The Working With… Podcast

How To Use Your Calendar To Maximise Your Productivity

November 18, 2019

This week’s question is all about using your calendar and how and why your calendar is your number one productivity tool



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Episode 109

Hello and welcome to episode 109 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

Before we get to the question, I’d like to let you know that if you are in the Apple ecosystem, I am currently running a special series of videos on my YouTube channel showing how to get the most out of Apple’s productivity apps as well as iCloud. 

And if you want to learn how to build your very own productivity system using only Apple’s suite of apps, then I have updated my Create Your Own Apple Productivity System course which will show you how to build a system designed for you and the unique way in which you work. 

Details of all these are in the show notes.

Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This weeks question comes from Tiago. Tiago asks: Hi Carl, I work on customer service and sometimes is difficult to lead with interruptions and emergencies from clients, colleagues and my boss. Do you have some tips for using my calendar appropriately to do my tasks and projects to get more work done?

Thank you, Tiago for your question. Now, this is something I believe strongly about - that is your most important productivity tool is not your to-do list, notes app or any other app. It’s the plain simple calendar. That’s because your calendar is the one app that tells you the truth about how much time you have each day. Your to-do list does not do that. Your to-do list is a list of tasks you need to complete. 

More often than not, most people overestimate what they are capable of each day and find they have to reschedule tasks every day. The irony is when they do that a lot of people give up with to-do lists believing it’s the to-do lists fault not realising it is they who put tasks into a to-do list and a simple fix for constantly having to reschedule tasks is to not put so many tasks into the list in the first place. Basically get realistic. 

Okay, so let's get back to the calendar. Why is it the most powerful productivity tool for you?

Well, firstly it shows you only the time you have available each day. Those precious 24 hours. You cannot change that and you cannot change the need for sleep, food and water. Those are the non-negotiables of life. You can try and squeeze time out of your sleep and eating time if you want, but you would only be damaging your health and well-being and it would unlikely lead to any improvement in the amount of quality of work you get done anyway. 

Okay, so how do you use your calendar to maximise your productivity?

First up begin with the weekly review. This is where you can take a long-view of your calendar and see what time you have available in the week. Let’s say, for example, you have a training day on Wednesday and on Friday you are out of the office on a site visit. This means you have lost two ‘normal’ working days. So those two days are scheduled off and you would be wise not to add anything extra in those days. 

This leaves you with three normal office workdays. Now, you may have a number of meetings to attend on some of those days, a conference call or two and various other non-negotiables. These all get put on your calendar first. They are, after all, non-negotiable. 

Once you have all your non-negotiables on your calendar you can see how much time you have left. You can see the gaps. That’s what you have to do your regular tasks and project work. 

Now if you are like most people you are going to discover you are looking at one to three hours each working day—not much more than that. You’ve probably felt you had eight hours. No, you don't, not when you take into account your daily meetings and other commitments. 

This is why using your calendar as your foundational productivity tool makes sense. Your task list is just that—a list of tasks all with different time requirements. Looking at your to-do list is not going to tell you how much time you need for each task. Even if you label tasks with time estimates, they are only estimates. And while you can really only estimate how long something will take on your calendar at least when you do add something to your calendar you are blocking the time out to do that task. If that takes longer than the time you allocated you can allocate additional time later. 

Review all your projects and areas of focus so you know what you need to work on next week. Make sure your meetings and commitments are on there first including your travel times (it’s amazing how many forget that part) then schedule out your project work. 

Don’t be too specific here. Let’s say you have a ninety-minute block on Tuesday morning. All you need to do is write in “Work on project X”, then when Tuesday morning comes along you see that on your calendar and you can open your to-do list at that project and begin work. 

Now, It does depend on what kind of work you do how you do this. If you’re a writer perhaps you could just write in “Writing time” and when you do your daily planning the night before you decide what you will write the next day. The key is to be general and not specific. You want to build flexibility into your calendar where possible. Just because you have control of your calendar does not mean emergencies and crises will not happen. 

Once you have your work into your calendar next up take a look at your personal life. What are your plans for the evenings and weekends? Now here’s a very powerful trick if you are struggling to find time for exercise each week. Schedule your exercise time on your calendar. I see a lot of people scheduling exercise on their to-do lists and this does not work. 

It doesn’t work because a lot of what we put on our to-do lists are ‘hope to do’ tasks and so at the end of the day, when you’ve been hit with the realities of the world, it’s likely you are not going to feel much like doing exercise. When it’s on a to-do list it’s too easy to ignore it and find excuses like “I don’t have time”. When it’s on your calendar you see it when you plan your day and you are mentally prepared to do it at the time to you have assigned and of course, you cannot use the excuse “I don’t have time”. 

Okay, so now you have your calendar organised at a weekly level. This is like the big-picture view of your week. Now you need a daily review. This is where you spend ten to twenty minutes before you finish your day to process the work you have collected through the day - organise it where it needs to go - and look at your calendar to see what the day looks like for tomorrow. Often meetings that were scheduled have been cancelled, or you have new meetings to attend. A lot can change throughout the week that will knock your initial plans off. That’s okay. That’s just life. 

This is why the daily review is important. Look at your calendar, decide what you have to do tomorrow and make sure you have a block of time to get your important project work done. Now whether you are in customer service or any other kind of work, you still need to find blocks of time to do your focused work. Thirty minutes, if that’s all you have, is better than nothing. 

You will find even at a daily level you will have to move a few tasks around. That’s perfectly fine. You need not worry. As long as you are doing your daily review you will always be on top of what you have to do because you are making daily decisions about what you want to work on. 

So, a daily review means you review your calendar for events you have planned for tomorrow. You review your to-do list for the tasks you have assigned for tomorrow and based on the amount of time you have available for tasks tomorrow you can reschedule your tasks or add tasks accordingly. 

Remember, you only have twenty-four hours each day. That’s why your calendar is the most important tool it shows you how to fit everything you have to do into those twenty-four hours. 

It also stops you from procrastinating. If you see you have thirty minutes between 9 AM and 9:30 AM to do some focused work and you waste that time thinking about what to do, you will know you have just wasted thirty minutes. This is why planning what you want to do the day before is so important. It prevents you from procrastinating and it stops you from wasting valuable time. You start the day knowing exactly how much time you have and what you want to get accomplished in that time. You don’t have time to procrastinate and you will see you don’t have any time to waste. 

Finally, I would always suggest you schedule R&R time (rest and relaxation) It’s very easy to get caught up in work, to over schedule work on your calendar. I’ve done this a lot and it is not pleasant. Block time off for rest. You do not need to micro-manage your rest time. All you need is a block that just says “rest” or “R&R”. Then you decide in the moment what you want to do with that time. For me, Friday evenings between 6:00 pm and 10 pm are always blocked for R&R, so is Sunday evenings too… Generally. 

And that really all there is to it. Make sure you schedule you big-picture stuff on a weekly level when you do your weekly review and then do a quick daily update when you do your daily review—and that’s only ten to twenty minutes at the end of the day—to make sure you are taking in to account any changes to your priorities that may come in on a daily basis. 

I hope that has helped a little, Tiago. Thank you for your question. And thank you to all of you for listening. Don’t forget, if you have a question you would like answering on this podcast just send your question in via email - - or you can DM me on Facebook or Twitter. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.