Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Respect Yourself and Take Back Control of Your Calendar

Your time is your life. So when you surrender control of your calendar to other people, you put them in control of your destiny. Our digital world has broken down the natural boundaries on how and when people can tell you what they think you should be doing.

And with shared calendars, others can literally spend your time for you—if you let them. This means, it’s essential that you maintain a vigilant and active role in protecting and allocating your time in alignment with your priorities.

This may seem improbable if you’ve lived at the mercy of other people’s whims for years. But as a time coach, I’ve seen that you can take back control by carefully setting expectations. Try out these tactics to avoid being overbooked.

1. Say “no” early and often.

The best way to have more time to work on projects that matter to you, like updating your portfolio or finishing a series, is to spend less time doing everything else. This will require saying, “No,” early and often. (If you’re looking for some tips on how to do this nicely, 99U has you covered).

If you really don’t want to do something at all, it’s unlikely your desire to do it will increase by delaying the activity. Saying, “Not Now” when you should say, “No,” leads to you carrying around the emotional burden of the task until you complete it and a huge amount of resentment when you finally do the work. (Plus you run a high risk of turning it in late due to your resistance to the project so you probably will annoy the person on the receiving end too.) When in doubt just say, “No.”

This will require saying, ‘no,’ early and often.

2. Balance structured and unstructured work.

As a creative individual, you need to have a regular influx of fresh ideas and opportunity for experimentation to achieve peak performance. Companies like Google with its 20 percent time give employees the freedom to devote part of their paid hours to special “unstructured” projects to encourage innovation. But too much time meeting with other creatives, tinkering with pet projects, and reading about new concepts can lead to a misallocation of your time resources, i.e. you don’t get your core “structured” work done.

To make sure you don’t spend 80 percent of your time on the new and novel, you need a structured approach. For example, I enjoy networking meetings and consider them a priority. However, I purposely limit myself to a couple of networking meetings or calls a week because if I take on any more, I will have insufficient time to serve my clients and run my business well. If you participate in a shared calendar system, you can control the pacing of unstructured activities by blocking in time to do different elements of your work, which then forces people to schedule around your top priorities. If someone else does your scheduling for you, let him or her know that you can only take on a certain number of calls or meetings in a day or a week so you don’t end up with insufficient time to complete critical structured tasks.

3. Make progress, not deadlines.

Sometimes finishing a project by a certain time really does matter, say when you need a presentation ready for an upcoming conference. But often times, it doesn’t. When you unnecessarily place deadlines on non-urgent work, you create loads of avoidable pressure.

Control the pacing of unstructured activities by blocking in time to do different elements of your work.

On a micro-level, this means stopping yourself from giving precise completion times for requests. I’m not advocating procrastinating. Instead, I’m advocating giving yourself breathing room. For example, instead of saying that you’ll return something by tomorrow, say that you’ll get it to them “soon” or “by next week.”

That way if you have an unexpected issue come up tomorrow, you’ll have the flexibility to get the task to them by the following day and still meet the expectations you set. To ensure that this ambiguity doesn’t lead to stress and procrastination, block in a time on your calendar to get the work done. You should have a clear idea in your mind—and your schedule—of when you want to do the activity. But by not sharing this level of detail with others, you leave yourself the option to make necessary adjustments without disappointing anyone.

On a macro-level, this could look like restructuring your client relationships. So instead of simply setting an end deadline for the finished project, you could give progress reports on regular intervals. For example, instead of stating, “Your website will be running by April 1,” you could say, “Every two weeks, I’ll e-mail you with an update on our progress and items for you to review.” This gives you the ability to consistently move forward on a project without having to perfectly estimate the end point.

4. Take off the cape & lose the tights.

You can “take one for the team” every once in a while. But if you pride yourself on being the person who kills herself or himself to make up for other people’s delays, you’re on track for burnout. You also encourage those around you to not push themselves to deliver their part on time because you’ve trained them that you will pick up the slack.

To overcome your super hero complex and help the entire team operate more effectively, focus on clear expectations and consistent follow up. For example, when you pass a file off to a colleague, you can say to him, “Jim, I’ll need this back from you by Friday to have everything ready for production on Tuesday.” If this person has a tendency toward missing deadlines, set a reminder to touch base with him on Wednesday afternoon and then Friday morning to check in on the work. Then if he still doesn’t complete the work by Friday evening, it still leaves Jim the weekend to get everything wrapped up and ready for you by Monday morning.

If you pride yourself on being the person who kills herself or himself to make up for other people’s delays, you’re on track for burnout.

If you struggle not with a colleague but with a client, you can use a similar strategy. For example, if in the above scenario Jim was a client, not a colleague, you could use the same system of setting expectations and following up. Additionally, you could explain to him that a delay in his approval could lead to either rush printing charges or a later shipment.


You teach people how to treat you, so respect others and respect yourself enough to take back control of your schedule.

Over to You…

Do you let others control your calendar?

How have you learned to protect your boundaries?

More insights on: Time Management

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at
load comments (15)
  • Ilouafi youssef


    I think that “Envy” and “jealousy” are the main causes of burnout .


  • Branden Barnett

    As creative people, I think the idea of scheduling and organizing sounds like something we’d rather avoid. I spent many years convinced that structure and scheduling my projects would make my art dull and my life sad. Eventually I figured out the truth.

    Structure and scheduling are necessary components to the creative process. They help us function in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability (2 things that come with the territory of making art.)

    The fear of failure and uncertainty make us avoid our work and not release it when it’s more than done. When we add structure to our creative process, it tricks the brain into thinking we have reduced uncertainty.

    The truth is we’ve just scheduled periods of uncertainty, ideation, execution, editing and shipping.

    I’ll never make art without a routine again.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Absolutely true Branden~

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and the evolution of your relationship with scheduling.

    Being intentional about our time investment and creating routines actually FREES us because it reduces the number of decisions and makes space for great things to happen.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • BMoney

    I try to guard my time as much as possible. But because of my good organizational skills and ability to do many things at once (simply because I am selective about projects or tasks I engage in) people think I have loads of time on my hands but that’s not the case. I just refuse to let youtube, television, facebook, twitter and like take up my time. I had to learn to say No to requests but a funny thing happened, when I said No and was able to perform the task, the client/colleague was more appreciative when I was able to do it for them. So I would say to say No even if you may be able to do the task but not sure. Yes’s should be reserved for tasks that you will be able to perform 100%. But in the end, I found out people appreciate your honesty and if you simply cannot do something, they would rather here it now, rather than depend on you and you cannot come through.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I’m very glad you’ve got this time investment strategy down.

    I agree, in my experience I’ve found that people respect you and trust you more when they know they can completely count on your “Yes.”

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Rich

    Interesting perspective. Can you comment further?

  • Simphiwe Nkosi

    Well said … thats very true.

  • Brett-ski

    EPIC post thanks xx

  • Ellen Delap

    Love the simplicity of these concepts! Saying no is the first and best way to guard your calendar. Thanks for sharing!

  • Takis Athanassiou

    Excellent insights Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing.

  • Bob Schuster

    First and foremost, 12-1p is booked on my calendar every day. I have made it very clear that this is my time to colleagues, and meetings don’t get booked over it. Secondly, I practice the art of front-loading my week (see the related blog post on 99u). This gives me a better idea of how much time I’ll have and if things come up that I can help with, the work takes place on Thursday and Friday. That way, I can make sure that I am taking care of myself and my projects Monday-Wednesday.

  • Olumide Aniyikaiye

    I read this 10 months ago and now have go t to re-read again. critically is the ability to say No, more often and politely and perhaps practice front loading as this helps U to ease into the week gradually, after having done all of the major tasks upfront

  • clover

    Great, great post.

    I’ve learned, through much trial and error, that I loathe and dread concrete plans made way in the future (social or business) and rather enjoy the spur-of-the-moment. If you want some of my time NOW, the answer is probably yes. If you want to reserve a block of my time on a future day when I don’t know what else might be going on in my work and life, I’m going to give you a no unless I really don’t feel I have another option.

    I know this policy has lost me some opportunities and some friends, but it’s gained me both, too. Everything’s a tradeoff, yes?

  • Jordan

    oh buddy… Imagine if Steve Jobs or any successful entrepreneur had this mentality “Don’t pressure me, the deadline to launch the new Ipad is not a deadline, we just need to make progress. Steve, you need to have a business meeting with the CEO of Waltmart “Nah, I need to finish watching breaking bad”. If I followed this advice, within a year my company would be out of business…

  • Joseph OMeara

    On a monthly basis I make sure to block time in my calendar for project work and email. I review my projects then put events in my calendar that simply say “Block” for whatever period of time I think I will need to complete a part or all of a project or set of tasks. This is where you must develop skill in estimating effort. Using this approach, people who do free/busy searches to try to set meetings will need to schedule around these preloaded blocks in my calendar. I’ve found this an effective way to take control of my calendar and worklife.

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