Ways to Use a Calendar v2

In a prior post, I talked about how the most powerful time management system is one that a user designs for themselves. When users know the principles behind a good system they are much better equipped to design a unique approach that works for them.

One area that is often misunderstood is the use of a calendar in an overall time management system.

I have observed that people use calendars in ways that are unproductive, because they are stuck in an old paradigm of the Appointment Calendar. The Appointment Calendar probably originated with the kind of calendar used in a doctor’s office. It was a tool the receptionist used to ensure that different patients were not being scheduled at the same time. The doctor would glance at it from time to time, but he/she did not actually use it themselves. Instead, they would advise the receptionist when they would be in surgery, when they needed extra time with a patient and when they were taking an afternoon off to play golf.

With the invention of different paper-based time management tools, and an increasing onslaught of time demands, professionals gradually began to use calendars directly. First, there were filofaxes and DayRunners, then along came Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes, followed by PDAs and even phones that today can carry schedules.

Many professionals, however, and most those here in the Caribbean still use their calendar as an appointment book — a tool to schedule meetings.This is the most basic of uses, and the advent of electronic tools (and the best paper tools) means that their calendars are probably being under-utilized.

How so? The technology of calendaring is changing, making it easier for us to imagine a time when the rule will be that most of the time in a day is scheduled, rather than than less. Starting with the idea of a paper appointment book this is rather hard to imagine, as many of them only allow weekday scheduling, with one line each from 9 through 5pm. Even a nice pencil with a good rubber (or eraser for Americans) would not do the job.

However, a good time management system takes advantage of the power that is resident in the new technologies, and even paper-based professionals could learn a thing or two here.

If the calendar could feasibly hold other things, what could it include?

In a follow-up post, I wrote about the power of using the calendar as a tool to schedule three different kinds of actions: recurring tasks, actions needed to move projects forward and also an adequate amount of “goof-off” time.

The underlying principle here is simple: the mind is a terrible thing to waste, and one way we waste it is to try to get it to remember too much. Over the past five years, courtesy of hard practice, I have tried to get to the point where my time management system does all the remembering for me.

Caveat: I am an extreme case; most designers of their own time management systems will not necessarily want to start at the place I have ended after years of refining. They may, however, want to start by using an electronic time management system to schedule the following weekly, monthly and annual repetitive activities, for example:

  • exercise
  • pay bills
  • buying Christmas presents and cards
  • remembering birthdays a week ahead of time
  • starting to plan for vacations
  • paying taxes and completing returns

This is just a sample, and probably way more than someone who is just starting would schedule. I have discovered that an amazing percentage of the actions I take are repetitive, and that I help myself if I use my calendar to remember them rather than my memory.

In this way, a calendar is much more than something used to plan appointments and meetings. Instead, it becomes a powerful memory assistant, a place where commitments are translated into actual, planned hours and minutes.

The logic here is obvious, by actually using real, planned time, the user is less likely to make unrealistic commitments, because each new activity that one says “Yes” to, must co-exist with every other commitment that is already in place.

This is a long, long way from just having a schedule of appointments.

However, today’s tools are simply imperfectly designed “memory assistants”, given that they were designed to replace appointment-books. They are not easy to use, and many professionals in the region are not super-users of Outlook, some are just getting used to the idea of “doing email” themselves.

Given the tricky nature of the electronic tools, it is important that a user customize the way in which they use their calendars. There are several dimensions that they need to consider when deciding what combination of paper and electronic tools they include in the design of their time management system, and what kind of calendar choices they have.

  • What tools are available to them now? Which ones are they comfortable using right now?
  • Does their job involve travel? Being away from their desk?
  • Are they knowledge workers?
  • Do they need to be on call at all times (e.g. most receptionist positions)?
  • Does their daily schedule change a great deal from moment to moment?

With respect to how they actually use their calendar, there are different approaches that a user can elect to follow. Of course, they all follow the basic rule of not scheduling mutually-exclusive tasks at the same time. Here are some possible choices of the kind of calendar they can use:

  • An Activity-Based Calendar which allows the user to schedule any activity at any time
  • A Responsibility-Based Calendar which only allows activities to be scheduled that match with the hats that one wears e.g. 6 – 8 a.m. Father, 8:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m. Personal, 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Project Leader, 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. Personal, 12:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Counselor to Staff, 4:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. Father. Each slot would be designed to accomplish only a limited range of activities.
  • A Location-Based Calendar would recognize that between different times, the physical location would determine what would, or would not, be scheduled e.g. for someone who drives an ambulance: 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. Home, 9 a.m. – 12 noon In the Ambulance, 12 noon – 1 p.m. At Lunch, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. At Office Desk, 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. At Home.
  • A Project-Based Calendar would split the work day into different projects, allowing the user to focus on a single project at any given time
  • An Energy-Based Calendar would guide a user in designing their day around something like a biorhythm, perhaps using research that shows that there are two spurts of energy the average person experiences — early morning and early evening. More routine time demands would be scheduled during the other available time
  • An Interruption-Based Calendar would scheduled the most important work at the times when interruptions are least likely. Many professionals get their best work done very early in the morning, late at night and on weekends, when most people are away from work and unlikely to interrupt them
  • An Appointment-Only Calendar is basically the Appointment Book of old. It limits the calendar to meetings that are scheduled with other people that are difficult to change once they are agreed upon.

There is no right or wrong way to use a calendar, but the user must be educated as to the rules they must follow to make the system work. There is a delicate balance that is being created that they must monitor over time as their habits change, their responsibilities expand, and the amount of time demands increase.

The general rule is that, over time, the user should be using less and less of their memory to manage their time demands. As far as I can see, that means using more technology, not less. This may seem daunting to some. However, it is a fact of life – professionals that can use more computer and internet based tools are more effective than those who are not willing or able to learn.

At the moment, my observation is that time management is so poorly taught, and so rarely formalized that few professionals stand out in terms of their productivity, and if they do stand out their success is not ascribed to a system they are using. More often than not, they and others, use life and daily circumstances to explain the difference.

I believe that this will change, much in the way that athletic success has changed. Today, professional athletes use the best tools, inputs and assistants that are available, leaving little to chance. Not too many years ago, athletes ate whatever they wanted, whenever they were hungry. Today, nutrition is seen as a critical factor in performance and no top class athlete would follow such a regimen. They follow their system, and manage it as if it were a critical part of their formula for success.

The rise of the Australian Test team and the demise of the West Indian cricket team is perhaps a good example of systematic success.

In the future , the most productive professionals will be the ones who learned very early on how to take their time management system seriously, with a commitment to continuously improving it. After all, it is one of the few tools that EVERY professional shares, bar none.

The method they use to schedule their time is at the heart of their time management system, and is a critical indicator of their level of competence.