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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 September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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