Your Calendar

One of the first things people do when they make the decision to “get organized” is buy some kind of calendar. It might be a dayplanner, a desktop “blotter-pad” calendar, a Palm or Blackberry, or some other kind of device or system they can schedule all their appointments and obligations in.

Most of us instinctively understand that the key to good time management is knowing where to be and what to be doing there at any given time. And we also recognize that our ability to keep track of all our obligations in our head is severely limited.

Effective calendar management goes hand in hand with good task list management. While a task list is a great moment-to-moment tool, a calendar is much better at presenting “the big picture”. With a glance, you can see a day, a week, a month, even a year at a time, allowing for both short-term and long-term planning in a way that a task list can’t.

What kind of calendar?

The functional requirements of a calendar are pretty basic: Your calendar should be easy to write in, easy to read, and available whenever you need it. How those criteria are going to be best met is really up to you, based on your own personality.

In general, calendars fall into three broad categories: paper calendars like dayplanners and Moleskine planners, computer programs like Outlook and Sunbird, and online calendars like Google Calendar and 30 Boxes. Each type of calendar has its own pros and cons.

Paper Calendars

Pros:

  • Great for people who think best with a pen or pencil in hand
  • Easy to use, minimal learning curve
  • No special technology needed
  • Never runs out of batteries

Cons:

  • Difficult to share with other people or move data to another system
  • Limited physical space makes scheduling far in advance difficult
  • Recurring events need to be entered by hand
  • Can be lost; backup strategies are awkward at best (e.g. photocopies)
  • Needs to be replaced every year

Computer-based Calendars

Pros:

  • Appointments and recurring events are easy to create
  • Data can be exported to or imported from other systems
  • Events can be emailed to other people
  • Many programs allow rules to be set up determining, for example, what information is public and what is not
  • Notes, files, and other information can be added indefinitely
  • Can schedule events easily years in advance
  • Data can be backed up regularly

Cons:

  • Data corruption is possible, altering or even deleing events
  • Too many options can make simple event scheduling complicated
  • Need physical access to your computer or PDA/smartphone to see schedule
  • On PDAs: batteries can fail, leaving you calendar-less
  • Steeper learning curve than paper
  • Dependent on technology

Online Calendars

Pros:

  • Access anywhere you have an Internet connection, including public computers
  • Share your calendar or part of your calendar easily
  • Some, like Google Calendar, have natural language scheduling, allowing phrases like “lunch with Tom tomorrow at noon” to be translated into calendar entries
  • Exchange data with other online services, like task lists, web sites, RSS readers, weather services, news sites, etc.

Cons:

  • Security concerns: are you comfortable allowing Google to (potentially) read your calendar entries?
  • Security vulnerabilities: calendar could be open to unauthorized access
  • You might be without Internet service, or the site could go down
  • At the mercy of host’s business plan – they could go under, taking your data with them

My setup: a hybrid calendar system

I use a combination of software-based and online calendars. My primary calendar is kept in Outlook (totally square, I know!). I also have an online calendar with Google. Thanks to Google Calendar Sync, a program that runs in my taskbar and synchronizes my Outlook and Google calendars, both calendars are kept up to date.

I sync my Blackberry with Outlook, which means I always have a copy of schedule with me. If I add events on the Blackberry, they get synced to Outlook when I connect to my PC, and those changes get uploaded to Google when Google Calendar Sync runs. I also have my Outlook .pst file (where the calendar and all other Outlook data is stored) set to save to an external drive every night. So I have multiple redundancies in case any part of the system fails. (I also print a hard copy from Outlook if I’m going to be out of town, just in case my Blackberry breaks and I can’t find a computer to check my Google calendar.)

What goes on your calendar?

There are two philosophies about how to use your calendar. The first, which is recommended by David Allen in Getting Things Done, is to only put in your calendar those events which have to happen at that time – meetings, appointments, scheduled phone calls, etc. The rest of the time, you’re working from your task lists according to your sense of what the most important thing to work on right now is.

I disagree with that approach, though I admit it seems to work for many people. But I believe in scheduling everything – appointments and meetings, but also blocks of time for email or phone calls, meals, travel time, and most importantly, “project time”. Project time is a block of time devoted to making progress on some active project I’m working on at the moment. If I don’t schedule that kind of stuff, I know the relatively trivial stuff will expand to fill all the space between my (rare) scheduled events – and I won’t find time for the important stuff.

To be honest, that probably isn’t too far from the spirit of GTD, even if it’s against the “letter or the law” as set down in Allen’s books. Working on projects often is something that has to be done at a set time, or it doesn’t get done. Working on email is the opposite – if it’s not done only during the times I schedule, it can easily fill the whole day.

My advice, then, is to determine what absolutely has to be done each week and schedule all of it – and stick to the schedule. That means you give everything you’ve scheduled the full block of time allowed to it – but not more than that. Use a timer, if necessary. The point of using a calendar isn’t just to make sure you work on your important tasks at set times during the week, it’s also to make sure you leave adequate time for the stuff that can’t be easily scheduled – time “off the clock”, enjoying yourself.

Your calendars

What about you? Are you a fan of paper, software, or “in the cloud” calendars? What’s your setup? And how do you use your calendar to keep yourself on track? Tell your calendar story in the comments.

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