Harness the dark power of your calendar!

Published: August 3, 2020

On my calendar, there are two different sorts of events; the first is the ‘let’s pencil it in’ event – mentioned briefly by a friend or family member and pencilled in the diary as a ‘save the date’.  The other sort of event is written in pen, possibly underlined or in capitals, and maybe even highlighted, and such events will only be missed in the event of fire, flood or plague. A fellow VA I know crossed the Solent earlier this year (on a ferry, not swimming) in the middle of Storm Dennis, because the event she was heading for was IN THE DIARY. I’ve been known to venture into London in a blizzard for a business event had been in the diary for months, and a few (read: a lot) of cancelled trains weren’t going to stop me!

My point is this – what kind of dark magic do calendars hold that makes us so unwilling to move against them? And how can we harness this power to boost the effectiveness of our to-do lists and help us finally complete those few lingering, miserable tasks that are always half-heartedly scribbled at the bottom of your to-do list that you know you are never going to get round to…

Why not combine the two? Calendar and to-do list, hand in hand – the perfect productivity marriage!  I’m not talking year-to-view calendar here, you need a day or week-to view calendar for maximum effect (if you’re going for a paper calendar, it obviously doesn’t matter quite so much if you’re working on Google Calendar or equivalent).  My recommendation is to start planning a week in advance, as the likelihood is that your schedule will need tweaking a little if you over/underestimate the amount of time required for specific tasks at first.

So what should you include in your calendar?

–       Start and finish time: I know that this sounds a little silly, but putting in place firm work/life boundaries can be a useful way of signalling to yourself that it’s nearly time to ‘switch off’.  Downtime is incredibly important to help ensure you’re firing on all cylinders and that your creativity is at its peak – things that help you to be as effective and efficient as possible.  There are obviously days when you’ll have to work longer, and days when you might feel like finishing early to get away from the office, but having general start and finish times can be helpful.

–       Breaks – including lunch: How many of us sit down to a task and then, 6 hours later, realise we haven’t eaten/drunk/moved/used the bathroom? Staying hydrated, eating nutritious meals/snacks, taking a break from the screen regularly to rest your eyes and stretch your body – all of these things are required to keep you physically well, and although I can completely understand how easily it is to overlook them, it becomes much harder when it’s written in pen (and underlined and highlighted).

–       Fitness/wellbeing activities – the whole ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ thing is real. Everyone needs the opportunity to get out in nature for a walk, book a complementary therapy treatment, pop down to the gym/swimming pool, etc. Why not try putting it in the diary as a non-negotiable rather than have it on a weekly wish list?

–       Family/Friends only time – you can make time for your dentist appointment, to take the car in for it’s MOT, and to see the bank manager for a financial review, so why not make time for things that are actually fun? In this post-lockdown world, so many of us have realised the often overlooked importance of time with loved ones for our mental and physical health and wellbeing, so make sure it’s on the calendar. In pen.

–       Chores that need to be done – if you’ve got a set time for specific chores, it does make it slightly less likely that you will sit down to some challenging client work that requires intense focus and maximum brain power and suddenly decide to mow the lawn or paint the bathroom. Why not try setting aside a little time every day specifically for your must-do chores?

–       Client work time – I like to chunk up my working day into pomodoros: chunks of 25 minute activities followed by a 5-minute break (with a slightly longer 15-minute break after I have finished 4 pomodoros).  This kind of chunking allows me to maintain focus and energy when it comes to particular tasks – it may end up taking 5 or 6 pomodoros (or more) to complete some tasks, but they seem much more manageable if I’ve only got 25 minutes of intensive working to look forward to, rather than hours upon hours of relentless activity.  With client work, you can either just label your customer specific work time generically as ‘client work’, or if you are planning on a week-by-week basis you can incorporate specific tasks that you hope to complete each day that fit into the allotted time. It’s important to note that some things can take longer than expected and may push other tasks back, so allow for some flexibility in this – and above all, be realistic!

–       Email answering time – the constant ‘pinging’ of alerts from emails and apps can be incredibly distracting when you’re trying to concentrate on a specific task, so formalising a specific time each day (perhaps 11AM or 4PM?) to review and respond to emails could help you to avoid the black hole of your inbox. It can also help to set boundaries with clients, who won’t then expect you to respond immediately and will know that if it’s urgent then it’s probably best to phone instead!

–       Planning time – though you might not want to book in some time every week for business related planning, why not schedule in a morning/afternoon a quarter to review your business and what’s going well (and what’s not going quite so well!).  Make it an event by going to a nice coffee shop or café and carrying out your review there, away from all of the distractions of your office.

–       Marketing time – Why not schedule in an hour a week (in pen!) for social media marketing and/or blog writing? It could really help keep your marketing consistent, as for many people this is one of those tasks that is often right at the bottom of their weekly to-do list, and as such is often missed or overlooked. 

Apparently, making a formal plan like this can really help to reduce stress levels (even if you don’t actually ever complete the tasks!).  Florida State University Researchers showed that the Zeigarnik effect—the stressful conscious and unconscious thoughts caused by unfinished tasks—could be overcome simply by making a plan to accomplish a task. So rip up your to-do list and formalise your planning, in pen, in your calendar. It really could help boost your productivity and help with your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, which is always a bonus.