To do: Put your tasks in your calendar
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, yet so few of us are using it
This is a trick as old as the concept of the calendar and I have deliberately kept myself from Googling it out of fear that the shear amount of articles with this tip I am about to share would take my courage away from me.
If you are like me and many others you maintain two instruments that help you get through your work days: Your calendar and you ‘to do’ list. I have been searching for the perfect ‘to do’ list tool and have been testing quite a lot of them, but the best one so far — and the one I’m using right now — was there all along: My calendar.
A lot of people feel that meetings are merely events that keep them from getting actual work done. This has some truth to it and while I consider meetings (some of them, at least) important the probably most important work takes place between meetings. And since your calendar dictates what you need to do, where you need to be and with whom, it’s time to start using that to your advantage.
It’s so simple that I can’t believe I haven’t been doing this my entire working life: You open your calendar and you schedule time for the tasks on your ‘to do’ list! This ensures both that:
- You get the task done, because it’s right there, in your calendar with a reminder and everything, and that
- no one takes that time from you, because your calendar will tell your colleagues that you are busy at that given moment.
For me it also has a third wonderful side to it: I have to estimate how much time I want to spend on a given task. An hour? Maybe I can group these three tasks into one and get them done in 30 minutes while I’m at it?
I’ve previously written about the important distinction between the time you need to vs. want to spend on a task:
If I have any doubts, I ask my manager — or, the person who gave me the task and will await my ‘job done’.
We all know this: You run from one meeting to the next. This insane setup has many names; ‘neck to neck meetings’, ‘back to back meetings’ etc. The point is: Everybody hates them. Yet they keep happening.
I fight this in my calendar by manually adding 15 minutes (sometimes more) after a meeting where I think I might need some time to think or refocus before either returning to my work or heading for the next appointment.
But sometime it crashes. People just are unpredictable, I guess, and remarkably inconsiderate when it comes to asking colleagues to spend time with them. Whenever someone asks me to attend a meeting at the exact time that another meeting is set to end, I politely tell that person that I can’t make it and will probably be 5 to 10 minutes late.
That’s really not my fault, nor problem.
You can’t read a book or take a course on meetings without being told that being prepared is…fairly important. Yet I experience from time to time that other people in the room somehow didn’t manage to find that important time for preparation (“Woof! I’ve had the craziest day!”, “We’re we supposed to read that?”, “This is the first time I see this” and the list goes on…).
While you can’t force other people to be prepared (if only…) you can lead by example, get a better gut feeling and prepare yourself properly.
You start by asking yourself a simple question: “What do I need to do to prepare for this meeting?”
Earlier today I had a meeting where we were introduced to a tool. The company behind the tool had done a ‘User Guide’ which had been sent to us in advance. Therefore I decided that it might be a good idea to read up on it. The meeting was from 12.00 to 13.00 hours so I made a booking in my calendar from 10.00 to 11.00 hours where I could get through the guide.
This gave me an entire hour before the meeting, in case something came up, I got delayed or something else. At 10.45 I had read the manual, jotted down a few questions and was ready for the meeting — it’s best to aim high in estimates ;-)
Set aside time for research
I work in a development department. Among the items on my list are processes and ideas behind concepts. To stay on top of things like this I need to read quite a lot. My best hours, work-wise, are usually before lunch and this is also where I’m most focused — so these hours are a great time for reading up on stuff; whether it’s a Harvard Business Review article or a technical performance-related piece of documentation.
But I can’t expect my colleagues to think “oh, Lars likes to work during these hours”, so whenever I have enough to read I set aside a solid block of time for it. My favorite discipline is to do this from home: I work in a open environment where delving into an article or book is impossible; and who wants to sit in a boring meeting room with a book and a bunch of articles, when you can sit at home in your lovely chair with a cup of freshly brewed coffee?
I could never do a full day of this, though. First, I need to be around humans throughout a work day and second, it would slowly fry my brain to read and consume so much. I need to both learn and do (move things in and out of my head), so an entire day of reading on my own would be way too much ‘shut-in studying forever and not getting anything done’ for my liking.
Tools, frameworks etc.
On an end note, let me be clear: You can use whatever tool you want to maintain a ‘to do’ list. I have my tasks in Wunderlist, but when they move from ‘I have to remember this’ to ‘I need to do this’, I manually type them into my calendar. I might be able to do this via some intelligent integration between the two, but this works for me.
It’s not which kind of tools you use that matters — the most important thing is that you plan your tasks like you (and others) plan your day in your calendar. Again, this is not rocking science. Far from it.
But once you get going and have it as a routine you will ask yourself why on Earth you did not do this before. A lot of office revelations happen that way.
If you are interested in productivity ‘systems’ (not necessarily ‘software’), this article has a short introduction to some of the more popular: