Managing Schedule Transitions
Switching tasks can be stressful. And as often as we all switch gears—between tasks, projects, and meetings—transitions are a regular and recurring source of tension in our work lives. But it is possible to improve one’s time and task management practices to help reduce tension and maintain a sense of calm, even as we cycle more effectively from one activity to another throughout the workday.
Some days we have a clear calendar and can schedule our deep-thinking and shallow-thinking tasks during the windows that work best for us. On other days, we have three meetings jammed into a single 90-minute window, and our brains don’t have a moment to rest, recalibrate, and reset. Have you ever found yourself with your head down in a task and you look up to realize you are five minutes late to a Zoom call? You have no choice but to jump on the meeting in a frazzle. You weren’t able to complete your last thought, and you are not yet connected to the topic for the meeting at hand. It happens to many of us.
So, the question becomes: In the face of this very real stress, how do you remain in the present—focused on the current task, meeting, or event—throughout a workday while also jumping between so many different activities and events?
In my experience, the first step is to resolve to make a change. This means actively deciding to become more “present” in each task, not to fall behind in scheduling commitments, and ultimately (and ideally) to feel a calm reassurance when you sign off for the day because you did the best you could.
Here are a few more practical tips that we’ve employed for turning this resolution into reality:
- Start the day with intention. I like to look over my calendar each morning, identifying potentially challenging shifts in the day. My business partner, Tom, on the other hand, prefers to review his calendar in this way at the end of the day, to be ready for the next. Both approaches are valid, and they’re not the only proactive ways to navigate flux, so find what works for you and stick to it as a fundamental time management discipline.
- Schedule transition time. There are several different practices that help when switching tasks. For example, I use a 60-minute visual timer to manage my time. Yes, our online calendars have meeting reminders, but those chimes are easy to miss and only apply to calendared items (not, for example, when you are just moving from one task to the next without a calendar appointment). I usually set my timer for 5-10 minutes before the next activity so I can wrap up my current task and then mentally prepare for the change in topic, open any files needed for the next activity, etc. If you have the benefit of extra time, depending on your responsibilities, you may choose to give yourself more breathing room to finish one task before moving to the next.
- Honor time commitments. Being on time to a meeting or completing a task promptly shows your colleagues that you honor their time, which communicates more broadly that you respect them and their needs.
- Model transition-sensitive behavior. When you schedule and lead a meeting, try structuring it to honor the transition. For example, if you have a 60-minute meeting on the books, you can probably afford to dedicate the first few minutes to catching up with the other participants. This supports everyone’s adjustment needs in three important ways:
- It gives stragglers a few extra moments to log in when their previous activity has them running a bit late (see above).
- It provides an opportunity for attendees who are on time to adapt their mindset to the topic at hand.
- It offers everyone involved time to connect. You also could wrap up the end of the call five minutes early to give everyone time to reset before their next task.
Like other time management practices, learning to manage transitions is an important professional capability. But it is also a uniquely critical personal skill that supports your capacity to become more present throughout your workday, minimizes the stress that accompanies the feeling of falling behind in your responsibilities, and ultimately contributes to a sense of peace when you finally sign off for the day.
Consider challenging yourself to find ways that will help you honor the transition. Doing so could make a meaningful difference in your workday—from a sense of greater presence and productivity through a feeling of calm and well-being—which is certainly worth a little thought and effort.