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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
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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)

    More by this author

    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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