We all have chaotic days when someone throws a monkey wrench into our schedule, but with a few built-in cushions using Outlook Calendar, you’ll meet the challenge with a “let’s get it done” attitude.
We all have moments throughout our workday when we wish we weren’t available to our co-workers, boss or clients. The good news is that you can make this happen using Outlook Calendar events in non-traditional ways—by scheduling reserved blocks. By reserved, I simply mean blocks of time that you don’t want to be or can’t be accessible to other employees and clients.
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In this article, I’ll discuss four simple ways to block out times and by doing so reduce the stress and pressure that comes with a busy workday. By honoring these times, you will return to work with clear-headed and ready to go—you will be more productive for it.
I’m using Microsoft 365 desktop, but you can use earlier versions or Outlook for the web. There’s no demonstration file, you won’t need one.
1. Add a bit of cushion
Perhaps the number one complaint while working is “I just ran out of time.” Now, that can happen for any number of reasons: a meeting might run late, you might run into traffic or you might remember at the last minute that you are on carpool duty for your kids. It happens to all of us. That’s why adding a bit of a cushion between appointments is so important.
When possible, and don’t try to minimize this recommendation, schedule 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning and the end of each meeting. That gives you time to get from one conference room to another or helps when a meeting runs over—and they often do. If everything runs as planned, you’ll have time to collect your thoughts and grab a cup of coffee before the next meeting starts.
Don’t think of this padding as downtime or wasted. Instead, these little cushions will keep you on time and mentally ready for what comes next.
This padding is easy to add. When creating the appointment, start it 15 minutes earlier than required and add 15 minutes on to the end, as shown in Figure A. The hour-long meeting scheduled from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. blocks an hour and a half. If 15 minutes is overkill, schedule in 5 minutes before and after. But give yourself a bit of a buffer between all of your appointments.
2. Add downtime
It’s a bit strange to think of productivity in terms of downtime, but it’s hard to be productive when you’re stressed, overworked and just plain tired. Tip one will help a bit in this respect. Another way to keep your head in the game and focused is a bit of downtime in your schedule. Schedule a few blocks of time for yourself every day. You’ll probably use this time to regroup and get some work done without interruption. Most of us try to respect our co-workers’ schedules. Be sure to close Outlook or turn off notifications if those will distract you.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with using this downtime to grab a cup of coffee, shut your office door and brainstorm a bit. Most of us solve problems better when we’re not pressured. In my development days, I often put a problem aside for an entire day and found the next day, the solution came to me almost instantly when I returned to it.
Most of us don’t produce the same quality of work we otherwise would if we stayed focused on the task at hand, without interruption—and that’s the key. You’re still working, but you’re focused.
Your downtime can be the same time each day or varied, in order to accommodate a busy schedule. When scheduling this downtime, you can be elusive or honest if you share your Outlook Calendar. You don’t have to identify it as downtime but make it clear that you don’t want to be interrupted unless there’s an emergency. As you can see in Figure B, a simple Do Not Disturb block should work as well as hanging a sign on your doorknob and closing the door.
Don’t think of this downtime as a break. Think of it as a time to regroup and get back on track, or even better, stay on track before you derail.
3. Out of the office
Most of us are occasionally completely out of the office during working hours and unable to be contacted. You might be traveling, have a personal appointment or be on carpool duty for the week for your children. These types of appointments can be a one-off or recurring. The trick is to remember to schedule them in Outlook Calendar and to make it clear that you aren’t available at all.
Figure C shows an out-of-office block from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. As you can see though, the block of time includes 15 minutes before and after—adhering to tip 1. You might be out of the office for only the planned hour, but again, you’ve given yourself a bit of a buffer.
If your out-of-office event is every Wednesday, use the Make Recurring link to block out that time for every Wednesday afternoon. In addition, it’s OK to be a bit more straightforward. Instead of OOO, use OOO—can’t be contacted.
4. Schedule breaks
Some of us know exactly when we need a break and we don’t think of scheduling one. However, some of us get in that zone and before we know it, we’ve been sitting with our nose in a screen for hours. My husband often stops by the door to my in-home office to say, “You need a break.”
If you’re like me and lots of others, scheduling a short break a few times a day is a great idea. It’s an easy thing to do. The hard part is forcing yourself out of the zone and into an employee lounge. Perhaps a brisk walk outside works better for you. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re not working or thinking about working. If you are, then it’s downtime (tip 2) and not a real break.
Figure D shows a quick 15-minute break Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. This isn’t the same as downtime because that block of time should be longer and you’re usually still working, even if you’re just thinking about a project.
Notice that this break time conflicts with many scheduled events—this is good information that you’ll want to consider when scheduling regular breaks.
Regular breaks give you a moment to catch your breath and either laugh at a co-worker’s joke or just relax someplace out of your workspace. If you usually skip breaks, you will benefit more than you realize. Breaks are like power naps—you come back strong and ready to work.