The Surprising Way to Free Up Time on Your Calendar

The Surprising Way to Free Up Time on Your Calendar That Actually Works

I just love an empty calendar. It promises something valuable and rare: time. Time to think, to work, to do whatever you want.

But for most people, empty calendars just aren’t realistic—and that includes me.

My schedule often looks like a minefield. A 15-minute “quick chat” explodes into hours, destroying Tuesday afternoon. I agree to present at a local conference at 11 AM on Thursday—hey, at least I’ll have the afternoon free—but forget that public speaking sucks up all my energy. Our regular team meeting is every Monday, which means that all I’m doing every Monday is attending this one meeting.

I enjoyed a meeting-free stretch last year while we wrote our book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, but that’s not normal. No, most weeks I have to fight and scrape and resort to dorky tricks to regain control of my time.

My favorite trick I discovered recently is this: Start your day with a full calendar. Basically, you fill it with activities that matter to you, before others can fill it for you.

Seems overwhelming? Don’t worry, it actually saves you time.

I learned this trick from Graham Jenkin, COO at AngelList. From 2007 to 2008, Graham was my boss at Google. He managed something like 20 people, and he gave each of us personal attention and true support.

But Graham wasn’t just a great manager. He also led the redesign of AdWords, Google’s flagship advertising product. While working with us on various projects, he was designing user interfaces, testing with customers, reviewing specifications, and negotiating with the engineering team. I often wondered where he found the time, but assumed he was just really busy. I was wrong.

One day, I was trying to schedule a meeting with Graham, so I clicked on his name in Google Calendar and overlaid his schedule on mine. It was the typical schedule of a corporate manager. Each day was packed with meetings: short events with names like “Graham Alex 1:1” and “Sync on AW3”; longer stretches for “Ads Product Review” or “Promotion Committee”; and the occasional multi-day block for “Managers Offsite” or even “Vacation.”

But, there was also something unusual about his calendar: From 7 to 11 AM each day, Graham had scheduled time with himself, labeled “Do not schedule/Morning routine.”

So, I asked him about it:

“That’s my time. I wake up early, get to the office early, hit the gym, grab breakfast, then work for a couple hours before my meetings begin,” Graham explained.

“Don’t people schedule over it?” I asked.

“Sometimes they try, but I just tell them I’ve already got plans,” he said.

(Graham describes his calendar in a lot more detail in a recent article.)

10 years later, I still use Graham’s trick. In fact, I copied his “morning routine” bit almost word-for-word. Every day, I wake up early (5:30 or 5:45 AM) to exercise and write for two hours.

When I’m working on a big project, I also schedule time with myself—for writing, editing, research, and the occasional bout of web development.

If you want to try this out, here are a few tips I picked up along the way:

  • Play Offense, Not Defense: Don’t fill your calendar with “Do not schedule” blocks just because it’s empty. Be strategic and purposeful with your time—schedule important projects and activities that you actually want to make time for.
  • Don’t Be Greedy: Resist the urge to gobble up every scrap of unscheduled time. It’s good to leave space for opportunities or emergencies, and your team will appreciate your availability.
  • Take it Seriously: When you schedule time for something important, be serious about protecting it. Learn from Graham and tell people you already have plans.

In an ideal world, I’d love to be like Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, whose calendar is as empty and still as a country pond at sunrise. (Seriously, I feel more calm just looking at it.) And, having glimpsed the power and beauty of an empty calendar in my own life, I’m searching for a way to re-create those circumstances.

But until then, I’ll just have to keep a full calendar.