The 6 Causes of Overscheduling–And What To Do About Them

Let’s talk about overscheduling. Are you wishing you could spend more time in meetings?

I didn’t think so.

Most people managers have entered the era of back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings—and that’s on a light day! Apart from being a time drain, this crazy schedule makes people tired and grumpy. Not exactly a recipe for success.

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Indeed, research shows that high performers in every field do exactly the opposite. They go through a perform-renew-perform-renew cycle that gives them a break every 90 minutes.


Do you take a break every 90 minutes?

Again, I didn’t think so.

In the immortal words of Yoda, overscheduled you are.

Let’s put our heads together about how to change this.

Step One: Assess The Current Level of Overscheduling

The leaders I coach describe six major habits that lead to overscheduling:

  1. Scheduling meetings that don’t have to happen. This includes everything from work groups and task forces that lack a clear purpose to standing meetings that have lost their rationale for existing.
  2. Scheduling meetings for more time than you need. Parkinson’s Law says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The longer you schedule a meeting, the more time you’ll spend in that meeting.
  3. Wasting time in the meetings you do attend. Have you ever calculated the percentage of meeting time that adds value (productive conversations about important topics) versus the percentage that is wasteful (unfocused conversations, tangential topics, and unnecessary conflict)? Waste consumes a big piece of the pie.
  4. Assuming you need to be at every meeting. “If I don’t go, I may miss something important.” Or so you think. Have you ever actually calculated the cost of missing something? Simply multiply the cost of the missed experience by the probability of that experience occurring in your absence. Now compare that to the opportunity cost of failing to accomplish something else instead of attending that meeting. Which cost is larger?
  5. Being physically present—and absent in every other way. Because you are afraid of missing something, you go to a meeting–or call into the conference line. But you really don’t need to be there and have other things to do, so you work on your laptop most of the time.
  6. Assuming other managers need to be at meetings you have called. There is great value in ensuring that conversations reflect a wide range of perspectives. Excluding people for the sake of excluding them is a lousy practice. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. My point is that you may be inviting more people to meetings than are needed either to add value or to ensure a feeling of inclusion. Let’s be blunt: when other managers attend your meetings when their time would produce greater value elsewhere, you are partly responsible for their wasted time.

Step Two: Declare That Overscheduling = Waste

This is the simplest yet often overlooked step. Turn to a colleague, friend, or significant other and say, “I’m wasting too much time in meetings–and I’m going to change that.”

Step Three: Open Your Calendar And Ask Tough Questions

I like to stick my head in my clients’ calendars from time to time. Naturally, we do it together, but it doesn’t happen unless I request it. That’s why I say I “stick my head” in their calendars. It is an unusual act. Other than my clients and their executive assistants, nobody looks closely at these leaders’ calendars. This is strange, because their calendars provide a powerful window into where they are placing—and not placing—their attention.

When we look at calendars, here are the questions we ask:

  • Which meetings did you call? What purposes do they serve? Is there another way to accomplish these purposes? If not, what topics could be taken out of these meetings or done more quickly? What happens during them that you would call waste? What if you were to shorten the meetings, postpone them, or hold them less often? What if you were to make a deal with participants: if you give me one hundred percent of your attention (no electronic devices), then I’ll reduce the meeting time in half?
  • Which meetings are on your calendar but you don’t know why they are? Is it possible that you were invited accidentally, as a courtesy, or to avoid offending you or your boss? What’s the next action you can take to answer these questions?
  • Which meetings might provide good developmental opportunities to your staff? Is it really essential that you show up or could you delegate leading these meetings to them?

Step Four: Make One Change

Pick one thing you’re going to change about your schedule. Do it today.