I’m obsessed with The Big Bang Theory. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it — my fiancé and I watch one or two episodes each night, and we’re always laughing out loud.
In a recent episode, Sheldon Cooper, played by the absolutely hilarious Jim Parsons, double-schedules himself. He promises Howard and Leonard that he would spend the next day working on a project with them. What he had forgotten was that he had committed to working on a project with Amy that day as well. As an audience member, I reveled in the comedy that ensued. As a full-time executive assistant, I shuddered at what can only be described as my worst nightmare.
For the past three years, I’ve had the good fortune of assisting some of the most badass women in Hollywood. I have assisted three different executive producers in the last three years, and all of them have been women. In a male-dominated industry, this is quite an anomaly, so I’ve made sure to take in as much as I can from these outstanding women.
As an assistant, a key part of my job is to manage my exec’s schedule. Some executives are more hands-on with their schedules, and some prefer I take the reigns. Scheduling should be a fairly straightforward task, but when you’re managing the schedules of women who are being pulled in three directions at any given moment, the task requires foresight, prioritization, and organization. A good schedule would have saved Sheldon from his tragic double-booking and the resulting flu from being rundown.
Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned from managing the schedules of high-powered women.
It’s okay to say “no.”
Don’t over-schedule yourself. So many times, I’ve been overly ambitious in my own scheduling. I’ll set networking meetings and doctor appointments and dinners with friends and try to cram everything into a day or a week. Part of healthy scheduling is knowing your limits and honoring them. You’re no good in a meeting if you’re mentally fried. If that means pushing a lunch a few weeks out, then better to do that than to be half-present or constantly asking to reschedule. When I first started scheduling lunches and dinners for my bosses, other assistants would send me their boss’s next available dates, and they would be three or four weeks out. I could not believe that these executives didn’t have a free night for dinner for a month! It turns out — they probably did, but they knew that filling that free night with another dinner would just result in burning out or canceling to avoid burnout. It’s important to recognize how much is too much.
Block out time for yourself.
I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to block out time for nothing in particular. Sometimes, it’s just free time to write. Sometimes, it’s personal things to which I’m not privy. Either way, I physically go into their calendars and block it out – sometimes, as literally as writing BLOCK in that hour or two hours of time. By doing so, I’ve solidified that time as theirs and only theirs. This is different than saying no to a lunch or dinner. This is proactively creating space that is intended for personal use. It’s blocking out time for you that won’t be filled with a meeting or an appointment or a phone call. If our schedules dictate the type of person we become, then rundown and ragged is good to no one. I especially struggle with feeling like I always need to be busy. Scheduling downtime is a good way to make sure I’m getting just enough of it to rejuvenate me but not too much where I feel lazy or behind.
Color coding and shared calendars are key.
In my calendar, I now use different color-codings for different activities — work, personal, family, etc. When Mike and I got engaged, I set up a “shared” calendar for us — that way, if I schedule us for something, he’ll get the notification, and if he schedules something, I’ll get one as well. Google Calendar and the iCloud calendar app both have very simple calendar sharing features. When you’re working on scheduling an event that involves two or more people, I suggest inputting the discussed date and time in your calendar with HOLD in front of it — even if it’s not confirmed. For instance, if you and your two best friends are looking to set a dinner for Thursday at 7pm but you’re waiting on the second friend to confirm, stick it in your calendar anyway. HOLD will indicate that it’s not yet confirmed, but it will also prevent you from booking something else during that time while you’re waiting for her to check her email.
A calendar is necessary for balance and productivity.
A calendar is a wonderful tool for helping you to maintain balance. What are the areas of your life that need attention? At the beginning of each week (or each month, depending on how far out you plan), assess your calendar. Where are you scheduling yourself too heavily? Where are you scheduling yourself too lightly? Someone once told me that the commitments with which we fill our calendar dictate the type of person we want to be. Think about it: if you want to be well-educated, you sign up for classes or advanced degrees and slip the class times into your schedule. If you want to be a good friend, you set dates with loved ones and honor them. If you want to be well versed on all of the Kardashian-Jenner pregnancies, you probably schedule time for KUWTK, too. Make a list of all of the things that are important to you, and then fit them in your schedule. I suggest a routine schedule as well, to help build good habits. I used to call my grandma every Saturday. It’s not to say I wouldn’t call her other times during the week, but every Saturday, I absolutely picked up the phone to call her. Scheduling doesn’t just pertain to work — it helps to shape us into the person we want to be.
Utilize notes and alerts.
For anyone using Apple’s calendar, there’s a section at the bottom for “NOTES.” There’s also an option to insert a location. Do yourself a favor and start treating each event as its own folder. So many times, I would create an event in my calendar and then need to reference emails or text messages to find an address or parking instructions. When I started managing executives’ calendars, it became important for me to include all necessary information in the calendar event because, typically, they don’t have access to the emails that were sent to set the meeting/lunch/dinner. There have been times when my executive is on the East Coast, and I’m still on the West Coast. If they have a 7am EST event, I’ll likely still be sleeping. If they have any questions about where to go and can’t get ahold of me, we’re all likely going to have a bad day! It became imperative that I include all relevant information in the calendar event. I started doing this for myself, and it has simplified and streamlined my organization in so many ways. I no longer have to dig through old exchanges to find what I’m looking for. Also, take advantage of the “ALERT” feature that different calendars offer. I always set reminders to go off one day before any event. It gets me to think ahead and make any necessary preparations.
Be realistic in planning.
Everyone used to tell me, “LA is a driving town.” I didn’t understand what that meant until I moved to LA. Let me decode: everyone in LA drives everywhere. They have to — everything is spread out. As a result, LA is notorious for traffic. Because of this, I’ve learned that I have to seriously consider the time of day when setting meetings. Am I putting my executive in rush hour? If MapQuest is reporting the drive at thirty minutes, I typically build in 45 minutes to an hour of travel time each way. It’s always better to pad the time than to schedule yourself too tightly and experience the resulting stress — or worse, danger. Being realistic in planning is necessary in order to honor the commitments you make. I am a huge homebody. After work, all I want to do is get in my pajamas and recharge from the day. I used to set drinks and networking meetings after work, and I found that I too regularly canceled them. However, when I set morning coffee meetings, I was much, much more likely to follow through. Be realistic about yourself and your environment to get the most out of your calendar.
Retrospective assessment is key.
At the end of each week or each month, take a look at your calendar. How would you grade yourself on your scheduling habits for that month? Did you follow-through with everything you put on your calendar? In what areas were you most likely to cancel or reschedule? Was there a reason for it? Be honest with yourself — it’s the best way to learn your own habits. Remember — our calendar can shape who we want to become, if we let it. If we learn to effectively manage our time, we can control our schedules, instead of allowing our schedules to control us.