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Back to Basics: Your Calendar

Back to Basics: 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.

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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:

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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