Laura Stack’s Top Thirty Best Practices for Scheduling Your Day and Setting Appointments

Top Thirty Best Practices for Scheduling Your Day and Setting Appointments1. Determine if you really need to meet in person. How many times have you attended a meeting and asked yourself, “Why am I here?” Hopefully, you’ve started protecting your time from every person who wants a piece of it. If my clients want to meet in person, I charge a consulting fee. For telephone calls, no charge. Ninety percent of the time, a conference call will suffice. Extra travel time and expenses are involved when meeting in person, so avoid it unless dialogue and brainstorming are required.

2. Have meeting requests and responses go to your delegate, not to you. Don’t wade through all the responses; that’s why you have an assistant (if you do). Under Tools, Options, Delegates, select “Send meeting requests and responses only to my delegates, not to me.” Brilliant.

3. Create a private calendar to post appointments you don’t want others to see. We are all used to email folders, where we file email. Most people, however, have never created a calendar folder. A calendar folder IS a new calendar. To create one, follow the same drill for creating an email folder (right-click on the Calendar in the folder list and select New Folder). However, make sure the folder contains “Calendar Items” in the drop-down box. Give your new calendar a name such as “Kids Summer Schedule” or “Laura’s personal calendar.” I kept track of my kids’ summer activities in one, so my husband would know where his schedule was impacted for driving duty.

4. Or, check your appointments as Private when you don’t want others to read the text. Yes, you can! The Private box is a little, tiny box in the bottom right-hand side of your screen (Outlook 2003) when you create a new appointment. People who share your calendar will still see a block and that you’re unavailable, but they can’t read the appointment text.

5. Use the Category box to indicate the project, team, or committee. Every time you schedule an appointment or accept a meeting invitation, indicate what project it’s related to in the Category box. Use the Master Category List to add your labels. “Tag” each appointment with one or multiple categories. Then under the View menu, select Arrange by, Current View, By Category. Then you can see all meetings, past and present, you had with a certain group, person, project, committee, etc.

6. Use Contacts to Find Meetings. Can’t find an upcoming meeting with someone you know you scheduled? Tired of searching your calendar manually to find it? Instead, get into the habits of using the Contacts box at the bottom left of each appointment, to indicate whom you’re meeting with (can be multiple people). To find all upcoming meetings with a particular person, go to that Contact’s address card, select the Activities tab, and in the drop-down box, select Upcoming Tasks/Appointments. The people must be loaded in your personal Contacts list (not just your company’s global address book) for this to work. If a meeting invitation is used, this feature is automatic, and you don’t need to select the names.

7. As a courtesy to your coworkers, send a meeting invitation instead of an email when you’d like to connect. Rather than emailing colleagues and asking, “What’s your schedule today? Can we get together for 30 minutes?” take a minute to schedule a meeting invitation. While in your Calendar, select Actions, New Meeting Request, Scheduling Tab, Add Others, Add from Address Book, and select attendees. Check their availability on the calendar (this assumes you’ve been granted access to their calendars) and find an open time (or select AutoPick to let Outlook find the next available date/time). Send the meeting request. When invitees receive it, they can simply click Accept, and Outlook moves the appointment to their calendars for them. This saves the recipient time and also saves you from trying to coordinate multiple calendars manually.

8. If someone does send an email wanting to meet, convert it into an appointment. If your colleagues don’t understand the meeting feature and insist on sending emails for appointments, you can quickly turn an email into a Calendar item. Right-click on the email, select Move to Folder, and then Calendar. A new appointment window automatically opens, containing your email and any attachments. Fill in the date, time, and details, and then Save and Close. The message is moved from the Inbox into the Calendar automatically. No more manual copying and pasting!

9. Use labels to quickly “see” the layout of your schedule for the day. Right-click on any appointment in your calendar. Select Label. Select Edit Labels. Change the text to display the colors as you’d like. Pick colors consistently with your team (travel, multiple locations, training, personal, vacation, meeting, video conference, etc.) so you can quickly see where team members are working and what they’re doing.

10. Block out time to work. Sometimes you might want to actually schedule an appointment to WORK. To protect your time from others, schedule a Task on your Calendar (Outlook 2003). With the Task Pad view in the Calendar showing, click on a Task you’d like to complete. Hold the left mouse key down while you drag it to your calendar and release. An Appointment window will pop up, automatically inserting the task into the text portion of the appointment item. Fill in the time you want to work on the task on your calendar. Change the Show Time as field to Tentative, if desired. Save and close. The task will still be kept in your Task Pad, but now you’ve blocked out time on your calendar to work on it. NOTE: Do NOT put things you need to DO on your Calendar (that’s what Tasks are for), because if you don’t complete it, you’ll have to move it manually (not so with Tasks).

11. Keep your calendar up to date. It’s frustrating when your colleagues are trying to set up appointments, and it appears that you’re open, so they send out a meeting request to a large group. You respond, “Sorry, I have a conflict on that day/time,” to which they respond by banging their heads on the desk in frustration, asking, “Then WHY didn’t you have it on your calendar?” Truly, if an organization is going to predictably use shared calendaring to coordinate meetings, you must keep yours current. It’s fine to use a traditional paper method as well, but if you schedule something on your “other” calendar, make sure to update your electronic one at regular intervals as well.

12. Include travel time in a single appointment and put the actual meeting time in the subject. If your meeting starts at 11:30, but it’s going to take you thirty minutes to drive there and fifteen minutes to get out of the building to your car, block out your calendar starting at 11:00 (so others can’t schedule with you). Then write @11:30 in the subject line, so you know the actual meeting time.

13. Do not accept a meeting invitation if the requestor can’t state in one sentence the exact reason you are meeting. For example:
– To inform our department of changes in the holiday pay policy.
– To sell management on our division’s plan to automate payroll processing.
– To brainstorm the best way to resolve the association’s budget deficit.
– To determine realistic sales goals for each region for next year.
– To discuss the critical skills required for successful performance as a first level supervisor.

14. Send lengthy reading materials at least 48 hours in advance. Participants express frustration with wasting time in meetings reviewing materials that were just handed out. They don’t have adequate time to digest the information and formulate questions. They could have reviewed that document while waiting in the doctor’s office yesterday. Don’t waste everyone’s time by forcing them to sit there and read together like kindergarteners—their time is much too expensive.

15. If updating a meeting already scheduled, send an update to the existing appointment. If you have already set up a meeting and invited participants, sending an email about the meeting forces them to either copy and paste the additional information into the meeting or have two meeting blocks for the same event side by side on their calendars, forcing them to open two items to get complete information. If you need to add information, send out a meeting update. To contact meeting attendees with a reminder or other message, open the original meeting request, click the Actions menu, and select “New Message to Attendees.”

16. Avoid meeting request responses. If you’re sending a meeting request to a large group and don’t need or want responses, in the open new meeting request, on the Actions menu, uncheck the line Request Responses. To make this the default. Tools, Options, E-mail Options, Tracking Options, “Delete blank voting and meeting responses after processing.” Or create a Rule (under Tools, Rules and Alerts, start from a blank rule) to automatically delete messages responses with certain words in the subject line.

17. Schedule time for preparation and action. Depending on your level of involvement in the meeting, you need time to get ready. You might need to start your preparation days before if you need to create a report or give a presentation. When you accept a meeting, immediately go into your calendar and block off at least 15 additional minutes separately for prep time, a bio break, refreshing beverages, and transfer time—and add more as necessary for mental preparation and review. Don’t walk into the meeting “cold.” In the same way, block out time at the conclusion of the meeting to review action items, activate them into your time management system if you can’t complete them right then, and get organized.

18. End meetings before the top or bottom of the hour. If you’re the one scheduling the meeting, don’t use the standard Outlook settings of hour or half hour blocks. If one meeting is from 1:00 to 2:00, immediately followed by another from 2:00 to 3:00, you will by default be late to your 2:00. So use either :15 or :45 start and end times, to allow transition time.

19. Limit attendees to meetings. More is not merrier. Think through who really needs to be there. Don’t worry about “hurting someone’s feelings” if they aren’t included. If you simply want to keep a stakeholder or player in the loop, select them as “optional,” instead of “required.” Always assume that higher-ups have things to do that are much better uses of their time than sitting in your meeting. Think about how much money people are paid, and ask if your meeting is worth an hour of their pay PLUS what they otherwise could have been doing if they weren’t stuck in your meeting. Only invite people if they have a direct contribution to make to the meeting objective, and the desired decisions would not be able to be made without them. If their presence is only required for ten minutes, give them the first ten minutes, and then allow them to graciously depart. Keeping others who aren’t invited informed can be done with a quick email summary or inclusion on the distribution list of any meeting notes or minutes.

20. Confirm everything. I’ve often shown up for a meeting and the other person “forgot.” You’d like to think adults are all responsible and will do what they say they will do, but it’s always better to dash off a quick email. “Looking forward to seeing you on (date) at (time) at (location). Let me know if something comes up.” I don’t make people confirm that things are correct; I ask them to let me know if there is a change. Also make sure you get directions and map it out well in advance of trying to run out the door. I look at my calendar for the next day before I leave work and make sure I’m ready to roll on everything. Confirm with attendees, too, when it’s your meeting. Open the original meeting request, select Actions, and then New Message to Attendees.

21. Journal your meeting notes. Many people don’t know how to use the Journal feature in Outlook or even what it’s for! If you’ve ever accidentally clicked it, you’ll get a pop-up box that asks you if you’re SURE you want to turn on the Journal. Most people freak out and click NO. Next time, click yes. Open a new Journal entry, type up your meeting notes, put in the day/time of the meeting, indicate in the Contacts field who was at the meeting, and select a Category for the meeting name or project. When you select that Contact and click the Activities tab, you’ll be able to see the Journal entries (notes) from every meeting you’ve ever had with that person. You can also pull up your Journal entries by Category to review meeting notes as far back as you’d like. OR give your notes to your assistant, have him type them up in the text field of the original meeting notice, save, and send a message to attendees (under Actions).

22. Avoid meetings on Fridays. Many departments and teams just decide as an informal policy to schedule meetings Monday-Thursday if at all possible. Too many people try to take long weekends or duck out early, making scheduling and rescheduling a nightmare on these days, plus you’ll end up with a lot of no-shows. I try to leave Fridays open for personal appointments. I find if I put a doctor’s appointment in between business meetings, something always happens to derail one or the other. It’s hard to get my mind switched between different realms as well.

23. Always send or request an agenda and include it in the text portion of the appointment or include as an attachment. A basic agenda should include a statement of purpose (see #13), any logistical considerations, the decisions to be made, a list of the topics to discuss (in priority order), who is responsible for that item, and how long you are allotting for each one. Ask participants if they have any changes to the agenda items to let you know in advance of the meeting, so you can make adjustments if necessary. Once you get into the meeting, follow the agenda diligently, so you can ensure all points are covered, decisions are made, and the objective is achieved.

24. Don’t let Outlook pick the length of your meeting. The default is one hour, so that’s how much time people normally schedule meetings! Instead, match the length of the meeting to the purpose. If you’ve done an agenda (see #23), and you’ve determined you’ll only need forty minutes, then schedule for that. Time will expand to fill the amount of time available. If you’ve promised folks you’ll be out of there, people tend to work toward that goal. If there is slack time, more socializing will naturally take place and an hour will definitely get used. Some people try to build in “buffer” time—don’t cave to this habit. I purposefully under-schedule and announce the goal at the beginning, so everyone is actively moving forward.

25. For longer meeting, allow enough breaks. Give a break at least one break for every hour and 15 minutes, max. Let attendees know at the outset what to expect. If you keep rambling on, and they aren’t sure when they’ll get a bio break, they will just start getting up randomly and sneaking out. If you clearly state at the beginning, “We will meet from now until 10:00, and then we’ll break until 10:10,” etc. It is also common courtesy that if you’re meeting over a lunch hour to provide food.

26. Be considerate of those in other time zones. If you’re in the Pacific Time zone, and some of your meeting participants are calling in from the east, a 2:00 meeting puts them into departure time. Realize that people may have childcare commitments at the end of the day; an afternoon meeting (or vice versa for early mornings on the west coast) can severely inconvenience folks and reduce the odds of attendance.

27. Strike a balance on when to schedule a meeting. If you schedule a meeting too far out, you’ll get a bunch of cancellations and requests to reschedule as you get closer—or you’ll just get trumped by someone higher up. If you wait to schedule a meeting until the last minute, it’s hard to find a block of time when most people are readily available. So it’s best to schedule around one to three weeks in advance. Anything sooner than that or further than that is fraught with scheduling challenges and conflicts.

28. Let the meeting leader know as soon as you’re aware of a conflict with a scheduled meeting. If you have a change in your calendar but don’t want to “rock the boat,” you inconvenience more people the longer you wait. It takes effort to work schedules around appointments, so as soon as you know, raise the flag. The chair can determine if they can make it without you or if the meeting should be moved.

29. Display multiple Outlook windows at one time. Perhaps you want to see your calendar while looking at an email. While in your Inbox, right-click on your Calendar (either on the Folder List or the icon) and select “Open in New Window.” Outlook will open your Calendar in a separate window, which you can resize and move to where it’s most convenient for you, while still being able to switch back to the Inbox. This is especially useful if you have a large monitor or dual monitors.

30. Customize your Calendar to your preferences. Don’t be satisfied with the standard calendar layouts—make it your own! For example, you can automatically add holidays to your calendar. On the Tools menu, click Options, then Calendar Options, and then click Add Holidays. The weekends are also compressed by default. If you want to show Saturday and Sunday as separate boxes, right click in the Calendar and select Other Settings. Uncheck the box that says Compress Weekend Days. While you’re there, change the default setting for 30-minute time slots to 5, 6, 10, 15, or 60 minute slots (I use 15). Frequently schedule with people in another time zone? Avoid confusion by displaying another zone. Under the Tools menu, select Options. On the Preferences tab, click Calendar Options, Time Zone, and “Show an additional time zone” check box. Select the desired time zone and OK out of there.

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