3 scheduling tips for meetings with people you don’t know

Many of us reach out to people we don’t know every once a while. It could be for advice, for potential opportunities or for help of some sort. Here are 3 tips I’ve learnt from scheduling meetings on both sides of that table.

1. Be open to an email exchange. There are folks who prefer email if it is a simple ask. The best way to solve for this is to outline your ask clearly in the email. That way, if it just means investing 5 minutes into typing a detailed email, it is almost always preferred to the overhead of scheduling a call.

Related, the clarity of the ask matters a lot as it clearly illustrates the difference between those who are prepared and not.

2. Asker’s responsibility. If you ask for time, it is your responsibility to find times that work. My sense is that there is a three strikes rule of sorts here. I would try to avoid more than three emails going back-and-forth to find a time. And, as an asker, you can do that by being flexible.

3. Make it easy for them to say yes/no or propose a new time. When you have permission to find time on their schedule, draft a detailed email that outlines all the times you might be available in the next week. Assuming you are located in different time zones, a simple way to show thoughtfulness is to send times in their timezone instead of yours.

There’s a new trend of sending people links to online calendars. I think online calendars are great. However, I don’t think sending these is the best idea if you are asking someone else for help. There’s too much friction – clicking a link, finding a time that suits you, etc. That doesn’t mean they don’t or can’t work. I just think adding friction is not the best idea if you have no relationship.

A bonus tip – the best calls are those where you’ve made a good enough impression that the person on the other side is happy to take another call. Your preparation for the call will always come through. And, your follow up will go a long way as well. Always send a thank you note – ideally with what you learnt and what you plan to do next. And, if possible, stay in touch by giving them updates on your progress.

Cold calls are a wonderful way to build connections that might lead to relationships. Very few of them go great – that’s subject to chemistry. But, preparation can ensure none of them go badly. And, that’s a worthy outcome to work toward.

Our instincts suck at first

Our instincts for something generally suck at first. This is nearly always the case. So, the “trust your instincts” advice is generally hogwash. If you just started playing chess or skiing or living life, please don’t follow your instincts. Most expertise is counter intuitive.

How, then, do they get better? By disciplining ourselves to build habits.

So, if you wanted to develop instincts for using your time effectively, you need to commit to training your mind to build habits over time. Or, if you want to develop instincts around your field of work, you need to have a habit to continuously study your field as you would have in school.

Let’s consider the time example. Imagine you want to spend your time trusting your instincts to lead you to the most effective uses of your time. Unless you are naturally disciplined, you might need to begin with a checklist. Create a daily checklist which covers your top priorities. The level of granularity will be directly proportional to your lack of discipline at that point. So, in my case eight years back, I had a very granular checklist for the day.

Over time, you’ll find yourself needing the granularity less. As an example, I used to run through a quick and simple morning checklist until a few months back. It made me feel like I was notching up quick wins. I don’t feel I need it anymore because I’m confident I can hit the ground running. But, I used this for many years.

Similarly, you can then convert daily checklists to weekly checklists. When I made that switch four years or so ago, my weekly checklist was very long. It was still very granular. The next edit made it shorter. Then, shorter again. My current version, as of two days ago, requires me to just spend a minute to go through it – it is just part of a weekly check in with myself. After years of training, I can feel my instincts slowly getting better.

And, if you care for a more specific example, I used to count 30 minutes of reading a non-fiction book as part of my daily checklist eight years ago. Then, I would count the rough aggregate time on a weekly basis. I stopped counting this a while back. I enjoy reading and trust myself to do so. But, I can’t say the same for exercise. In 2011, I began with trying to just exercise 3 times a week. This moved to 4 in 2013 and 5 in 2015. Now, we’re up to 6. I still track this carefully as I still resist it despite enjoying it. I hope the exercise habit will kick in in full swing in a couple of years.

Why do we resist stuff that we know is good for us? We all have a force within us that resists all positive change. Steven Pressfield calls this force “the resistance” – the most toxic force known to humans. So, don’t take it personally. Most of our instincts suck at first. But, they can get better. We just need to work at them over time. I’ve intentionally emphasized how long it took me to develop some rather basic instincts. Then again, I wasn’t disciplined at all and needed to do a lot of work. You probably are a lot more disciplined than I used to be. So, it’ll likely be a much quicker process for you. I hope it is.

But, if it isn’t, take heart. It’ll still likely be faster than my 8+ years.

It still isn’t easy. But, let’s, as a rule, not confuse easier and better.

Digging into my first year process – MBA Learnings

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to an incoming MBA student a few months ago in an attempt to help incoming students prepare for their 2 years at school. It was my attempt at providing a framework with which to approach this 2 year journey. I tried staying away from specific advice in that post as the assumption was that the framework ought to work for everyone.

Today, however, I’m going to dig into my first year process and provide specifics on how I spent my first year. Given the MBA is a $200,000 investment (not counting opportunity costs in lost income), I was very curious about any specific “process” advice at this time last year. And, I was generally left disappointed as most of the advice I found online was the in the “feels-good-but-useless” category – e.g. find your passion, build great relationships, travel, dream, take risks, etc. This post has a lot of inherent personal bias as it is what worked for ME – so please take these notes with healthy doses of salt. And, yes, this’ll be long and dense.

As I’ve outlined in the previous post, there are 6 priorities at business school – Academics, Career, Extra-curriculars, Social, Framily (close friends and family), You. I’ll go through what I’ve learned as I’ve approached these at school.

1. Academics.
a) Finding classes. 

Making a plan. Spent 4 hours during Winter break going through every course that I’d be interested in. After making the list, I tallied all feedback I’d received about Professors whose classes I should take. I went about creating a rough 2 year plan. I haven’t stuck to it. But, as always, the act of making a roadmap helped a lot.
Understand historical bidding statistics. We have a bidding system – so, I spent time understanding the points spent on the course-in-question in the past and also looked at the average rating of the Professor. With this data, I could easily spot the over-valued and under-valued courses. My takeaway – use data where possible and invest in understanding the system.
Ask for recommendations. I asked most 2nd years I met in the early days for top course recommendations. This helped a lot.

b) Attending classes.
Show up. I think I missed just two classes through the year. That helped a lot.
– Be 100% present. My natural ADD makes it difficult to keep focus throughout a class. So, I worked out a simple forcing mechanism – sit in front. This helped ensure I didn’t spend my time mucking around on my phone or laptop and also ensured I fed off the Professor’s energy. This worked most of the time and that’s what I was shooting for.
Come prepared and participate. This is part of the “be 100% present” idea. Participation is an extension of that. Now, I think I was FAR better prepared in my Fall quarter than later quarters. After the first couple of weeks, I began getting a sense of the level of depth required and that helped calibrate.

c) Group meetings.
Align on expectations if possible. Always helpful to have a conversation upfront if you feel there might be misalignment on goals and priorities. I can think of a couple of experiences when having this conversation would have helped.
Don’t count group meetings as study time. Same concept as work meetings – use this for discussion, agreement and decisions. Don’t count as solo study time. Bring value to a group meeting (very hard to do sometimes)
No need to be the lead in every group. Continuing of the previous thread, if you find others taking the lead in some groups, let them. Just make sure you do the same in some other. What goes around comes around..

d) Preparing for exams
Don’t waste money on textbooks. I didn’t use them. But, I know of people who did. So, this might just be me. I found the course pack and readings to be more than sufficient.
Attend review sessions only if absolutely necessary. I went for very few. When I did, I often chose a video as you can skip through most parts.
– 30 hours. I found that roughly 30 hours of study per course was sufficient to grasp the concepts and do well. This is roughly 3 hours per week. But, for most people, you see spikes towards the end of the quarter.
Summarize lectures – single best learning. My strategy professor suggested we spend time after every class summarizing what we learnt. I’d read about this technique earlier and never tried it. While I didn’t strictly do it every class/week, I made sure I did it every time I studied. This typically happened when an assignment came due – the assignment naturally required knowledge of what had been taught in the prior couple of weeks. So, instead of diving into the answers of the assignment, I’d go back and make sure I summarized lectures first. This was an amazing move as it made for my notes for revision before the exam. And, in exams where we were only allowed a cheat sheet, this made the process really simple.

2. Career. I’ve covered my process in detail in lessons learnt from internship recruiting. I just have 2 adds –
Don’t view classmates as competition. Be of help to each other. We grow up conditioned to compete. Think of your classmates as temporary “path sharers.” Good things happen once you do the work. Be nice to each other – the world will roll on without you.
Start a prep group. We had a 4 person tech group that met nearly every week for 10 weeks. It was one of the best things we did.

3. Extra-curriculars.
Understand why you’re doing extra-curriculars. Different people do these for different reasons. Some career switches like adding a note to their resume about a relevant professional club. Some want to test leadership. Some others want to meet people. There’s many reasons to do it. My reasons were straightforward – I am driven by people, learning and impact. Extra-curriculars have helped work on ideas that combine all 3. They’re a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, how you lead, how you work in teams, etc. I spend a significant amount of time on extra-curriculars and it has been a highlight of my school experience.
Don’t be a flake. Once you commit to a leadership role, keep up that commitment. It is not just because everyone remembers flakes and all those you work with might have a strong say in a future career opportunity. It is simply because it is the right thing to do.
If you’re unable to do work, communicate and apologize. Worst case scenario – it happens.
Run good team meetings. Most team members hate team meetings. That’s because they’re generally run badly. I’ve tried hard to run good team meetings – this means preparing hard, using the time meaningfully and following up. I’ve tried to set the norm of 100% participation early and have tried to earn my team members’ time. Really useful skill to learn and hone.
Learn how to build great teams with peers. The best part about school is you work on projects with peers. If you can learn how to build high functioning teams with peers who’re only doing this out of personal motivation, I believe you can build great teams everywhere. Working on teams to lead the incoming student orientation week, our technology club and two other initiatives has been an education in itself.

4. Social. This is heavily biased as it comes from the point of view of an introvert.
– Look to build long term relationships, not network. Building long term relationships take time. So, take the time and be patient.
Invest in really getting to know as many people as you can. One of my wiser friends once said business school is where you’ll meet the highest proportion of people who are both interesting and interested in you. It is very true. In my case, I’ve tried setting up 3-4 coffee conversations every week. They aren’t ever over coffee. Every time I meet someone who I’d like to get to know better, I just put some time on their calendar (typically between classes), walk with them and swap stories. Many of these just turn out to be one-time meetings but some become really nice relationships. As with these things, it takes two hands to clap.
– Maximize high quality social events. Hanging out with 100 people in a bar is what I term a “low quality” social events. Any time you meet people and talk about the weather is low quality as well. 1:1 or small group conversations that involve talking about things that matter to you are high quality. Maximize.
For low quality social events, “HELL YEAH!” or no. If it isn’t a “HELL YEAH!”, I don’t show up.  (I did warn you this is very introvert biased)
– Find ways to meet random people. It is easy to shut off and find your own clique. I created an open event for my entire class last quarter on a Friday evening . 12 people showed up – a few of whom I’d never spoken to. That was a win. Good reminder to do more of those.

5. Framily. My past life was outside the US. So, most of these notes are directed to staying in touch with family and friends who live far away.
– Hang out with family when working/doing chores. I do a lot of conversations with family over breakfast, dish washing, and other such chores. Thanks to FaceTime, it is really easy to prop Mom up on the desk while I’m doing my thing. We’ve spoken a lot more during school days (as I often have flexible schedules) as a result.
Set aside time on Saturday morning to catch up with friends. While I wasn’t the most proactive friend in the fall quarter, I always made sure I had time set aside on Saturday mornings for catch up calls. That helped a lot.
Work on projects with people who matter and/or set up recurring calls. My friends and I work on a charity together. That means we catch up every 2 weeks and that helps a lot. Every few months, we set up a big google hangout as an extension to our bi-weekly call. In a couple of special cases, I set up recurring calls.

6. You.
This is the single most important priority. Nothing matters more. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re likely doing it wrong.
I count my wife in this priority. It helps me prioritize time with her. I don’t do nearly as good a job as I’d like to. But, I work hard on it as it is the single hardest challenge I’ve faced in school.
A 515am-915pm routine on weekdays really helps. As my wife leaves for work in the morning, I generally sync with her. So, this means up by 515am, morning routine and freshen up till 7am. I count 7am-530pm as my work day and plan study, activities and meetings between these slots. I’m generally back by 6, we either head to the gym or go for a run around 615 and then have dinner together. I try not to touch work or email after 7pm. I don’t do nearly as well I’d like to. But, we do sleep by 930 or so. This means social nights are rare. But, you’ve got to make trade-offs and I’ve generally prioritized time with my wife.
Own your calendar. I generally schedule all my group meeting and catch up invites. This helps me allow for blocks of time to do work and also ensures I don’t take any meetings after 6pm. I’ve only had to make exceptions about 4 times in the year – that’s not bad at all.
Chill on Saturday afternoons and evenings and plan social stuff on Fridays. I try hard to switch off on Saturdays as Sunday is typically a full work day since assignments tend to be due on Monday. It doesn’t always happen but I try very hard to keep Saturdays free to just hang out at home with my wife. So, that means I try and plan social stuff on Fridays so we both can participate.
Sleep 8 hours, meditate, eat healthy and exercise. Being disciplined about the rest of my life has meant I haven’t really had to compromise on this. There have been times when I’ve slept lesser than I’d have liked. But, all in all, I’ve tried and kept a normal routine including, of course, blogging every morning. :-)
Optimize for energy. There were, of course, many crap days when I felt really low on energy. On these days, I generally aimed to sleep as early as possible and do less. My productivity is generally 2x on good energy days. And, I generally optimized for this.

So, what does this all mean in terms of time spent? I thought I’d show what all of these notes looked like in action. I’ve written about this a few times – but, aside from just recording meetings, I generally record productive time on my calendar. If I’ve spent 90 mins studying but felt like I did 60 mins of  productive work, I generally store that on my calendar. At the end of the week, I add up the time spent on each priority and look at how I spent my week. It is always very illuminating. Over time, I added more nuance – e.g. tracking group time vs. solo study time, etc. As I could go on about this topic for hours, I thought I’ll share 2 graphs and what they mean.

First year process These 2 graphs show how I spent time in the year. I don’t track time spent with framily or with wife/myself. This is strictly for the “work” part of my life. It is an approach that’s added incredible value considering the time investment (roughly 30 mins per week). I’ve continued to do this in my internship and it is among the better things I do. A few notes –
– Both graphs have the same data – the top graph is a 100% graph while the bottom is in absolute hours.
– F1 = 1st week in the Fall quarter. W = Winter, S = Spring
– As you can see, my internship search ended week 6 of the Winter quarter and nearly all of that time got replaced by extra-curriculars (and a little bit more social – but not much more)
– I generally get about 35 “productive” hours in a week. This number assumes meetings are productive. I try to make sure they are. But, of course, this is chainsaw art and not fine – it is granular enough to work for my purposes.
– My academic numbers don’t include 12 hours spent in classes. I take that as a base-case. So, that’s roughly 47 of the roughly 65 hours I spend working (11 hours)
– As you can see, my academic hours spike around weeks 9 and 10. I spent a lot more time studying in the Fall. I took 3 courses (1 less than the usual 4 course load) in the Winter – even so, I didn’t study all that much in the Winter.
– I have some more nuanced stats but won’t spend any more time on this. I geek out on this stuff and I recognize that it isn’t for everyone.
– I have written a lot about prioritization in school. And, hopefully, this brings those ideas to life.

Finally, since this post is all about my personal advice, I’d like to finish with 3 ideas I’ve found useful –

1. Spend energy and time on things you value or consider important. The first step here is to determine which of these priorities matter to you. Academics, for example, clearly matters to me. It doesn’t for many. But, understanding what matters to you is the first step to allocating your energy and time – your most valuable resources. Everyone who goes to a decent program will tell you that it often gets overwhelming. I think of it as preparation for life as a business leader. If you just walk out of school learning to prioritize things that matter, that’s a great lesson to learn.

2. You can’t win them all. Business school can often feel like high school. You can easily spend hours worrying about your popularity, social standing and/or what you are missing out on (a.k.a FOMO or fear of missing out). The first step here is to acknowledge that school is the same as life – you aren’t going to get on with everyone and not everyone’s going to like you. That’s okay. Just be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

3. No one owes you anything. It is tempting to walk in thinking that the school owes you a great experience for the fees you paid, that your group mates owe you for your selfless dedication and so on. I think a better way to approach this is to just remind yourself that nobody owes you anything. You’re in a great environment that you can mould to suit your needs and style. That, in itself, is a great opportunity. Like all good things, your experience is what you make of it. Make it meaningful, make it count.

I’m sure this post a few typos and errors. I’ll get to fixing them as I read it again (have to run now!) /hear from you over the next few days. I might add a few notes as well over the next few days.

I know it is long. As always, I hope it is worth it.

The same long task list

Take a look at a long task list at the end of your day. And, you’ll find the following set of emotions accompany you – hopelessness, pessimism, negativity and discontent. If you force yourself to work on that list, you could sit for a good few hours and find yourself stuck on task #1.

Take a look at that same long task list once you wake up the next day. This time, you’ll likely find that hope and optimism appear. And, with that hope and optimism, you’ll get to work on that list. Rearrange it, start with a few quick wins, postpone the low priority items and, before you know it, you’ve built momentum.

The task list didn’t change. Your perspective did. The same long task list that looked insurmountable became doable.

When complaining about their inability to get things done, most folks point to a lack of time. But, as this example illustrates, all the time in the world wouldn’t have helped you that evening. All you needed was rest. Manage your mental energy well and you’ll find yourself amazed at how much an energized mind can accomplish. Manage your mental energy by resting your mind, exercising it (reading to it, challenging it by taking on tough problems) and providing it the right kind of fuel.

Sure, learn how to use time well. But, spend your energy managing your energy. It is that skill that separates the masters from the professionals.

Absolute time vs. effective time

Most folks who have an interest in personal productivity have probably experimented with tracking time. This is challenging because this can cause large amounts of overhead – e.g., if you’re spending a minute every fifteen minutes noting down what you did. It can also be very distracting. After a few attempts with minimal success over the years, I think I have finally developed a system that works for me. More on this coming soon at a blog post near you (yes, this is just a teaser :-)).

A key part of the success has been learning to focus on effective time vs. absolute time. People call “effective time” by different names – focus time, flow, deep work, etc. I think of it as “effective time” as it is the time that was really spent in getting stuff that matters done. So, a few tweaks that have helped me focus on “effective time” are –

1. Not measuring time spend on email or admin. That’s not to say admin doesn’t get done. It is just that I know I will end up doing it. Admin and email also tend to be my favorite tools for procrastination. So, not measuring them means I keep focused on the things I ought to be working on.

2. Being strict about measuring “effective time.” After a 2 hour burst, for example, I record it in the form of a calendar event on my Outlook. I’ve generally erred on the side of being strict around exactly how much I put in. If I feel like I spent only 1 hr 40 mins, I generally put in an hour and a half (generally measured in 15′ intervals as it is easy to count at the end of the week).

3. Not sweating the small stuff. I’ve been measuring how I spend my time for 14 weeks now and have learnt that I shouldn’t worry about small slippages. It is completely okay to sleep an extra hour, spend an extra 15 minutes enjoying your lunch or to just stare into space. What really matters is what you do when you get to work. In fact, the less stressed you feel, the more you will probably get done. If you can squeeze in effective time when you are at your work desk, the small stuff doesn’t matter.

It comes down to understanding and then measuring the effectiveness of the time you spend working. Meetings, for example, are an example of time you might measure as “work” but it is typically low effectiveness work. So, you definitely need to think about what you really need to do to get work that matters done. Once that is done, then it is all about creating a clear list that spells it out, not worrying about absolute time you’ve spent on your desk and just maximizing the effectiveness of time you spend working.

Once again, don’t worry about time spent at the office. Worry about what you do when you are actually there.

(This is the sort of post that feels so obvious and simple once you write it. Somehow, the execution tends to never be close to obvious or simple..)