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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 July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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