Calendar Use... And Abuse (Video Podcast) - Next Action Associates

In our latest Change Your Game with GTD® podcast, we discuss the use – and abuse – of calendars, and cover the best practices of calendar and diary management using the Getting Things Done® methodology.

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0:00:04.8 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here as always with Robert Peake.

0:00:13.6 Robert Peake: Hello.

0:00:14.3 TB: Our goal in these podcasts is to help you to realize the promise of the GTD methodology, which is that you get more of the right things done in less time and with less stress. And our conversations over the many, many years that we’ve been doing this and with the various guests that we’ve had on, has really had that in mind. How can we help you to, yes, be more productive, yes, to be more effective and efficient, but do that in ways which ensure that you have the right kind of balance in your life and that when you wanna shut off from your professional responsibilities or from the world in general, that you’re able to do that. So that’s what our goal is.

0:00:49.9 TB: I remembered as you and I were talking, just before you hit record here, we were talking about what we talk about today, as we generally do in preparation for these sessions, and what we were talking about was calendar use and abuse, I think was the tagline we came up with. And I think it’s timely. I think the new year, with a new year come a lot of people thinking about, “How can I use my system differently? How can I use the elements of my organizational tools? How can I use them maybe differently and more effectively?” What are your initial thoughts about what do you see out there in the world in terms of the clients that you’re working with and your colleagues, I suppose, in your own practice, in terms of things that work well, things that don’t work well? What’s your perspective on this?

0:01:31.6 RP: Yeah, well, I think one of the things I’ve noticed or come to realize over the years, is that for so many people, the calendar is their very first trusted system, that’s the very first place where they realize that externalizing and structuring this element of their life, called what happens in time is necessary, it’s absolutely critical. I joke you don’t have 365 slots in your head, times 24 hours, times however many years you’re gonna be around, to keep all this stuff. So it’s a real realization that, “Oh wow, the calendar really works for time-based stuff, as long as I engage with it appropriately.” So a lot of the principles that we teach in relation to lists apply or can be derived out of your existing habits with Calendar. But I think part of the reason we wanted to talk about use and abuse is that as a result, I think as a direct consequence of this being the first system where you have established rituals and habits of looking forward and backward in it, of reviewing it each day, of being in and out of Calendar in relation to email as well. As a result, people can over-rely on the calendar or rely on the calendar in ways that actually it might have been more helpful to have it on a list or on both.

0:02:56.3 RP: So just at a high level, I think it’s important to realize that the calendar for many people got you here to being interested in the GTD methodology, but it won’t necessarily get you there from here. You can’t get there from here, as the expression goes. If you really want to build out a much more robust and comprehensive inventory of your commitments, if you really wanna, as you said in the opening, I love that, realize more of the promise of GTD and what’s possible. So that’s just my framing, my lead out thought on it. What about you, Todd? You’ve seen a lot as well in terms of people using and abusing.

0:03:42.7 TB: Yeah, and I’d echo what you said about the fact that there is an awful lot. I think based on what you’ve said that people… It’s the first organizational tool that most people have. I think back to my own… To my own, like to my days in education, my university days, and I think, “Yeah, I had a calendar,” back in those days it was a paper calendar, but I had a calendar before I had really anything else. And then as time goes by, I think a lot of people then, of course, supplement that with certain kinds of lists and things. But the calendar for everybody is a core… Is really a core element. And so, yeah, I’ve seen an awful lot of people use the calendar to hold on to information, which is really not optimal in the sense that… What’s a calendar good at? A calendar is good at reminding you about time-based things. Things that are important at a particular point in time. And I think for a lot of people where the lines get blurred is that because, as you’ve implied there, because they trust their calendar, they know that their calendar is a trusted source of information.

0:04:47.5 TB: And they sort of explode that idea and they say, “Well, okay, if that’s the case, if I have this sort of sense of trust of my calendar, then I can use it for all kinds of things, right? Not just time-based reminders, but also all kinds of other things as well. So yeah, these three things that I need to do that they’re not particularly time sensitive, they’re just three things I need to do, I keep them in my calendar. Why? Well, I’m gonna look at my calendar. So if I put them there, then I won’t lose them,” sort of goes the basic mindset. But of course, the problem with that is, at scale, if you really start to lean on your calendar as the location for not just your time-based reminders, but also some other sets of reminders that aren’t particularly time-sensitive, then the problem is that you get reminded about things when it’s not helpful. And of course, that’s one of the big no-nos in GTD, is ideally you wanna be reminded about things when it’s helpful. I’m getting ready to go into a meeting with the boss. In that moment, what do I wanna be reminded about? The things I need to talk to the boss about or maybe the things I’m waiting for the boss to do for me.

0:05:55.0 TB: So the point of the point of reminding corresponds to the time at which that information is most valuable to me. And if you’re storing lots of miscellaneous things in your calendar, then you’re being reminded when it’s not helpful. And you see you’ve blocked out 30 minutes with these three things you need to do, you open that up, you realize, “Well, no, not on whatever basis, that’s not really the right thing for me right now, those are not the right things for me to focus on right now.” And you close it, maybe you drag that half hour time entry into the next day or into the day after that, you look at it at that point, and then you’ll open it up and you’ll go, “Well, is now the time? Well, no, maybe not.” Right? So again, I think it’s a… And we’re talking black belt stuff here. We’re talking, What’s your goal? If your goal is, yeah, I really wanna be as effective and efficient as possible, then I’m gonna wanna drive those kinds of things out of my life. I don’t wanna be reminded about things when it’s not helpful. So yeah, I’m with you. I think there’s a lot of it out there, and there are a lot of people who are using their calendars in less than helpful ways. Absolutely.

0:07:02.1 RP: Yeah, absolutely. And as you say, there’s a risk of being reminded of things when it’s not helpful or appropriate. I’ve seen an even greater risk or danger or sub-optimal behavior in that by forcing things that don’t have to be time-based into time-based slots, people then actually hold themselves to that as though that’s a really a hard commitment, rather than a kind of want to level commitment. And suddenly you’re greatly decreasing your flexibility overall, by pretending something has to be done at a certain time, that doesn’t necessarily have to be done at a certain time. You’re disciplining yourself, but in a way that’s almost like not necessary, it’s almost like doing bad yoga poses. You’re flexing the wrong… Yes, you’re holding the pose, you’re being very disciplined, but that’s actually not good for you, not good for your body. So you’re expending energy in ways that are less flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. And of course, the reason people do this, just as you said, Todd, is that they trust that they’ll look at it at least, right?

0:08:13.1 RP: So with GTD, I think one of the keys is creating the habit of really being able to be in touch with your lists effectively, just as you are with your calendar, so that you can trust that you don’t have to make non-time-specific things, time-specific, either as an annoyance or as a sub-optimization potentially of what you’re doing when, in order to know that you’re gonna catch that stuff, in order to know that you’re gonna give it, as we say, appropriate attention, which is one of the fundamental goals. One of the biggest promises I think of GTD, as you put it, is that you can give appropriate attention to the right things at the right time.

0:08:57.6 RP: So not all next actions are time-based. Some next actions are, however, I need to just put in some concerted time and do a couple of hours of thinking about this thing before the meeting, and it needs to happen on Thursday. Great. Calendar is designed for that, as well as for meetings and for other reminders. And projects are not deadlines. I think this is another one people really fall into as a trap. The project itself, the project outcome, is something that you could always accomplish before the deadline. So by its very nature, representing a deadline in the calendar usually is insufficient. Usually what most people that are really wanting to optimize what they’re doing will do is create a more comprehensive project list, and then some next actions may be calendar-based, some next actions may not. You may also want to set up intermediary reminders or even milestones, that’s perfectly fine to track in a time-based way. But projects are not deadlines and not all next actions are appropriately time-based. I think those are two of the big ones that I see people getting tripped up on.

0:10:10.8 RP: But I also wanna talk about calendar use rather than just abuse too. So what does belong on a calendar? What is appropriate? How do you use your calendar effectively, Todd? What are some of the ways you’ve found that the calendar really works for you in concert with GTD, not just as your only tool, but as part of a bigger system?

0:10:28.6 TB: Yeah, I think my own practice, I think, broadly aligns with what we recommend, and that is that there are three types of things in my calendar if you look at my calendar. There are what we call time-specific actions, things I need to do on a particular day at a particular time. This session with you is a good example of this. So I have in my calendar this morning, 9 o’clock record the podcast with Robert. So that’s an example of something that happens on a particular day at a particular time. The second sort of type of thing that you’ll find in my calendar is day-specific actions, so things that need to happen on a particular day, but at any time on that day. And these tend to have the flavor of, I’ve made a commitment to somebody to do something on a particular day. It doesn’t have to happen at any particular time. I said to one of our colleagues and the associates network, “Listen, I’ll give you a call on Monday about that.” Monday any time is fine. It doesn’t have to be at a particular time, but Monday is the commitment that I’ve made. So I wanna make sure that that information is available to me in my calendar, those day-specific actions.

0:11:43.4 TB: And then the third family of things, and this is where I think there’s a little bit of overlap with what you were just talking about, is what we call day-specific information. And day-specific information, it’s sort of like day-specific reference. What do I wanna be reminded about on that day? Not particularly actionable stuff. It might inspire some action, but it’s just information about things that are relevant to that day. So a good example of that, a very, very common example of that, would be people’s birthdays. If there’s somebody in your life that you wanna celebrate their birthday in the form of a card or a party or a bottle of something or whatever, then having something in your calendar that reminds you that that date is coming up is not a bad idea. Thinking about it though in terms of how it overlaps with what you were talking about earlier. Another thing, another very common form of day-specific information, which I think is something that everybody is interested in, is, Hey, what’s due today? What do I need to get done by today? Now, and it’s not the same as I need to do this at a particular time, it’s just, Hey, I’ve made a commitment that this gets done by today.

0:12:55.3 TB: I was on a phone call with a client or on a Zoom call with a client, I made a commitment to send them the proposal by the end of the week. Okay, I wanna make sure that I hit that deadline. So this sort of day-specific information, I think, includes in many cases those kinds of things. And I absolutely… I think one of the things that happens in our seminars and in the work that we do is when we introduce these ideas of these non-calendar lists, if you will, so all of these other lists, some people get quite nervous, because what they say is, “Well, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that nothing’s gonna go on my calendar, very few things are gonna go on my calendar, and everything’s gonna go on my lists, and therefore I’m gonna start to forget things.” And so I think it’s really… And of course, we do do reassure people, that’s absolutely not the case. GTD is hugely practical in all kinds of ways. And if it were falling down in its ability, if your system were falling down in its ability to remind you about things like due dates, then we’d have a big problem. So yeah, a good organizational system will definitely have some sort of an ability in the calendar to let you know when things are due.

0:14:08.8 RP: Pretty important. People like to converge on agreed dates. And you know the question, who will do what, or often, who will do what by when, is a great question to ask in meetings and other things. Although people can also artificially use deadlines to try and force the issue if they don’t have other ways of more asynchronously tracking progress. So yeah, absolutely agree that those day-specific reminders. To me, I think of them broadly in two camps: Stuff I might wanna know, which is optional, and stuff that’s giving me important information in the lead up to it about what I might really want to do in advance of that day. Susie’s out on Thursday, nothing to prepare for. Mom’s birthday might be someone to prepare for. Or a deadline is in a way just a day-specific reminder, but in relation to a particular project that’s already active as a commitment for you.

0:15:08.4 RP: So one of the things I do to differentiate between, this is just my personal quirk, between the more optional type stuff that might be a reminder and the more actionable type stuff that might be like a reminder of a deadline or something actionable or might be day-specific activity for that day, something I need to do that day or by that day, is just use a question mark. So often, “How is it going with such and such?” would be just, “Hey, I wanna check in with myself on this date about this thing.” Whereas you know, “Such and such is due.” There’s no question mark on the end of that. That tells me that this is a deadline. Or, “Do your Friday report.” That tells me it needs to be done. Versus, “Do your Friday report?” means Friday reports are optional. Do you wanna do one today? You don’t wanna do on this Friday or not? So that little, that just little thing. You can use color codes and you can use all kinds of different things to differentiate, but to me it’s been important in the calendar to be able to distinguish between I’m telling myself something actionable is going on here at the top of the calendar in the all-day area, versus this is just information for me at the top of the calendar, kind of the all-day area.

0:16:24.1 RP: But I do do a lot of that with the calendar of checking in. I like this approach for really long-term or big projects of chunking it down, which is something we do with goals and vision, that cascading approach for much longer term stuff. But even something, let’s say, a project six months out, I may have the project six months out as a deadline, and then I kinda cut it back and I go, “Okay, well, three months from now, where should I be to be on pace? And so I may just put in a reminder to self saying, “How is it going with X, Y, Z?” and in the notes field, “On pace looks like you’ve completed these three or four things.” ‘Cause I don’t have to. I could do the all thing, the whole thing at the very last minute in theory, but giving myself some kind of structure like that sometimes really helps. And then maybe a quarter of the way through, so half it and half it again, and just kind of check in with myself progressively less frequently leading up to it with what I think on track might look like. And I’ve done that a few times for bigger projects, and I find that differentiation between here’s information about generally where I think I should be, versus, Hey, here’s the hard stop where it really needs to all come together, it’s just been useful for me, just been useful for me to distinguish. I don’t know. What about you, Todd? Other thoughts on good, bad and ugly for yourself or others that you’ve seen out there, ala our friend the calendar?

0:17:46.6 TB: Yeah, it’s funny, just as you were saying that, I was reflecting on something that I heard over the holiday period just in the last couple of weeks with… There was an interview that was being done by Tim Harford, and some of you who are regular listeners to our podcast will be aware that Tim has done some… Very kindly done some work for us over the years in terms of being interviewed with David Allen and some other things. But Tim is doing something on the BBC, which is called How to Vaccinate the World, and he was interviewing Bill Gates. And Bill Gates was talking, interestingly, about his own evolution. It wasn’t specifically a program about efficiency or effectiveness or anything like that, but one of the things that Bill Gates was sharing was that one of the things that made a big difference for him was that early in his career, or when he was still in education maybe, he basically was kind of a, I’m gonna leave till the night before to get it done, I’m just gonna pull an all-nighter and get it done. And one of the early recollections… Or the early recognitions that he came to was that that just wasn’t good enough and that he started then to be more deliberate to have more of a long-term focus to do the kind of things we’re talking about today, and the things specifically that you just mentioned, checking things up and that sort of thing.

0:19:00.2 TB: So yeah, I think that’s important. The other thing, and let me get really granular and micro here, ’cause I loved your idea of the question mark. Something else that I started doing many, many years ago was keeping track of potential commitments in my calendar, and I use the same sort of mechanism. So I’ve said to the client, “Hey, I could meet you for an hour on this day, at this time, this day at this time, this day at this time,” I put all three of those in my calendar with question marks next to them, and I also will indicate in each one of those calendar entries what three days I’ve proposed simply so that after they confirm one of the three, it makes it very easy for me to go back and say, “Okay, well, I proposed the 12th, the 13th and the 19th.” I can go back to those other two days, quickly get a hold of them and delete them, and then just remove the question mark from the 12th, if that’s the date they’ve confirmed. So again, you’re talking tips and tricks, talking little tech hacks, that’s maybe something else to consider is…

0:20:00.9 TB: And at the time… I have to say, this was many, many years ago. But at the time, that was a hugely big deal, because I was sort of sending these proposed things out into the world and just sort of trusting somehow that they were going to be handled properly. And of course in technology these days, those kinds of things have handled, can be automated, in terms of sending proposals for meetings and then people can reply to them and accept them, etcetera. But yeah, that sort of little hack has made a big difference to me over time.

0:20:33.3 RP: That’s a great one. Yeah, that’s a great tip. It occurred to me as you mentioned Bill Gates and the 11th hour, that time-based planning, for me anyway, really helps me manage the reality of variable energy, variable focus over time. I think about the 11th hour stuff I did, and I was able to pull it out of the bag and do 11th hour kind of stuff at Uni. And the difference there is, in my 20s, I could very easily tank up on coffee and pull an all-nighter, and my energy or my ability to do that kind of thing was relatively consistent. I can pull it out of the bag at the last minute, and then, of course, recover thereafter from having done that. Later on in a mature lifestyle that involves really needing to take care of my energy as it varies and also meet lots of different demands in ways that I don’t have the luxury of just sleeping in late the next day necessarily means that effective calendar management for me really is being kind to my future self in recognition that I’m not always gonna be at my best, I’m not always gonna be my worst either, and that front-loading things, really thinking through in advance of where I’m gonna need to be, what I’m gonna need to see, constantly looking forward. The other big thing about utilizing the calendar well, is actually looking at it. Out of sight out of mind just never works.

0:22:11.0 RP: But looking forward, anticipating, being able to actually pace myself, for example, and say, “Okay, this big thing is coming up, this big seminar or whatever, I need to get to bed at a certain time, I need to manage different factors throughout the day using the calendar short-term and long-term to navigate the fact that circumstances are gonna change and internally and externally, and I need to be able to respond to that. I need time and lead time to be able to respond to that and prepare for that stuff effectively.”

0:22:44.6 TB: Yeah, I think as you’re talking about it, it’s one of the things, and I think once it becomes such a part of the way that you work that for a lot of people, it may be just is sort of built-in now, and they don’t have to be reminded about it. But that sort of forward review that you’re talking about in your calendar, we recommend just generally that it’s part of a weekly review. So once a week, one of the things that you’ll do as part of that review, is look forward in your calendar with an eye toward finding the kinds of things that you mentioned. So what are the commitments that are coming at me in time, and am I prepared? And if I’m not, What do I need to be doing in order to get prepared? The other thing we recommend is having to look back in your calendar for maybe a couple of weeks, every week. And the idea there is you’re just looking for… We’re on the hunt always in these kinds of reviews, I think, for un-captured open loops. Is there something that happened in the past, in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been doing meetings or whatever I’ve been doing, where there was a follow-up that I needed to do or someone else needed to do for me or whatever, that I don’t have registered in my system?

0:23:50.8 TB: And so the backward look through your calendar, in the same sort of way, can be a way that’ll help you to identify those kinds of open loops, and then you can make decisions about what needs to happen next. Do you need to create a new entry in your system about a waiting for, because somebody said they’d send you something? Maybe there was a meeting that you had scheduled that they cancelled at the last minute. Okay, well, maybe I need to drop an email to everybody and see when we can reschedule. Those kinds of things. So yeah, again, practically, what’s in your calendar is one thing and very important, how you interact with your calendar is another thing, and also I think very important. So how do you review it? We’re getting pretty close to the end of our time, Robert. Do you have any sort of top tips for people who are at the beginning of the year here, they’re thinking to themselves, “Well, I’m interested in refining my systems, I’m interested in making some changes to the way that I work,”? Anything? How would you boil down your advice to them?

0:24:53.4 RP: It’s in some ways a big topic, and I hope the first thing that people take away from all of this is that we’re not anti-calendar in the GTD model. Very much the calendar is an important part of your trusted system, and there are appropriate and optimal ways to use it. So I think one of the big things to be attuned to is, Am I appropriately representing those things I really need to see in my calendar? And part of that is, Am I appropriately not only representing but engaging with my lists so that I have two options? The truly time-specific and also the do as soon as appropriate lists, which are just generally the flat lists that don’t have a time ascribed to them.

0:25:49.0 RP: So I think you need to look at your calendar in context as a GTDer with this other important part of your system and just really see, Am I using both? Actually all three. Am I using my projects lists, my next action lists and my calendar in concert in a way that works for me? And if I feel like I’m over-relying on my calendar, which is generally what people… What we experience with people, as we’ve discussed, are there ways in which I can make better choices or create better habits in relation to my asynchronous lists, might do when appropriate lists, so that all three of those guys are really working in concert with me effectively. And the best place to do that, of course, is in the weekly review when you’re thinking at that meta-level about how your system works. Todd, what do you think? What did I miss there?

0:26:37.5 TB: No, I didn’t think you missed anything. I was just thinking that it is, in some ways, I think it is a very important part of the journey that a lot of people go on as they’re getting involved in this methodology and how it might help them, and that’s thinking about what are the elements of an organizational system that I need and that would be most helpful to me? And I think being open to the possibility that I might not be using my calendar in the most effective way is a big thing. And therefore, the information, some of the information that I’m currently storing in my calendar really would more helpfully live somewhere else in my system. And then being able to figure out what that information is, where else it’s gonna go, and very importantly, making sure that I’m engaging with that new location, it’s a different list or whatever it is, in such a way that I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. So in other words, I end up trusting that list as much as I trust my calendar to remind me about the things that I want to be reminded about. I think that’s pretty common. This kind of… People expand their thinking about what a good organizational system looks like, what kinds of elements that it has and how it can best be configured to support them. Yeah, I think that’s important.

0:28:00.0 TB: Well, thank you all for being with us today, on this Change Your Game with GTD podcast. As always, please do be in touch. It’s the New Year. Some of you are going to be thinking about how do you refine your ways of working, how do you make this year even more successful than last year. I know a lot of us have had a very tough 2020, and we’re here to help you as far as we can in terms of making 2021 more stress-free, more friction-free and more successful. Please do be in touch. Let us know. As we always say, we love to take requests if there are any topics that you think that we can be helpful by discussing, we’d be very happy to do that. But for now, for me and for Robert, thank you. Be well and we look forward to seeing you next time.

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