Saturday, September 16, 2017

Using the Calendar to Organize Your Life




One of the on-going themes within my blog has been focused on time management. Both at work and at home, I find that whenever I get behind or feel overwhelmed, my fall back position is to get organized. Where I may have originally started with a long to-do list, today my first stop is the calendar.

At work, I have recently taken the stance of introducing our team to the calendar concept and we are seeing some great results. With that written, I thought that some of you may also find value in learning the secrets behind my madness. In this article, I will share how I use the calendar to organize my life.

Building Blocks of the Calendar

Where to Begin? The Basics.

To begin this journey of organization, we have to start with the basics. In our case, the basics involve a simple calendar. We can't talk about a calendar if you don't have one to play with. It can be digital, as in Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar. It can be on the desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or a mobile phone. As long as your solution resembles a true to life calendar and allows you to create events within it, you should be good to go.

For those who are reading this article and prefer to use a paper calendar, I would ask that you lean more toward a daily planner than the large desk sized calendar. While it may be spacious, you will need room to block off time in at least 30 minute increments.

Events

When I first started using a calendar, its main purpose was to track upcoming events. Typically, I would add meetings, doctor appointments, due dates for projects, birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. Based on my observation, this is how  many people use on their calendars. If this is you, then I celebrate the mere fact that you are at least using the tool. It surprises me to learn how many people try to remember all of these things in their heads alone.

Tasks

When it comes to remembering to-do items, many people think of a Task Sheet. Essentially, it is a list of items that we want or need to accomplish. Years ago, I used to create my to-do lists in a notebook and each morning I would rewrite my open tasks on a new sheet of paper. As you can imagine, it was tedious and a total waste of time. Not only that, but I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of items that I would capture each day. Personally, while I had good intentions, I think this method only further promoted my habit of procrastination. Moving forward, instead of placing tasks on a separate list, we will now place them on the calendar.

Reminders

The third item that we will add to the calendar is a reminder. Reminders can be "Save the Date" events, deadlines, or tasks with no specific timeframe. Typically, when I use reminders, these are the items that run over the course of the entire day.

Appointments

For the remainder of this article, I would like to simplify the instructions by using a single term to describe individual items that we will place on the calendar. The word I will use is "Appointments" and it will describe events, tasks, reminders, due dates, and anything else that we may want to apply.

Benefits of a Finely Tuned Calendar

Now that we have a basic understanding of the calendar and what will be captured within it, I would like offer a few benefits that I have experienced as a result. There may be a few readers who are not yet convinced that using a calendar is worth their time and energy. Hopefully, by the end of this section, you will walk away with a new appreciation for the tool. 

Improved Responsiveness and Controlled Expectations

For individuals that know me, I am sure they could attest the fact that I am a true procrastinator. While I'm still working on being responsive, I find that by scheduling appointments on the calendar, I can respond more quickly. Consider the amount of emails, phone calls, to-do items, text messages, social media messages, and research projects that others require your attention on. By knowing when I plan on completing a task, responding to an email, making a return phone call, or begin working on a project request, I can reply more quickly and control expectations.

The one request that helped me appreciate the calendar most was, my favorite, the"Honey Do List." You know the one, "Honey, can you please...[fill in the blank]?" I found that ignoring these types of requests or failing to communicate when I planned on addressing them often led to arguments and misunderstandings. For this reason alone, I found an organized calendar to be my saving grace.

Provides Direction Toward Effective Use of Time

I don't know about you, but when I have a large amount of free time, I immediately forget about the things I wanted or needed to do when I was extremely busy. As a result, I tend to default to the less productive and often wasteful activity of watching television. By creating a day's worth of appointments, we are establishing an agenda that provides direction on what we should be doing at any given moment. Leave the scatterbrain in the past and allow your mind to simply focus on right now.

Lowers Stress and Anxiety

Knowing that we have 24 hours in a day, it's impossible to do everything right now. Both my team and I have communicated extreme feelings of stress and anxiety because we used to over promise what we can do in a day. I was so frustrated one time by the overwhelming amount of work we had that I ended up just sitting at my desk doing nothing. Yeah, that was a crazy day. 

To contrast that story we found that putting detailed appointments on the calendar allowed us to better plan our work and provide a more accurate timeline. This one change alone reduced our stress levels dramatically. Writing that big report, calling your mother, or picking up groceries should all be scheduled and you can rest easy knowing that each of those items will be addressed in its own time.

Helps You to Say 'No' to Things You Don't Want to Do

If you are anything like me, then saying "NO" is one of the hardest things to do. I genuinely want to help people, but I often pay the price when I abandon my own chores to assist others with their requests. Fortunately when there is a calendar full of appointments, it becomes so much easier to form your lips and say, "I'm sorry, I would love to help you clean the gutters, unfortunately I have a day's worth of appointments I need to address. Can we do it some other time?"

Produces Higher Quality Outcomes

Multitasking is difficult to do. Trying to do two or more things at the same time often means something is going to suffer. I personally find it challenging to listen to someone talk and write a report. I either fail to give the speaker my full attention or my written words don't make any sense.  

By scheduling each appointment as a separate item, I allow myself time to focus on one thing at a time. Doing so helps promote a much higher quality outcome.

Strategies for Managing Your Calendar

By now, you should see that using the calendar is far more valuable than just recording upcoming events. In this section, I share a few of my favorite strategies.  

Keep the Calendar Full with BAMFAM (Book A Meeting, From A Meeting)

When successfully completing an appointment, make sure to book a meeting from a meeting (BAMFAM). For example, when I pay bills, I immediately go to the next month and set another appointment to pay bills. Doctors and dentists have perfected this strategy. Think back to your last appointment. As soon as you finished seeing the doctor, the receptionist is opening up the calendar and looking for the next available time to get you back in the office. If your business requires you to see customers, this strategy is golden.

In the same way that doctors BAMFAM, we should treat ourselves and our appointments similarly. As soon as you finish, look ahead in your calendar for the next available opening. For dental visits, it's every 6 months. However, you may find the project and team meetings are best done every two weeks. Whatever the interval, jump ahead and get it booked before you move on to another customer or activity.

Create Forward Motion with a Time Box

Earlier, I admitted that I am a habitual procrastinator. The hardest part for me is getting started, but I found this neat idea to be extremely helpful in getting the ball rolling.

To begin, find 30 minutes on your calendar and schedule an appointment. Agree ahead of time that you will do as much work as you possibly can within the allotted timeframe. When time is up, stop working. What you don't finish in that session, you BAMFAM to your next availability.

Take Action Now and Touch It Only Once

I am the worst when it comes to handling any kind of mail and I've been known for collecting boxes of unopened messages only to find that I missed hundreds of dollars in expired checks. Crazy right?

What I found is that when I adopt the "Touch It Once" strategy, I force myself to do one of the following things: Delete it, file it, or schedule an appointment to address it in detail. The key to making this work is that you address it as soon as it comes in. Please understand that this is not limited to just mail. It could be telephone calls, voice mail, visitors, and anything else that comes in.

Group Common Tasks by Function or Location 

As we add appointments to our calendar, we may start to see opportunities to chunk similar items together. For an example, if I know that I'm going into town tomorrow to buy groceries, I may also decide to fill up my gas tank while I'm there. Instead of wasting time doing one-off tasks, consider grouping similar items based on function and location. This could save you considerable time and money.

Finish Early? Move Forward to the Next Appointment

In the effort of scheduling appointments, I am really just estimating how long something may take to complete. As a result, there is a good chance that I will finish early. In fact, there are plenty of times that I've had to cancel the appointment all together. When this happens, don't miss the opportunity to get ahead. Consider looking at the remaining appointments on your calendar and moving it up. This won't work for everything, but it does allow you to get more done and minimizes unproductive time.

After Appointments, Schedule Down Time to Breathe and Reflect

In many of our business meetings, we take notes or collect a list of tasks. When you schedule or accept an appointment, make sure to schedule some time after the event to just breathe. I typically schedule 30 minutes, which I use to review my notes, schedule new appointments, check email, use the bathroom, or reflect on what I heard. Without these buffer times, my day could seriously be thrown out of whack because of unplanned events (i.e., visitors, bathroom breaks, conversations in the hallway, etc.).

Identify the Purpose by Adding Notes in the Description 

The more we utilize the calendar for planning, it's easy to forget why we have something scheduled. Maybe we failed to put in a descriptive title or maybe it was scheduled months in advance and now we are at a loss. To remedy this common problem, I make sure to use the description area to capture agenda items and outline the purpose of this appointment. Often, that note was all I needed to jog my memory.

Use Color to Differentiate Types of Appointments

Some calendar systems allow for different colors. In my calendar (Outlook), I find that I use a set of colors to identify meetings, to-do items, personal activities, deadlines, and announcements. As a result, I can quickly peruse my calendar to see how many meetings I have that week. Additionally, I've made it a game within the team to erase the white space (time with no appointments) and replace it with color (appointments). Color is also a great way to keep balance between appointment types.

Review Agenda and Adjust

As your calendar begins to fill up, you will want to keep a close eye on upcoming appointments. Find time once a week to look at what you were able to accomplish over the past 7 days and then look forward to see where you can adjust, if needed.

Automatically Schedule Routine Activities to Save Time

Instead of manually adding the same appointment on your calendar each day, try creating a repeating event instead. NOTE: Google Calendar calls it "Repeat" while Microsoft Outlook calls it "Recurrence."

The idea behind this is that by automating the process, your daily routine is already scheduled. All you have to do is add new appointments and trim where necessary. Remember, just because it's automatically placed on your calendar it doesn't mean you cannot move it around. Save time and automate it.

Schedule One-On-One Time With Important People to Build Relationships

While I haven't always done this, I do see the value in scheduling time with important people. At work, we call it one-on-ones. At home, I've used the term, "Date Night." Whatever you call it, the idea is to schedule time with the people that you want to spend time with. If you do it early, you aren't scrambling around after the fact, but making time for what's important. This also includes telephone calls.

I find that one-on-one's with employees, children, and my significant other has tremendous power to help ease miscommunication, plan for upcoming activities, and just connect on so many levels. When you plan ahead, learn to relax and enjoy the moment. 

It is important to note that one-on-one time can also mean time with yourself. Because we've been talking about productivity, understand that it is OK to schedule fun stuff, too. Be it time to read a good book or hang out at the pool with the family, make time for what's important.

End Distractions to Stay on Task

With a schedule in place, you will find that distractions abound. At work, it may be the unplanned visit or phone call. If not controlled, it could easily throw your entire day off track. While I haven't mastered this strategy just yet, I am actively working on it.

As potential distractions arise, learning to end a conversation or excuse yourself from an unplanned event means that you can get back to your schedule. One option is to quickly say, "Listen, I'm very interested in talking about birds, but I need to run and finish this assignment. When can we get back together and finish our discussion?" Then, in that moment, pull out your calendar and schedule it.

Additional Thoughts

While I've tried to build a case for using the calendar and offered a number of strategies to maximize the tool, I have a few closing thoughts to leave with you.

Too Complicated? Too Rigid? Ok, Feel Free to Change It!

I hear this all the time. "I could never do that," "It's just too complicated or rigid," "I like to work based on what I feel in that moment." I understand that completely, but when things aren't being completed or you feel stressed out, consider the alternative. If what you're doing works, please continue to do what you've been doing.

It is also important to note that if you follow this plan, you can always adjust. Remember, it is your calendar and you can do what you want with it. Don't feel that you're locked in, but consider it more of a tool to help you organize your life. If you need to move stuff around, delete appointments, or create space, it's OK. Do it!

Stick to Your Plan

Finally, in order for all of this to work, you have to work it. Nothing will change if you schedule appointments and ignore it. Make a mental agreement with yourself, if you put a task on the schedule or create an event, respect that task as if it were with your boss or someone important. It's a date with you. Stick to it!

Next Steps

I hope you found value with this post. If so, please leave a comment in the discussion area below and share it with someone who you think would benefit from it.

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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