It’s like Mary Chapin Carpenter says, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.”

You wake up well rested, eat a healthy breakfast, put on your superhero cape, and hit your office ready to conquer the world. And then you open your calendar. Splat.

The most frequent questions we get asked in our Courageous Leadership programs invariably revolve around how to manage our overwrought calendars and actually get the hard work done. The truth is, we have more control than we think. We just need to choose to take control.

The most successful and courageous leaders I know have a few techniques that allow them to control the flow of their calendars. By taking these four simple actions, they own their days and weeks, all the while keeping a laser focus on the priorities that matter most.

1. Start the work week on Sunday.

Let’s be honest: Even when we’re steadfastly focused on making this supposed day off a fun day, the upcoming week’s obligations start creeping in. Someone at the BBQ asks if we want another glass of wine and we have to pause for a second because we were thinking about the deluge of tasks waiting to pounce first thing Monday morning.

Look, I don’t want to ruin your day off. I do want to make your Sundays more enjoyable … and productive. Instead of fighting this natural inclination to prepare for the upcoming week, I say we lean into it, but with strategic resolve. Before we look at our calendars for the week (or, heaven forbid, jump into our inboxes), take just 15 minutes to ask ourselves:

  • What are my broad-stroke strategic goals for the upcoming week, which, if completed, will push my goals forward most quickly?
  • What three (or more) tasks can I assign as a development opportunity to my employees?
  • What strategic employee development activity could I create utilizing some of the tasks on my to-do list?

These three quick questions let us focus on what will move us most effectively and efficiently toward our goals. It’s all about planning ahead rather than letting Sunday afternoon ruminations catch us when our leadership defenses are down.

2. Redefine when and why we meet.

In my Courageous Leadership programs, I put enormous emphasis on improving meeting management skills and techniques. Why? Because, even before 2020, excessive and unruly meetings had started to control our lives in unhealthy ways.

The leaders I see climbing the corporate ladder at pace today are the ones who saw this trend and decided to take back control. Here are a few ways we can do the same:

  • If a meeting can’t be titled with an action verb (decide, create, confirm, etc.), then you shouldn’t be having the meeting.
  • If it’s a single “one-off” question we need an answer to, we should go old-school and simply pick up the phone. That way, we can get the answer we need quickly and move on.
  • Stop spending valuable meeting time “reviewing” written decks of information. Instead, send the deck out in advance and schedule a 15-minute meeting to discuss questions or concerns. That will ensure “Joe” really does review the deck ahead of the meeting:)!
  • Be honest with ourselves. If it’s not my meeting, I take a hard look at whether I need to be there. Am I personally critical to the outcome of the meeting? Really? Can I send someone else as a development opportunity?

Declining an invitation can be as simple as, “I wish I could be there, but I’ve got another priority.” (Pro Tip: If you’d like some suggested language for these respectful declines, follow the instructions in my bio!)

3. Take just five minutes a day to rule the world.

Want to be proactive rather than reactive? Take time to set your mind. Every evening, before you leave your workspace for the day, spend five minutes truly assessing what’s important for you to accomplish the following day. And no cheating. We need to make sure we’re not populating our “to do” lists with easy wins so that we can cross them off quickly.

Decide on just three activities that will most effectively move you toward achieving your strategic goals, and a rough time frame for each. If you need time to actually work that priority, schedule time on your calendar to do so. If something higher priority comes up the next morning, you can replace one or more of the activities. But you can never add. Each of us gets just three simple priorities a day. That’s how we rule the world.

4. Make every moment with others count.

Requests for our time are just that … requests. We have the right, the duty actually, to say no to requests that don’t move our teams, our customers, our goals forward. Having said that, we need to know when to say yes as well. There’s no better use of our time than helping our people improve their skills to drive those same objectives.

If people don’t become better team members, colleagues, partners by being around us … if we’re spending our days simply executing tasks on a list … then we’re managing, not leading. No matter what our titles are, we should all be leading. The world needs us to lead.

So let’s start saying no to time-wasters and meetings that don’t benefit us. Spend quality time building our team’s skills. Lift up our partners. And never leave a conversation, meeting or group without having had a positive impact on everyone involved.