Managing your calendar for better health

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When we closed our campuses last March and switched to remote working, we entered a strange and dark land. Many college administrators were already working 70- to 80-hour weeks and attending more meetings than was wise or truly necessary. Covid-19 only made it worse.

For one thing, there was a flurry of meetings with all manner of internal and external stakeholders to manage the transition to remote instruction and working from home (WFH) — training faculty and students, purchasing and distributing technology, reducing risk of infection, and oh, yes, managing remotely all those things we were already doing … and the list goes on.

Why do we do it?

In the business press, it has been noted that WFH has led to “meeting bleed.” Raise your hand if you participated in a meeting that began before 8:00 a.m. or that was scheduled to last past 5:00 p.m.? Which one of us thought that was a good idea?

Some have speculated that meeting bleed resulted from an increased workload. Others have suggested that some employers and employees assume that since there is no longer time needed to cut, curl and commute, meetings could start earlier and end later than formerly. If so, that was uncharitable.

I was in this swirl for many months. I recall a conversation in July with a close friend who strongly advised me to overhaul my work practices for the sake of my health. I remember thinking how naïve he was, as if I had the power to control these uncontrollable forces that buffeted my day from dark to dark.

Then something happened.

‘A self-inflicted wound’

We had lost almost 40% of our student services staff in a period of about 45 days. Some of those resignations we can tie directly to Covid-19 burnout and some we infer. But during a meeting at the end of another long week, one of my colleagues began to sob and excused themselves from the meeting. They later sent an email indicating their physician advised them to stay out of work for at least a week. Their spouse called it “a self-inflicted wound.”

That was a Friday afternoon. That evening, I told my husband about it, and finally responded to his pleas and my friend’s advice, and I converted to the religion of reasonableness. Here’s how I did it.

Meeting guardrails

I will no longer meet with you before 9:00 a.m. in the morning. I will no longer meet with you at or after 4:00 p.m. My days are still 11 to 12 hours, but now I have time to think, time to get organized, time to get work done, time to wrap things up for the day.

The 60-minute stretch & 45-minute miracle

My brother once said, “Nothing takes less than an hour.” He must have been talking about every meeting we attend. It is a curious fact of horology that no matter the discussion, it lasts precisely 60 minutes. Hang your head if you’ve been in this meeting — you’re 45  minutes in, the agenda is accomplished, the facilitator observes that all is done before time and asks if anyone has anything else to put on the table. Then you say, “I don’t, but should we….?” and then the meeting goes for the full 60.

Now, I will only schedule meetings for 45 or 75 minutes. I have learned to schedule them to start at the quarter hours, because if they start on the hour folks will talk for 60 even if the meeting is scheduled to end after 45. But if it starts on the quarter hour, when the top of the hour comes, folks experience it as a natural stopping point.

Time for tea

The 15 minutes in between meetings is a wonderful gift to health. I can check email, work on that doc, even refill my glass of sweet tea. It was, for me, a stunning discovery.

I also no longer allow my lunch to be booked. I do have to adjust the lunch time due to meetings scheduled by others, but I refuse to not allow for a 30-minute break somewhere near the middle of the day. (I know, I should schedule 60, but I’m not there yet.)

Open office hours

And one more thing — I schedule two open office hours per week, Mondays and Wednesdays, 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Each Monday morning, I remind my colleagues of my office hours and invite folks to pop in. I’ve been doing this for about six months, and someone has popped into every single office hour. A couple of times five people did so. Now, think if we had scheduled meetings instead — five hours of individual meetings as opposed to a single office hour.

I can also manage my calendar better this way and be more productive. Sometimes a colleague will request a meeting with me, and if the topic is small, low-level and not confidential, I ask, “Can you pop into my office hour this Monday or Wednesday?” And guess what? They do.

Swear to be better

I still work too much, as my seven-year-old reminds me (my husband has given up on it). But I am healthier, both mentally and physically, and I am more effective as both a leader and colleague.

One thing I cannot control is when a supervisor or an external group schedules a meeting that starts before 8:00, ends after 4:00, or runs 60 minutes. But maybe, together, we can stop practices which we all know are harmful. Will you take the oath? You know you want to. And even if you don’t, everyone who works with you wants you to, if not for your sake, then for ours.

About the Author

Patrick Tompkins
is vice president for academic, student and workforce education at Virginia’s Eastern Shore Community College.