There is a major migration underway that you need to be aware of, lest it overtake you without your knowledge. Your calendar is being re-shaped, but it’s not only because of new technology…it’s because of your new habits.

Up until 20 years ago, your calendar was only a paper item that was either stuck to your wall, found in your diary or sitting on your desk where it collected appointments. It was designed as an object on which you recorded meetings with other people using a pen or pencil. The dates were arrayed in columns, lists or as a matrix of boxes, allowing you to represent a time demand as an occupied space on the page. (A “time demand” is a commitment created by an individual to complete a task in the future.)

Fast forward through the innovations of the past 30 years. Spreadsheets, email programs with electronic calendars, Palm PDAs, Blackberrys, iPads, Google Calendar, Microsoft Exchange…and when you arrive in 2012 you find habits and technologies that were inspired by what a calendar used to be, but are still limited by our old concepts.

You can see these limits in today’s most popular time management and productivity books – written, as they were, by “baby boomer” authors. For them, changing an item on a calendar has traditionally been a hard task to perform. It’s involved finding the right page, using an eraser or White-Out to remove an entry, finding a pen or pencil, and writing in a new appointment. Neatly.

Only a few big-paged calendars would allow you to record activities in 15 minute increments, due to the size of your handwriting, so you’d focus on recording only major appointments. Also, the fact that these calendars were on paper meant that they could tear, get wet or be left on a plane. You definitely didn’t want to store your whole life on a paper calendar.

Out came a rule that fit those times, and it’s embedded in today’s productivity books:

“Only put appointments with other people in your calendar.”

(Its corollary is: “don’t put anything else in your calendar.”)

Some have modified this to say that you should only put major commitments that “must” happen on a particular day and time in your calendar. (The weak definition of “must” makes the rule a hazy one.) There are problems with this approach. If, as a student, you don’t have to study tonight for an exam next week, you might not bother to schedule that early review session, and end up watching a movie instead.

These were reasonable guidelines for a time when the term “in your calendar” meant that a time demand that you had created was being literally written on a paper document as an appointment. It’s an old way of thinking that just doesn’t fit the technology that we have available today. In today’s world, as David Allen of GTD fame puts it, a calendar is just a special kind of list.

He’s right.

The only difference between a generic list and a calendar are the dates and durations that are included in the latter.

When you add this information to the items in a list, it’s called “temporal tagging” and this act transforms an action such as “Pick up the milk” into “Pick up the milk at 5 pm on Monday, taking 20 minutes”. Once time demands are assigned temporal tags, they can be laid out in neat calendar views corresponding to days, weeks, months, years, etc.

This isn’t altogether new. My old DayRunner Diary abandoned in 1997 offered multiple ways to look at the time demands in my life, in the form of different paper inserts.

What has changed is the way we use technology to manage time demands, and craft these views.

Today we have a windstorm of time demands blowing around our life each day. They may be captured in the following ways:

  • Mental: These only exist in your mind (e.g. a mental note to yourself to have pasta for dinner tonight.)
  • Paper: These are written (e.g. a to-do list that includes the actions assigned to you in a meeting.)
  • Electronic: These exist in bits and bytes (e.g. the time demands buried inside your email inbox.)

A subset of the electronic items have been assigned temporal tags. When you pull up your calendar, you are simply asking to see a slice, or view, of all electronic time demands that happen to be temporally tagged.

A calendar, then, is a view. Because it’s electronic, you can ask for a number of different views that have nothing to do with the limits of the written or printed page. You can tag as many time demands as you want without ever running out of space.

In fact, if you had a magic genie, you’d probably attach a temporal tag to as many time demands in the windstorm as you could. When a time demand gets triggered by an email, for example, you’d have the following conversation with your genie:

  1. “I need to work for an hour on a new blog post. Show me my calendar for tomorrow.”
  2. “Thanks, genie. There’s no space tomorrow. Show me the calendar for next week.”
  3. “Thanks, genie. Book it for Friday, next week, at 3 pm.”

Today, we don’t need to get our own genie to follow the steps listed above if we change our mental model of what a calendar is, and where it sits.

Mental Model #1: What the new calendar is

By seeing a calendar as a slice of time demands, or a view, the act of looking at your calendar is transformed into a dynamic activity in which you alternate between views, while changing items around. Creating, rearranging, rewording, lengthening, shortening and deleting time demands becomes easy. Almost imperceptibly, we are moving in this direction as the latest technology in the form of tablets, smartphones, and laptops make it easier to perform these changes every day.

With greater ease, comes the ability to manage greater number of time demands as we develop the habit of temporally tagging a greter percentage of more time demands, and master the elegance and power of using different views to see only the information that we need at just the right time.

Mental Model #2: Where the new calendar sits

Time demands in this new world don’t sit on paper, in a hand-held gadget, or on a hard drive. Instead, they reside in an electronic cloud which is accessed by a screen that provides us with a real-time view. Getting stuff wet is no longer a problem, and neither is a battery failure or a crash, due to the presence of fail-proof backups. We are never without our cloud of time demands, even when we forget our favorite device at home, because other methods can be used to pull up different views. One day, we’ll even have watches that can pull up a calendar view.

New technology has enabled the adoption of these new mental models, but it’s our daily habits that are driving this migration. We are steadily pushing the envelope on how we manage time demands, and are only limited by technology innovators who are slow to understand what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to do it.

Unfortunately, researchers are slow to catch up also, although some of it does show that temporal tagging and calendar views are used by those who are more skilled at time management. These techniques enable them to manage a greater number of time demands: an even bigger windstorm.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The resistance hard-coded into the time management books was based on a paper paradigm. With the redefinition of a calendar as a view of time demands, and the cloud as the ultimate storage location, we can use our own magic genie to make us more productive.

Featured photo credit: Calendar and Pencil via Shutterstock and inline photo Calendar Card by Joe Lanman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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