If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t get done. We’ve talked a lot about productivity lately and how to deal with being busy. One of the greatest productivity tools is the calendar. It’s also the most poorly used.
Successful people don’t manage a to-do list, they manage their calendar. Things to do are infinite, but the time to do them is very finite. So it’s more effective to manage the limited resource—time.
Essentially, if it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t get done. So kill your to-do list.
Why The Calendar Works
Working from a calendar instead of a to-do list is effective because we tend to give priority to something when it’s on the calendar. That’s how meetings work. You put a meeting on your calendar and suddenly it’s immovable. All your other work flows around it.
So why not treat your work the same way? Put your work on the calendar and let everything else flow around it. You can’t take that meeting tomorrow because you’re planning to get a project done.
Putting to-dos on your calendar is a way to prioritize your work over other meetings, distractions—even dentist appointments.
The reality is that 41% of tasks on a to-do list never get done. Put it on your calendar instead.
“Rarely will I do anything during the work week that’s not on my calendar. This doesn’t mean I’m not flexible. After all, things do come up that aren’t planned, so I try to build flex time in between events, but I try hard to adhere to the calendar I plan out at the beginning of each week.” –Tom McFarlin
Clarity About Your Schedule
The best part about putting your to-do list on the calendar is you can see how much time it’s going to take. A to-do list doesn’t give you any sense of the time required or the priority, and that can be a real challenge.
But when you lay out all your projects on the calendar, it gives you clarity about how much you have to do and when you’re going to get it done.
Now that might make you realize you’re overworked and you’re not going to hit some deadlines. Or it might make you realize you’re not busy and you should focus on drumming up more work. Depending on where you’re at, those things could be encouraging or they could be frightening. But at least you know. That’s something your to-do list never told you.
Using your calendar this way can create a path through the busyness and help you hit deadlines and stay on task.
But for it to work, you have to put everything on your calendar. You don’t want surprises to throw everything out of whack. You also don’t work eight hours a day. You stop for lunch. You take a bathroom break. You check social media. You let the dog out.
So schedule all of it:
- Schedule all the work projects you’re doing.
- Schedule the regular tasks you do that are part of work but not related to client projects: Billing, email, phone calls, marketing, taxes, etc. Some might happen daily, others weekly. But make sure they’re on the calendar.
- You schedule your meetings, sure, but do you include any travel time, debriefing after the meeting and the inevitability of meetings going long?
- This isn’t all about work: Schedule your exercise. Put it on the calendar and make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
- Do you realize how much time social media takes up? Is it worth it? Putting it on the calendar forces you to realize how much time it eats up and make a clear decision about whether or not it’s worth it.
- Schedule breaks. Whether it’s lunch or stepping outside for a few minutes of fresh air, make sure you put it on the calendar. Or at least leave open space for it.
Most Important Things
The reason using a calendar works is because we give priority to things with a deadline. Sometimes that means we’re focused on minor tasks that have deadlines, while the more important projects never get started because they don’t have a hard and fast deadline.
So as you add things to your calendar, you need to give priority to the most important tasks. Block off a morning to start on that big project, even if it doesn’t have a firm deadline. Set aside big chunks of time for the stuff that matters, and let the smaller things like checking email and social media fill in the gaps.
At the end of the day, making progress on a big project is more important than checking your email. It may not always feel that way, but try it. The world won’t end if you go one day without checking email.
And the things you give priority don’t always have to be work projects. Your calendar should reflect what you value.
Think Long Term
If you really want to get control of your schedule, you need to think long term. You can’t just focus on today and tomorrow. You need to have a long view of how your important priorities will get done.
“People don’t look at the larger picture with their time and schedule. I know each day what I’m doing with each hour of the day. I know each week what I’m doing with each day of the week and I know each month what I’m doing with each week of the month.” –Cal Netwon
This is how you get past the tyranny of unimportant but urgent tasks.
Look beyond today and tomorrow, and plan for the long term. If you want to launch a new project or make a change, the long term view can help you get there. Put your project launch date on the calendar six months from now and work backward. You’ll quickly see how realistic you’re being and what you need to do today, tomorrow and next week to meet your goal six months down the road.
Make sure there is open space on your calendar. Projects often take longer than you think they will. We tend to be optimistic about how much we can get done. Having some open space makes it easier to shuffle things around and stay on track.
You don’t need to be super strict about your calendar or hyper-organize every moment of your day. Things will flex and you’ll need to shift your schedule around. That’s OK.
At the beginning and end of each day, take a look at your calendar and adjust accordingly. You might find things you didn’t get to that you need to push to tomorrow. You might have new priorities you need to work in, so something has to go.
It’s OK to shuffle things around. Moving items around on your calendar is not failure. It might mean you’re being too optimistic about what you can get done and you need to give yourself more time. It might mean you have a few pesky, low-priority tasks that you keep putting off. If they’re that unimportant, maybe they’re not worth doing.
At any rate, shuffling your calendar just means you’re being flexible and accommodating the important work you need to do.
The best part about this approach is that you can pack your calendar with the things you’d love to do but you never take time for:
- Brainstorming retreats
- Networking lunches
- Reading and research
- Training, learning and improving your skills
Too often we say we’ll do these things on a distant “some day” that never materializes. But by putting it on your calendar you make room for it to actually happen.
And you can still be realistic. If you’ve got a busy week and you’re not getting everything done, maybe you need to skip that brainstorming session at the park and push it back to next week.
Even if you don’t get to it one week, having it on the calendar means it’s much more likely you will eventually get to it than if you just dream about doing it.
Embrace Your Calendar
So give up on your to-do list and embrace the calendar. Schedule your life.
It doesn’t mean you’re chained to a schedule and you can’t change. It just means you’re more intentional about what you do when. Take advantage of your most productive times of the day. Tackle big projects early. Plan some downtime.
If it’s not on your calendar, it won’t get done.
So put it on your calendar.
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