Take control of your time with Google Calendar’s Focus Time, Insights and Working hours

These Google Calendar tools can help you and your team find a balance between meetings and individual work

Photo: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Conversations about calendar management for knowledge workers might best begin by considering the two types of work—time with others and time to oneself—taken to the extreme.

One extreme: Your day consists entirely of meetings. Meetings with people you manage or people to whom you are accountable. Meetings with customers. Meetings with teams. From the time you start to the time you stop, you’re in conversations with people.

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Another extreme: You have no meetings on your calendar. You spend your day focused on the activities you choose, interrupted only by breaks when desired. Your day consists completely of time to yourself. No meetings intrude.

The desire to identify an appropriate balance between these two extremes—100% meetings or 100% focused work—drives many conversations about calendar management in organizations. A blend of time that may work well for a person in one role might be entirely wrong for another. For example, a blend of 85% meetings and 15% focused time might indicate peak performance for a project manager, while the same ratio could cause concern for a coder.

Fortunately, if you use Google Workspace with an organizational account, Google Calendar not only helps you track time spent in meetings and in focused work, but also provides detailed time reports. These reports give you data about the nature of your schedule for a period of time (eg, yes, you did spend 14 hours in meetings with a colleague last month).

Implement each of the practices below to fully leverage your calendar and take advantage of both focus time and time insights. Note that both features are designed to work in a web browser on a laptop or desktop.

Define and configure working hours

First, select and configure working hours in your Google Calendar settings (Figure A). Once set, people will be notified when they attempt to schedule a meeting with you outside of your working hours. That’s especially helpful when you have colleagues that work in different time zones.

Discuss and define a clear policy for the use of Google Calendar working hours in your organization. The historically conventional 40-hours a week may not make sense for every organization. Instead, working hours that total 30 or 35 hours could be standard. Configure your hours to reflect your regularly scheduled work times.

Figure A

To access working hours, go to Google Calendar | Settings menu (sprocket in the upper right) | Settings and then scroll to Working Hours & Location (under the General menu).

Define and configure Focus Time events

Create Focus Time events on your Google Calendar to block time to yourself (Figure B). You’ve always been able to create calendar events to do this, but the Focus Time event ensures that the event will be displayed in a Time Insights report appropriately. Focus Time events can be any time—within or outside of working hours—and also may be configured to allow or automatically reject meeting invitations during the selected time. You can configure a Focus Time event as a repeating meeting to reserve a consistent time to yourself periodically (eg, each week, month, etc.). Set a Focus Time event, mark it to reject meetings, then use that time for uninterrupted individual work.

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Again, as with working hours, you’ll likely want to discuss and define clear policies for the appropriate use of Focus Time calendar events for your team. Remember, different policies might apply to different people (eg, based on roles and requirements).

Figure B

To create a new Focus Time Google Calendar event, go to Google Calendar on the web and select the + Create button (in the upper left), then select Focus Time. In the details, select the box next to “Automatically decline meetings” to reserve the time for individual work. Add details, as desired or necessary, then Save.

Accurately capture every event on your calendar

Make sure that all meetings make it to your calendar and that the duration and attendee list for each meeting is accurate. Modify each calendar event to add/remove attendees based on actual attendance, where possible. Additionally, adjust calendar events to reflect the true meeting time. For example, if a meeting scheduled for one hour instead of lasting 90 minutes, change the event to reflect the actual duration. I suggest you make this adjustment immediately after each meeting, or, at the latest, by the end of each day. In my experience, the more time that elapses between the end of an event and your adjustment of the duration and attendance information, the less likely your adjustment is to be accurate.

Review Time Insights periodically

Time Insights provides a summary of calendar events for the selected calendar and time period (Figure C). The details include how much time you spent in focus time, 1:1 meetings, larger meetings (three or more guests), and then the remaining time calculated based on your working hours. Additionally, Time Insights suggests a day for potential focus time (eg, “Try scheduling weekly focus time on days with the fewest meetings: Fridays”). Time Insights also identifies the people you met most often with during the period.

Figure C

To access Time Insights, go to Google Calendar and select the Time Insight icon (on the left side of the screen) to display the Time Insights side panel.

If you have full access to a coworker’s calendar, you may access time insights for their calendar, too. Data from Time Insights may help identify potential challenges, such as meeting overload or lack of focus time. Remember, though, that Time Insights will only work well when all three of the above practices—working hours, focus time and accurate calendar event data—are implemented.

When first using Time Insights, I suggest you make it part of your weekly time review routine. After your schedule seems to be working reasonably, decrease the frequency of your review to once a month or even once a quarter.

How do you use Google Calendar?

Do you use working hours, Focus time, and Time insights in Google Calendar? How consistently do you adjust your calendar after events to reflect actual attendance and duration of events? What other standard Calendar practices do you recommend? Let me know your time management practices and recommendations, either in the comments below or on Twitter (@sawwolber).

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