Even before COVID forced millions of workers into a new work-from-home reality, calendars were the bane of every busy professional’s existence. Ask any middle manager or executive, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: my calendar is full of meetings, and I have more work on my plate than I have hours in the week.
Remote work has only made the problem more complicated. Those same workers, who used to at least enjoy the clean barriers of a 9-to-5 office schedule, were suddenly thrust into a world where they had to interweave their work and their life in a way they’d never experienced. And on top of that new reality, they were still faced with the same old pain: too many meetings, too many priorities, and way too much manual work moving, blocking, and scheduling time on the calendar.
My software company, which focuses on organizing people’s time, recently surveyed around 6,000 busy professionals across a variety of industries and roles. My team and I asked each person how much time they were dedicating, weekly, to managing their calendars.
On average, people reported spending nearly 20% of their time every week toiling with their schedules. That’s basically a full, 8-hour workday just dedicated to the act of playing “calendar Tetris.” That means that with 230 working days every year (weekdays minus 30 days of vacation), workers are spending 46 of them moving events around.
So what’s behind the data? And why do we still have calendar fatigue in the age of automation? Let’s talk about what’s causing this toil, what needs to change, and where we go from here.
More calendars, more problems
Most busy professionals’ calendar problems come down to two different variables: One calendar for work, and one calendar for life. Some more daring individuals opt to keep everything in a single work calendar, but there’s an undeniable benefit in keeping a firewall between the intimate details of your life and your workplace.
But with this separation of work and life comes a central challenge: if you’re a Google Calendar user, or an Outlook user, or an user of a completely separate platform—it can seem impossible to merge those schedules into a single record. That means that if you forget to block time on your work calendar for that doctor’s appointment on your personal calendar, you might find yourself sitting on a customer Zoom call instead of tending to your health.
This problem seems small in theory, but the knock-on effects are intense. The Mayo Clinic cited a lack work-life balance as one of the precursors to burnout, and the more your work schedule overruns your personal life, the more likely you are to hit a wall. And people struggling with this problem only have one of three pretty bad options:
- Invite your work email to the personal event. This means that you now have a personal event sitting on your work calendar for all to see and is difficult to keep up.
- Create a copy of the appointment on your work calendar. This is also hard to maintain, because now you have to keep the copy up-to-date with the original event.
- Share your entire personal calendar with people in your org. This may allow others to see your calendar—as well as all its private detail— but they still won’t see your personal events when looking at your calendar.
This problem is essentially the bottom section of Maslow’s hierarchy when it comes to calendar management. If workers can’t solve this simple problem, how can they be expected to solve the bigger issues around managing their time?
Time blocking and its shortcomings
Time blocking is one of the primary ways that workers attempt to balance their meeting load with heads-down work. In theory, it’s a great way to give yourself the time you need to work on what matters and keep your calendar from controlling your priorities.
But time blocking makes a critical false assumption 99% of the time: Your calendar won’t change once you’ve blocked it out. People spend Sunday evening sitting on the couch with their laptop, going through their calendars and manually blocking out time for their work, only to wake up Monday morning and already find that their perfect schedule has been fragmented by a deluge of meeting invites and requests for “quick syncs,” that can wreak havoc on a rigid, time-blocked schedule.
People with overloaded schedules often don’t have the luxury of deciding to “just say no” to every meeting. A big part of their jobs is collaboration, which often means that certain meetings have to take precedence over their time blocks. Just as with the multi-calendar problem, time blocking is something that consumes an immense amount of unnecessary time. Between creating the events, adjusting these events to accommodate other commitments, and dealing with the inbound back-and-forth of other schedulers—one could almost argue that time blocking is a full-time job unto itself.
Usually, computers are incredibly good at doing the hard math of optimizing schedules—and, usually, humans are pretty good at knowing what matters and what doesn’t. Then the question is, how do you put the two together?
Calendars don’t know what matters to us
On the subject of what things matter, there is a third challenge that workers are struggling with: Their calendars do not reflect their priorities. Time blocking is one mechanism that people use to focus on their key objectives—and the other is managing and balancing your meeting load.
When it comes to triaging meetings, it’s like the time blocking issue on steroids. Not only do you have to move, adjust, edit, and maintain the events themselves, but you also get to play the fun game of “let’s all find a mutual time to get together.”
There’s a lot of complicated stuff wrapped up in scheduling multiple attendees. Sure, there are the logistical bits: when, what, where, and so on. But there are also a lot of emotional and social elements to meeting scheduling. No one wants to be the person who schedules a meeting at 4 p.m. on Friday, or the person who cancels the same 1:1 three weeks in a row.
This problem therefore ends up occupying a ton of our time and mental energy. And with all the toil that goes into just making the meetings happen (or not happen), we’re left with very little time to actually ask the more important questions, like “Is this meeting aligned to my/our priorities?” or “If I accept this meeting, what’s the downstream effect on my other important work?”
Again, this is where software can and should help. We should be focusing humans on the things they’re uniquely good at, and leave the scheduling toil to the machines.
The one thing we haven’t automated
It’s increasingly clear that remote work, in one form or another, is here to stay. We can no longer rely on the clear boundaries of the office to keep us focused and in control of our time, or on the serendipity of a hallway chat to keep us connected to our team. The calendar is at the heart of this shift — and it’s time for it to catch up with us.
Henry Shapiro is the cofounder at Reclaim.ai, a smart friend for your calendar based in Portland. Prior to Reclaim, Henry was the VP of product at New Relic, where he worked on acquiring new customers and developing new products.