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The Evolution of the Calendar: How to Use a Calendar Today

The Evolution of the Calendar: How to Use a Calendar Today

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:

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“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.

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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.

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    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.

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    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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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    Last Updated on March 23, 2021

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

    The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

    You need more than time management. You need energy management

    1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

    How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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    I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

    I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

    2. Determine your “peak hours”

    Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

    Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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    My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

    In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

    Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

    3. Block those high-energy hours

    Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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    Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

    If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

    That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

    There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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    Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

    Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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