One tweak to your weekly schedule could make the difference between confidently accomplishing your strategic objectives and scrambling to keep up with the day-to-day. That simple change? Having a meeting-free day.
Establishing one day with no meetings is a technique that I used throughout 2016 to complete a book proposal and write the manuscript for my third book. It’s also a strategy I use with my time management coaching clients. By giving yourself one meeting-free day per week, you reduce the context-switching that can slow down dedicated project work. You don’t have to spend the 10 minutes before a meeting winding down one task and prepping for the meeting — and then another 15–30 minutes after a meeting wrapping up loose ends and getting your focus back. You simply work.
A meeting-free day isn’t the best option for everyone. For those who have trouble keeping their focus, become bored easily, or are extroverted, a meeting-free day may be a productivity killer. Instead of getting more done, they’re likely to procrastinate because they have no pressure to perform before their next meeting. They’re also likely to crave people connection, and therefore distract themselves by wandering around to talk to colleagues or turning to social media. If you’re in this category, you’re best off restricting your meeting-free time to one-to-two-hour stretches, or a half day at most. Experiment to see what works.
But for people who like to hyperfocus and find it difficult to switch tasks, a meeting-free day is a game changer. By following these steps you will increase your chance of success.
Step 1: Make the Commitment
I have owned my business for over 11 years. Even so, I struggled a bit mentally when I began to implement a meeting-free day. One part of me felt guilty for not being open to scheduling a meeting when I didn’t have another one on my calendar. Despite some of the internal resistance, I decided to give it a try.
To start, I blocked off every Wednesday on a recurring basis on my calendar. That way, when people used my online scheduling system, Wednesday simply wasn’t an option. Making a meeting-free day a recurring event instead of picking the day week by week increased my chances of setting boundaries and following through.
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The hardest part at the beginning was when someone asked if they could meet on Wednesdays, and I had to suggest a different day. At first I simply told people I wasn’t available. In time I became emboldened and let them know what I was doing — at the time, focusing on my book manuscript. I found that this transparency reduced my hesitancy and set an example to others that they could set similar boundaries.
Step 2: Retrain Others
Discuss your strategy with close colleagues and your boss. That conversation can include why you see this as an important part of your schedule and what people can expect from you not only in terms of meetings but also in terms of communication, such as when you will (or won’t) be available on email. I recommend having certain times when you quickly scan email for emergencies such as at lunch and at the end of the day and completely staying off the internet. The goal is uninterrupted focus.
Some people will respect these boundaries; others won’t. When you receive a request to meet on your reserved day, you’ll need to make a judgment call. If it’s your boss who understands the situation and still insists on that meeting time, you’ll probably need to accept the invitation. But for colleagues and direct reports, you may have more flexibility to reschedule meetings for a time that works for you. If you must have a meeting on your selected day, try to schedule it at the beginning or the end of the day. That way you’ll still have a good block of meeting-free time. Or consider a natural break point, like a lunch break or the mid-afternoon lull.
In addition, set up physical boundaries. It could be simply closing a door, if you have one, going into a private work area, relocating to a coffee shop, or working from home. You don’t want a meeting-free day interrupted by people who stop by for a quick chat.
Step 3: Pick Your Work Wisely
You’ll get the most out of your meeting-free day when you use it for the right type of work. Work on projects that require focus and high-level thinking, such as writing, strategic thinking, analysis, coding, designing, or a project with a lot of complexity.
Don’t go into a meeting-free day without a plan. There’s a reason that I’ve coached professors on how to be productive during their sabbaticals. Meeting-free days aren’t as easy to use well as you may think. You have to be proactive about being productive, instead of relying on other people to drive your productivity. You also need extra commitment to focus on meaningful work.
I recommend selecting a very big project you’re working on, or picking two to three discrete deliverables. Write the goal down on paper or record them in your calendar. Decide to focus on moving these items — and only these items — forward. The goal is to have the urgent wait as you make room for the important. Having clear task goals will help you to stay focused. You may even want to give yourself permission to do something fun once you’ve accomplished your objectives (perhaps leave work early or work on a passion project) to incentivize efficiency instead of procrastination.
Step 4: Ignore Routine Tasks and Email
You’ll feel awkward when you first take on the meeting-free day. There may be some initial discomfort at ignoring or delaying emails and daily tasks so you can focus on your planned project. But once you get in the groove and realize how great it feels to get so much done, it will get easier.
To put your mind at ease, consider putting up an out-of-office response, letting others know about your day of focused work. This out-of-office message gives you the freedom to postpone replies and prevents you from getting sucked into day-to-day work. If you’re waiting for something truly time-sensitive, scan your inbox a few times throughout the day, but generally don’t reply to anything until the day after the meeting-free day. I find this really helps me to focus on the work that I know is important instead of succumbing to the siren song of the urgent.
After following this strategy for over a year, I’ve discovered that all of the daily tasks I need to get done still get done, and I manage to move ahead on my large projects without working additional hours. With a meeting-free day, you heighten your focus on big projects so you’re more efficient and effective. This strategy naturally forces you to pace the other meetings and work to fit in the remaining four days. By having a meeting-free day, you can not only change your schedule but also make getting important work done an easy, almost effortless part of your work life.