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If you want a job interview with Li Fan, head of engineering at Pinterest, you’ll need to wait until Friday.

Fan categorises the types of meetings she takes by days of the week. Mondays are for large group meetings and Tuesdays are for speaking with people one-on-one. Wednesdays and Thursdays are for ad hoc requests or various monthly meetings.

The reason? She’s eager to cut down the time it takes to readjust to working on a new task. “This enables me to spend less time context switching as I go from meeting to meeting,” she says.

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For Fan, the strategy is crucial. With pressing deadlines for a site filled with billions of images, Fan works hard to be approachable to a team of more than 450 software engineers at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. She’s constantly pulled into progress updates on dozens of projects, so she schedules blocks of uninterrupted time each day, along with a monthly “ask me anything” session for her staff. “I never want to appear too busy to have conversations about the product, business or professional development.”

For some of the world’s busiest people, having a foolproof way to plan the day is crucial to performance

Fan is not alone in implementing strategies to keep her daily routine on track. For some of the world’s busiest people, having a foolproof way to plan the day is crucial to performance. And while some may have assistants, household help and – in general – more flexibility over their diaries, their complex scheduling systems can help the rest of us make the most of a jam-packed workday.

Pinterest's Li Fan is constantly juggling projects while trying to stay accessible to her team of hundreds (Credit: Jeff Cable)

Build a schedule by un-scheduling

Squarespace chief executive Anthony Casalena strives to have more than half of his day without any responsibilities and builds unscheduled blocks of time into his calendar.

Unallocated time is a way to fit in last-minute meetings or tasks without getting derailed by the unexpected

The unallocated time is a way to fit in last-minute meetings or tasks without getting derailed by the unexpected. To stay organised, Casalena uses a colour-coded Google calendar to plan his entire day. That way, he can easily see where the much-needed gaps are. He also emails himself reminders, which he then adds to his online calendar.

And it’s not just the office, Casalena says he’s automated much of his life outside of work, including laundry and cleaning services, food delivery, and other household chores. At work, he stays organised in hourly increments. He doesn’t use an assistant.

Stay away from being reactive

For some, the trick is to resist the onslaught of distractions – whether it’s in-person conversations or emails – that can arrive with a false sense of urgency and takeover the entire day.

For Casalena, practicing “inbox zero” – clearing remaining emails at the end of each day – has meant he doesn’t get swamped by unopened messages. Instead, an empty inbox helps get more control over his schedule. “There’s some semblance of structure,” he says.

To some, achieving inbox zero is a myth or a goal abandoned long ago, but Squarespace's Anthony Casalena strives to reach it every day (Credit: Squarespace)

To get to inbox zero, he addresses emails between meetings or when switching from one task to the next. Rather than letting emails pile up, he checks them several times each hour and deletes, replies or archives them in his Gmail app for follow-up.

At the end of the day, he makes sure to clear the rest of his inbox. When working on tasks on his own, he sets “focused” time away from his phone. “I’m not neurotically looking at email,” he says.

Maximise meal times – and the commute

For Emmanuel Arnaud, chief executive of travel sites GuestToGuest and HomeExchange, having three children aged under seven means late nights in the office isn’t an option.

Instead of infuriating his fellow commuters by taking phone calls on the train, GuestToGuest's Emmanuel Arnaud talks as he rides his bike to work (Credit: GuestToGuest)

He manages teams in California and Croatia from his Paris office, making it essential to stay organised across time zones. To make the most of every moment away from home, Arnaud has started biking to the office rather than taking public transport. The bike ride allows him to take calls with colleagues or board members. “When you are moving your body, it can be easier to have a conversation,” he adds.

When you are moving your body, it can be easier to have a conversation - Emmanuel Arnaud

Arnaud also uses lunch and breakfast to conduct meetings. In-person conversations and phone calls during those natural breaks allows him to focus on strategic initiatives while in the office.

To stay motived throughout the day, Arnaud slows down at home. He never answers calls or emails and only works on projects that he’s trying to finish such as presentations to board members or other instances “where it makes sense to be focused on it and not be bothered.”

‘Hit and run’

As an introvert, eHarmony CEO Grant Langston needs to build in alone time between meetings to recharge his batteries (Credit: eHarmony)

Building some time for reflection between tasks helps eHarmony chief executive Grant Langston stay focused throughout the day. As an introvert leading the California-based dating website, he often finds back-to-back meetings exhausting.

Rather than losing focus or feeling stressed by the constant need to communicate, he builds in alone time each morning. He also allocates downtime twice more throughout the day between hours of meetings to create what he calls a “hit and run” approach.

I sit with a pen and a pad and I just think about things - Grant Langston

During breaks, Langston stays focused on work tasks, but doesn’t communicate with others. “I have to make sure that I’m coming back and finding that 20 minutes to just be quiet or to read,” says Langston who started the tactic after taking over as CEO. “I sit with a pen and a pad and I just think about things – I’m not pushing out energy, instead I’m generating it within myself.”

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