A calendar is essential to life, no question about that, and there is no end to the amount of choice available. They come in all types of shapes and sizes, both paper based and electronic, but none of this guarantees that they serve their purpose very well. If they did, the business of Time Management would not exist. But it does.
Chiefly this is because people expect their calendars to manage their time for them, and they then become slaves to them, when in fact successful Time Management comes from proactive “ownership” and “use” of the calendar as a tool for both prioritization and negotiation.
Here, then, are eight simple rules for dealing with your dates:
- Stick to one and only one (Singularity)
So long as there is only one of you, that is, only one human being that is “you,” there should only be one calendar. As soon as people start using more than one device to keep track of appointments, conflicts can occur. With a calendar at work and another for home and yet another on the smartphone, it can be easy to double-book. But beware – calendars are not the only things that threaten to swallow your time. Think about those emails in your inbox. Almost every email requires some type of action, from a quick response to more involved work, but the time required to deal with email is seldom noted on a calendar. Yet these tasks still take minutes or even hours to complete. Therefore, email responding time should be assigned time on a calendar. Be realistic. If it takes you two hours per day to deal with all the emails you receive then you owe it to yourself to block off two hours per day on your calendar page to handle them.
This serves two purposes: first, it proves to you and others that you are actually busy, and secondly it forces you to decide whether or not these emails deserve so much of your valuable time, which is the first step towards trimming back wasteful activity such as dealing with them in the first place.
ToDo’s, too, should be dealt with in this way. If there is a task on your ToDo list that deserves to get done today, then the first necessity is to enter it onto your calendar as an actual event before someone else swoops in and books the time for you. Otherwise, the ToDo list and the email Inbox become secondary calendars – filled with tasks that have to get done but which do not account for their own durations or importance.
- Make sure it is available everywhere (Accessibility)
A calendar must always travel with you. Ideally on the cloud or through an Internet connection. Changes in priorities and new appointments crop up quickly and the promises we make to others should be entered in immediately before being forgotten. This cannot happen effectively if the calendar is elsewhere.
- Make sure others can see it (Visibility)
Other people need to be aware of your busy-ness, or else they will assume your day is free to be assigned to other tasks. A calendar is not only a device for keeping track of your own priorities; it is also there as a defence against overload by proving to others when you are and are not available. Leave some gaps in your calendar for people to access you, certainly, but establish your bulwarks, or your day will be trodden over.
- Assign realistic times for things (Reality)
Work takes longer than we hope it will. Travel time, preparation time and follow-up time are often overlooked. Yet these are the realities of the day. If any task is important enough to get done, then it should first be scheduled accordingly.
- Question the one-hour block (Flexibility)
Many calendars default of events of one-hour. But not everything needs to be so. Meetings, especially are defined in hour-blocks, but more can be gained from a well-planned 25-minute meeting than a one-hour session that fits neatly into a square on the screen. Viewing tasks in hour-blocks has a tendency of devaluing the individual minutes available to us, and leads to things taking longer than they should: basically proving Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fil the time available.”
- Use the power of recurring events (Regularity)
If you want to get some focused work done, set it as a recurring activity on your calendar. If it takes you two hours per day to deal with email, set that as a recurring activity, too. If you are trying to work on a long-term project, set a recurring activity of half an hour per day and work on a small part of it daily. If there is a crisis every day, then set a recurring activity for that too, even if you do not know what the actual crisis will be. Do you see a pattern here? In each of these examples, it does not matter so much the start and end times of these activities, so much as the fact that they proactively stake their claim upon the landscape of your day. If a crisis happens every day, then it is not a surprise. But by reserving the time for it now, you will not have to put other things aside to deal with it. If the crisis happens at 10:00 a.m., or at 2;47 p.m., you can drag the “crisis appointment” on your calendar to the appropriate start time, like a game of Tetris.
- Keep your calendar up-to-date (Maintenance)
One of the key responsibilities of a professional project manager is to ensure that a project plan is updated and reflects changes in real time. The same thing applies to individuals; by ensuring your calendar is kept up-to-date, which means, for example, taking the time to retroactively update an appointment that ran over-long, scheduling follow-ups for activities, or assigning time for ToDo’s, is not a bureaucratic exercise in record-keeping; it is instead a proactive exercise in ensuring that you own the calendar, and that it does not own you. You can make decisions, and you can negotiate alternatives, but only when you have a solid understanding of your priorities that is both current and physically nearby.
- Don’t lose it (Backup)
Because a calendar is so important, not only for what lies ahead but also to explain, understand and perhaps account for your actions in the past (to yourself, your boss or your customers), its loss could be devastating. If you are using an online calendar, make sure to download and print or backup the data regularly. If a phone or wireless device is your key tool, then ensure your calendar either lives on or is backed up to the cloud, to avoid catastrophe if the device gets lost or broken. And if you prefer to use a paper-based day planner, delegate someone to make a photocopy of it regularly.
Ultimately these rules are merely suggestions, intended to help people reverse the ownership relationship between themselves and their calendars. It is your time, after all and your calendar should there to help you.