How To Get The Most Out Of Your Calendar

Creative Ways To Be Intentional About Your Time

Niklas Göke
Jan 5, 2018 · 7 min read

Millions of people search for productivity advice each month. They turn to blogs, gadgets and apps when, in fact, they’re not even leveraging the full potential of a tool they already carry with them, 24/7/365: The calendar in their smartphone.

1 of every 3 people on the planet owns a smartphone, all of which come with a built-in calendar and even most of the phones we consider ‘dumb’ today have this feature. Yet, only a fraction of people use it, let alone use it deliberately.

You’re spending your time either way, but unless you’re planning how to spend it, the world will determine it for you. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The calendar on your smartphone is a free tool that’s always with you. It helps you be intentional about your time before it’s gone. Hence, it’s the most underestimated device we have almost universal access to today.

It’s Not About Meetings

A lot of people prefer and use paper calendars or a mix of up to three, both offline and digital. I’m not harping on those, but the calendar on your phone has two big advantages:

Using a calendar in general has many obvious benefits. You’ll be on time more often, forget less stuff, prepare better and fritter less time away by blowing menial tasks out of proportion. Thinking about how you use your calendar and then choosing a specific system, however, makes one more all-important difference:

You’re making a conscious effort.

The difference between someone who uses their calendar only for birthdays and funerals and someone who uses it as a systematic approach to tackle week after week is this: When it’s all said and done, one can say “at least I gave it my best shot.”

Here’s what my basic, weekly calendar setup looks like:

I’m a creative introvert, so lots of white space gives me peace of mind. There are big, fixed blocks for must-dos and some recurring tasks for administrative work, that’s it. Do I stick to this framework all the time? Absolutely not.

The point is I have a framework. I can always fall back on it and even if it doesn’t work out, I know next week, it’ll be there.

Whatever system gives you peace of mind will look totally different from mine. Hence, I’d like to show you a few I’ve tried, so you can try them or use them to configure your own.

We’ll go from more extreme to less rigid. Let’s roll!

1. The Zero-Based Calendar

Cathryn Lavery suggests accounting for every second in your day in her Self Journal planner. In this setup, the goal is to have literally zero time unaccounted for.

Here’s an example of what that could look like:

The idea is that whatever’s not on there practically doesn’t exist. So date night, exercise, hobbies, work, it all goes on there. You could color different aspects of your life differently, for example.

I tried this for a while, but it didn’t work for me, because of its two underlying assumptions:

Both are unrealistic, but there are workarounds. One, you will get better at estimating and adding buffers for unforeseen interruptions and two, if you sprinkle this with a little bit of white space, you might soon find the threshold where it works.

2. The 50% Time Buffer

This idea is from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. Basically, whatever task you put on your calendar, you insert it as usual, then extend the time allotted to it by 50%. Whether you add this time at the beginning, the end, or 25% for both, is up to you.

Imagine these:

  • For a 30-minute Skype call, you now have 45 minutes for extra questions and transitioning to the next appointment after.
  • For a 1-hour meeting, you now have 15 minutes of prep time and 15 minutes of overtime, if necessary.
  • For a 45-minute lunch, you now have a little over an hour, so no rushing and a slow walk back to the office.

Doesn’t your life already feel less hectic? 50% is great is because it’s a huge buffer, while simultaneously not blowing your calendar up until it bursts at the seems. It’s reasonable.

The better you get at estimating, the more you can tweak it and maybe bring the buffer down.

3. Schedule The Fun Stuff

Dr. Neil Fiore calls this ‘unscheduling’ in The Now Habit. Taking a more positive psychology-style approach, this prompts you to schedule the fun events you look forward to each week and then let work fill the rest as needed.

It’s suited better for solopreneurs, creatives, remote workers and people with less sequential schedules, but also for workaholics. For me, this did wonders in 2017.

Whenever someone asked me to do something fun that I wanted to do, I could just agree, set a time and start looking forward to it, knowing I’d default to working the rest of the day anyway.

4. Sell Yourself An Hour A Day

In The Snowball, his autobiography, Warren Buffett shares a great time management story about his business partner, Charlie Munger:

“Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”

When I was interning at BMW, I sold myself an hour each morning before work to write on my thesis. Last year, I wrote an answer on Quora each day for 9 months, going to over 30,000 followers.

Never underestimate the power of an hour, even 30 minutes, spent doing one thing each day. The reason Charlie did it in the morning isn’t magical either: he’d get it over with and could rest on his laurels the remainder of the day, instead of fretting about it all day long and not getting to it later.

If you make no other changes to your calendar system, please, do this. Block an hour each morning and set an alarm. Your dreams need to start compounding today.

Honorable Mentions

Some other ideas how you can tweak your schedule are:

  • Office Hours. Have a set time each week where you’re available for questions co-workers have, people who need your feedback, and anyone who wants help. “Hey, I’m here, just come and ask.” That’s one of the most powerful messages a person can send.
  • No Meeting Wednesdays. Originally created by Dustin Moskovitz and the Asana team, this is a great way of getting some quality focus time for people who spend their most time talking to other people.
  • The Rule of Three. This comes from a book called The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. It’s about thinking in three time frames: today, this week and this year. Pick three things you want to accomplish each day that help you complete three milestones each week, which will funnel into three big goals for your year. You could combine this with colored banners in your calendar, red is annual, green is weekly, blue is daily, for example.
  • The 10X Rule. This is a book about setting bigger goals by Grant Cardone, but it also includes calculating with ten times the effort needed to get there. If you scheduled 1,000 calls instead of 100 to get $10,000,000 in funding, how much more perspective would you approach the goal with?

Tony Robbins has this great story about golf: If you hit the ball just one millimeter lower or higher, you change its entire trajectory down the line. It might make the difference between a horrible run and your best game yet.

Life is like that. You tweak one behavior, one habit, one system today and you end up on an entirely new path five years from now. The calendar in your smartphone is one of those millimeters. It takes only a little bit of thinking to improve how you use it, but if you do it properly, you’re eliminating the need for lots of other gadgets in the future.

You might not need any other tool at all. At the very least, you’ll be able to say: “Yeah, I swung the club as best as I could.”

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

Writing for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists since 2014. For more personal, infrequent updates, be my email friend:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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