When I am tasked with looking after a diary, one of the first things I’ll ask is “how do you work?”. Actually, that should probably be, “how do you work best” because most of us do the best we can with whatever has been booked into our diaries with other people’s needs sometimes taking over.

Have you ever thought though, what an ideal week looks like for you work wise? Not, work 10-12 on a Tuesday and get paid a full salary, we’d all love that. But if you could choose how your week went in a perfect world, what would that look like? When would you have meetings? When would you tackle the work that needs deep concentration? When is best for you to catch up with your clients, your team, your suppliers?

Everyone is different, and everyone works in different ways and performs best under different circumstances. In some cases, it will also depend on what kind of work you need to do at any point – being in the thick of a project kick off, will look a lot different than research and writing a series of workbooks and your diary and your time needs will change accordingly.

I ask clients what they would like, ideally, to see in their diary. That can be complete basics like;

  • Fridays I always work from home
  • No meetings before 9, London no meetings before 10
  • Wednesdays are school pick up days so nothing after 2
  • Meetings should be an hour max, calls 30 minutes

That general type of rule is how most PAs start looking at managing a diary to best effect.

Then you get into how you like to work. Do you prefer to have all your meetings batched together across one or two days in a week, leaving other days totally empty for deep work? This is very sensible and how most of my clients work but doesn’t suit everyone! I had one client that faced with a vast empty day in her diary (despite having lots and lots of client deadlines to hit!) would find it completely impossible to focus. It was too much time. She’d quite frequently find herself completing nothing through the day (a batch of muffins maybe!) and then having a blind panic as the deadline hit and working into the evening. It was much better for her to have a couple of calls or even a meeting at one end of the day and that pressure of a shorter amount of time meant she was a lot more productive during the time she had at her desk.

Some people work better with tight deadlines and are, as I call them “last minute Marys”. I was reading an article about this in which the author said this is for one of two reasons – either they enjoy and need the adrenaline of being late to produce their best work, or they are just chaotic and disorganised. I think there’s a third camp, the hedge-betters. They pretty much know early on what they are doing, and they could do it earlier, but they don’t want to finally commit just in case something better comes to mind, and they’d already wasted time doing it once. They like giving themselves options. Speaking from experience, organising print schedules around these people can make me want to bang my head slowly on a desk!

The rest of us usually plan and fully intend to get things done on time but life throws things in the way which is how we can sometimes find ourselves under pressure. I absolutely hate that feeling of being behind, so I am a planner and build in buffers.

My diary is time chunked at the start of the week into client slots of 30 or 60 minutes and that works for me on the whole. But, especially when I am really busy, it can be quite relentless, and I know that too much of it can send me a bit nuts, so I keep Fridays deliberately “unchunked”. Fridays, I have a day where I can just faff along a little and indulge my need for some freedom at work, catch up on any bits I’ve missed or potter out with the dogs at my leisure rather than at the dictates of my, admittedly self-imposed, schedule.

Most people also have a sense of when they are most productive. Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific secrets of Perfect Timing takes us beyond the normal “morning person” and “night owl” and shows us that actually there are various times in the day which are better for different types of work. Quite possibly, you know that there are certain times of day that are better than others for specific tasks for you. I know I definitely don’t want to be tackling anything tricky late afternoon as I’m not at my most alert. If I can, I use that time for meetings as being sociable energises me.  I also know that if I have something really meaty to do, I am best to get that done first thing. But I do know that evenings are not a bad time for me to write even though I am very much not a night owl.

If you know which of these working styles feels most like you then you can do a lot with your diary to make your working time more effective if you actively manage it rather than let things go into any gaps without considered thought.  Block time for writing or checking email or a big “No meetings” day if it helps when you’re on a call about to book in a meeting.

I would recommend having a look at what your ideal week looks like and scribbling it out on a bit of paper. Of course, the chances of it ever happening are slim but if you at least know what perfect looks like you can be making choices that work best for you when you are able to.

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