I’ve learned a lot in the last 10 months at my new job about time management. I am so busy. And life only gets busier. I’ve picked up some tips and tricks along the way, and they’ve seriously changed my life. Maybe they’ll change yours too. Even just a tiny bit.

Actually use your to-do list. Duh, right? But how often do you find that you have a list here, there, and literally everywhere (including that post-it note in your jacket pocket). Make an actual full blown effort to create and use one to-do list.

At work I use Outlook tasks for everything. It works best for me at work, but maybe Google Tasks or an app like Trello or Asana works for you. Oh man. I loved Asana at my last job. What I do in Outlook can be repeated in pretty any other project or task management system. Here’s how I use it.

  1. Think about the types of things on your to-do list. Create color-coded categories in Outlook around the things you do everyday to help you organize your tasks. For example, my categories include Actions, Read Me, Community, Oshkosh Corporation Women’s Network, Youth or Wellness. Those are all functions I support or just instructions for myself. Haha. Actions is kind of a catch all.
  2. Create a task for everything you need to do. Everything. Need to call a coworker? Create a task. Need to request PTO? Create a task. Trust me. You will forget a few things if you don’t. When you create each task, set a due date on when it should be completed and assign a category to it. Doing this is going to make it easy to fly through the quick ‘get ‘er done’ tasks and to stay focused on what needs to be done when.
  3. After you’ve done that you can start to organize them in a way that works for you. You can organize them by due date, category, by priority, or if you like to live on the wild side, you can just have one single list of all your tasks without any organization.

Once you’ve done all of that, it’s easy to create new tasks (hint: CTRL + SHIFT + K) and easily organize them. You can also turn emails into tasks to help clean out your inbox, which I’ve found really useful. I don’t stare blankly at my full inbox as often anymore. 🙂 There is so much more you can do in Outlook to keep organized, but this is a really basic system that has completely changed the way I work every day. I didn’t pull all of this out of nowhere. My leader went to a class called Effective Edge, which taught her all of this and more. And our team was so lucky to have her share some of the great tips she learned. One day I’ll take the class to learn even more, but for now I am loving my organized work day.

Block off your calendar for work time. Our calendars are filled with meetings. We’ve already established that. Even if we make a mental note to block off time to work, every time a meeting rolls in during that time, we end up accepting the meeting anyways. You’ll find time to work on it later, right? Probably not as soon as you’d like.

It can be hard to block off time. You might feel like you’re trying to get out of potential meetings. But you know what – YOU ARE. You don’t want to spend 5-6 hours of your work day in meetings. So don’t.

When I have big projects coming up I make it a point to block off 1-2 hour blocks of time over the course of a few weeks so that I know I will have time to work on them when I need to. This has helped so much! Sometimes meetings still pop up, and sometimes I still accept them; however I have declined more than what I’ve accepted. The thing is when I do decline a meeting I also make an effort to respond to the organizer and ask if there’s anything they need from me before or after the meeting. Many times it’s way more efficient for me to take 20 minutes to get them the information they need than to sit in a 60 minute meeting for the same output.

Be brave about this! You deserve time to work.

Finally – learn how to say no. We can’t do everything. As much as we want to, we just can’t. I am so guilty of loading myself up with voluntary projects, and then I end up going crazy because I can’t find time to get my actual work done. So, I had to learn how to say no.

Saying no doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I used to be so afraid of letting people down or making it seem like I wasn’t a team player. Everyone understands that we’re all busy – or at least I hope so! When I have to say no to someone because I don’t have the capacity to handle it I explain that to them. And better yet, I explain that if I were to take this specific project on that I wouldn’t be able to meet their expectations or the expectations of other team members I’m working on projects with. That’s just the reality of the situation.

You’ll find that if you organize your task list, you’ll know how busy are you right now and what’s coming up in the future. It’s so valuable you guys. Then you’ll know that you can’t say yes or you can say, ‘I can’t help with this project right now, but in three weeks my schedule opens up, and I can help with it then if that works for you.’

Managing projects is still hard. I do all of these things almost every day, but I still run into problems with saying no, diving into a project with a focused mindset, and sometimes even prioritizing my work. It all feels important, right? When I start to feel frazzled and that things are falling apart, I stop everything and reevaluate not only my day, but the whole week. When you do that you’ll quickly remember what’s a priority and narrow down your list to a few things you can start to tackle now. I promise taking 20 minutes to do that will help.

If you try any or all of this, I would LOVE to hear what you think and if it’s helped. I have shown so many people at work these processes, and I get so jazzed every time because they get so excited about it!

Better yet – if you have other advice for managing your time around meeting filled days, I would love to add more tricks to my arsenal. So, tell me tell me tell me!

Follow along. You know you want to.
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