Instead of a 60-minute drive to work, my commute every month happens to involve crossing the Pacific Ocean. I work between China and the U.S., coaching clients based on six continents. To find my business rhythm, I quickly learned that scheduling time accurately was going to be essential to working with my clients’ time constraints and managing my own.
The nuances of scheduling across multiple time zones, as I do, are numerous. A time zone is, by definition, a region of the globe that observes a uniform standard time for legal, commercial, and social purposes. With this said, there are many different ways of expressing dates and time. In Europe, it may be CET, and there are six American timezones: Hawaii, Alaska, Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Eastern. Then, there’s military, analog, and digital time and even verbal differences when referencing time — like saying “supper” or “dinner” depending on the region you’re from. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is a universal time zone based in London, is the anchor of all time zones, so wherever you are, you can count forward or backward from GMT to determine your time.
I found myself more confused than calm when navigating between time zones, so I hacked my mindset and created my own way of pivoting between my working hours and determining whether I needed to extend my day to accommodate my clients’ business hours in the country in which they’re located. My philosophy became “It is not their job to match my schedule; it’s my job to match theirs.”
Working virtually and on location is smooth once you adopt a “flexible hours in multiple time zones” mindset.
Consistency Is Key
My day starts at 4 a.m. wherever I am in the world. Besides waking up naturally at this time, 4 a.m. is my planning and thinking time when I’m pushing through email and taking calls before my in-person meetings.
It is my responsibility to match everybody’s schedule, including my own. This also includes accommodating for travel time in cars, planes, trains, motorbikes, and the occasional horse. I make it a habit to schedule my leisure time, as well as my “treehouse” time, which is when I dedicate time to reflect and think strategically. My leisure time is built into the middle of my day instead of at the end so I can extend the workday when I’m spanning time zones.
Handling the unexpected while managing my time across time zones is a juggling act. And with practice, it’s quite doable. Here’s how:
#1. Use tech tools to centralize your schedule.
The main hack to managing your schedule across times is to centralize. When securing dates and times, always set your calendar in the time zone where your client is located or where you will be located when the appointment occurs.
My favorite online tool is timeanddate.com’s World Clock Meeting Planner. This tool features international cities in a 24-hour span of time. The time in each city is shown side-by-side for comparison. For example, I had calls with Berlin, San Francisco, and Singapore while I was in Shanghai. So I selected Singapore, Berlin, and San Francisco as the cities to compare, then set my calendar to Shanghai time and sent meeting invitations for each location once I decided on the best time to speak. It might sound complicated, but it’s not.
It’s also important to consolidate where you handle and consolidate appointment details. I only use email because I can track my own and other people’s timing decisions. Trying to keep up with all of the ways people communicate — Facebook, LinkedIn, WeChat, WhatsApp, Jabber, voicemail, old-fashioned text messaging, you name it — creates a logistical nightmare. It’s easy to make mistakes when making time decisions across multiple tech apps.
If your calendar varies from platform to platform, it’s harder to make time and commitment decisions. It’s best to revert to one calendar to book appointments and ensure your information is synced across all your devices.
#2. Ditch the 9-to-5.
One study showed that 53 percent of employees would leave their jobs if they were regularly contacted outside of normal “work hours.” Let me tell you, when you work across time zones, the 9-to-5 workday does not exist. Working virtually means working in domestic and international time; therefore, developing the competency of being nimble and flexible with time is a required skill.
Let’s say you’re in California and you need to schedule a call with colleagues in Hyderabad, India. There’s a 12.5-hour time difference, so your lunchtime is their midnight. Although noon may be convenient for you, taking a call at midnight is very inconvenient for your colleague.
Think through maximizing people’s “awake” time. Rotating the time zones helps to ensure the inconvenience does not grossly affect one region more than another. If you’re inflexible and unwilling to accommodate multiple time zones, your focus and efficiency — as well as theirs — will be less than optimal. People will find a workaround.
#3. Take the reins when setting appointments.
If you’re managing your own schedule, how and when you book your time is entirely under your control. I always initiate calendar invitations with my clients to make sure I get the time right, and these calendar requests include the format we will use (phone, WebEx, Zoom, WeChat Out, FaceTime, etc.).
Often, my clients’ executive assistants want to initiate the calendar request, which is fine. And I always double-check to make sure the time zone listed matches where I will be and where they will be.
While you need to be available outside of business hours, that doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries. Recently, a client contacted me with an opportunity via my mobile on WeChat. It was 3:30 a.m. He didn’t know where I was, nor did he know it was the middle of the night for me. My instinct was to answer, but I chose to not pick up because I was not awake for a coherent conversation, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I’m always available.
I waited about two hours until I was awake with a coffee and clear mind, then I sent him a message on WeChat suggesting we move the meeting scheduling conversation to email. That way, I stayed in control of when the meeting took place and when it fit into my schedule, not the other way around. Setting boundaries like these will help you manage crazy calls at odd hours effectively.
#4. Make room for friends, fun, free time, and foot massages.
One of my biggest lessons was learning to schedule downtime. When you’re dealing with multiple time zones, scheduling time off is tricky. Building your leisure time into your schedule not only ensures you’ll take it, but it also makes it easier to prioritize your work tasks.
It is my regular practice when I’m in China to add a “treat” to my schedule on my second day in the country. This is usually getting a 1.5-hour foot massage around 1 p.m. when my jet lag is creeping in. I take longer lunches with a book or take a 20-minute power nap. These treats give me the ability to extend my day further. Remember, my day starts at 4 a.m. and usually doesn’t end until 10:30 p.m., so building in breaks increases my stamina for longer days.
And don’t forget about your friends and family. Deliberately making time with them keeps you anchored. One of my clients who travels extensively has a call with his wife at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. They never miss the call. They set their phone alarms for that time and step away from dinners and meetings to connect because maintaining a strong daily connection is a priority for them.
I admit that some days are exhausting, yet when all the puzzle pieces of time click together, there’s nothing better than running your own business your own way. Time waits for no one, so make it work for you.
What are your top time zone hacks? So I can be even more agile when spanning time zones, I’d love to read your ideas in the comments.