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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 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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