Jon Dawes

JD Writes

A blog about technology, business resilience and a permanent growth mindset.

Living with the calendar for task management

This is 5 months late, so did using the calendar for to-do management help? There were some details to work out but overall, it's become my default tool.

Jon Dawes

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Header photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

I kicked this blog off 7 months ago with a post about how I planned to tackle productivity and task management, then come back and write it up in 2 months. So how did calendaring work? That 5-month gap doesn’t sound like success but 2021 took a bit of a hard left, over and above the whole pandemic thing, so a lot of life has been on hold. As it turns out, with a few refinements over time it’s been a great approach and is now my primary task management tool.

Calendaring is no panacea but I’ve found it to be a much better way of tracking to-do items. It’s definitely ended the practice of maintaining long lists of things that just never bubble to the top and get done.

The original challenge was to use calendaring as my primary to-do management and stick to it for a couple of months. Below is what I’ve found helps to make this effective and try to implement it consistently.

Tips for a successful implementation

Think about what a successful day looks like

It’s easy to start treating the calendar as a to-do list and fill it with the wrong things. Taking 5-10 minutes at the start of the day to check in on your schedule to make sure it’s got the right focus is really important. Priorities change week to week and day-to-day and you should adjust accordingly. One of the things I like is the ease with which I can move tasks around on a week or month view in outlook just by dragging them to a new time.

Think about free/busy time

The reality of corporate life and particularly a customer-facing role is that you’re not the only one trying to put things in your own calendar. I’ve developed a habit of making a conscious decision about whether something is a placeholder or blocking out focus time. I set the free/busy status of my calendar appropriately so others know what can and can’t be booked over.

Something like ‘complete expenses’ or ‘run through unread emails’ I’d tend to leave as bookable - this is easy to time shift. Something like ‘write proposal’ or ‘call customer X’ I’ll block to protect focus time. Sometimes if you’ve already got a lot in a day, you just need to block it to have any chance of getting things done.

Colour code your calendar

I’ve done this for a long time and I find it really helpful. I have a colour for to-do items and a colour for when something is complete. It gives you the ability to see what a day or week looks like at a glance. It also helps differentiate between tasks you’ve added vs meetings you’ve been invited to. You can also share this scheme with people you fully share your calendar with, assuming your calendar platform shares the colours.

Review status at end of day/week

The colour coding comes in handy here. At the end of the day and week, check on outstanding items and if they need to move forward reschedule them. I find this also takes care of those items that still sneak on the list but potentially don’t really need to be there as you won’t move them forward.

Things take longer than you think

People are notoriously bad at time estimates . My minimum entry is 30 minutes and I’ll always allocate longer than I think I need. Even still I tend to find that underestimation is more likely.

Leave sufficient slack space

In my original post I mentioned the idea that an 8-hour workday really only has about 5 productive hours in it. If you’ve got to deal with incoming phone calls, last-minute meetings and addressing email in a same-day fashion, you need slack to allow for that to happen.

I’ve chosen to leave blanks of 15-30m all through my day, as my job brings lots of small interruptions throughout. If you can park and batch these up, such as emails and IM chats, then just adding admin blocks as to-do items may make more sense.

Returning to the Bullet Journal

I’ve recently gone back to a very basic form of bullet journal . This is a whole methodology on its own and I’ve previously used it all in, both with paper and digital notebooks. Overall though I found I fell into the usual to-do list traps and just made longs lists that never got completed.

Having pushed a lot of my organisation into the calendar, I’ve re-embraced it with a long term focus built around 90, 30 and one day views. For now, it’s in a paper notebook.

My journal has a page where I’ve documented my 90-day goals . I like to have 3 career-based and 3 personal goals. I’ve then created a simple monthly page which has:

  • Top 3 achievements of last month - starting by writing something positive really helps the mindset as you think about the month ahead
  • What this month’s focus is to achieve the 90-day goals - For instance, I currently have a 90 goal to get 4 blog posts finished, which is translated into a goal for this month of one post, and here it is!
  • A ‘this month’ list where I can park tasks, notes or anything else I want to refer back to. This doesn’t get used much.

Most mornings I then create a daily entry. These aren’t whole pages, I just note the date and take 5-10 minutes to look at the 90 and 30-day views, look at the calendar, and note the 3 key things I want to achieve that day. During the day I may then use that space for notes, writing things down I want to remember or refer back to. Generally, it’s just a couple of lines and a trigger to consciously think about the day’s focus.

The journal is definitely not about managing to-do items, but creating a long term view and set of goals that enables me to look at the calendar every morning and make sure it has the right things in it. When I’ve got space, it also prompts me to commit that 20 minutes, hour or afternoon to my big goals to make sure they happen.

What next?

I’ll keep rolling with the calendar for to-do and a basic journal for long term goals for the foreseeable future. It’s definitely been an improvement for both day-to-day task management but also getting more focus on those big long term goals that are easy to neglect while focusing on the seemingly more urgent things.

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As a technologist in a rapidly changing world, every day is a schoolday. Here I hope to learn in public and share some insights along the way. I'm passionate about helping other succeed and this is a small way to give back to the community.