Work Smart: Take Back Your Calendar With Defensive Scheduling

When it comes to productivity tools, next to your to-do list, your calendar is your best friend. You already use it to track meetings, appointments, and events with other people, but you should also organize and schedule your own work.

Ever wind up with a full day of meetings and barely a minute to breathe or get any actual work done in between? If your workdays are scheduled out with wall-to-wall commitments more often than you'd like, start making appointments with yourself first. I call this defensive scheduling--or time blocking, as discussed in an earlier episode. If you need an uninterrupted hour or two to focus on a single project, schedule that time as a meeting with yourself on the appropriate day and time, and honor the commitment the same way you'd honor a meeting with a coworker. Your time is YOUR time--and you can claim chunks of it using your calendar first.

Schedule a weekly, recurring block of time to regroup and review your projects and to-do lists and what you have accomplished that week and what you need to accomplish the next week. Productivity expert David Allen calls this the weekly review, and suggests you schedule it on Friday afternoon, after lunch, when the week is winding down but your coworkers are still around to help you tie up loose ends. If Friday doesn't work, try for Monday morning or even Sunday night.

Second, use your calendar as a time-based to-do list, to remind yourself of tasks that you must complete by a certain day. If you promised Fred you'd call him on Thursday, or you must have your invoice in by the 30th, add those tasks to your calendar on the right days so they'll appear on your agenda when you need to do them.

Along those lines, use your calendar as a tool to renegotiate and reassign personal deadlines. If an issue comes up that you're not ready to make a decision about right now, put a note on your calendar to revisit it in a week--then, forget about it. In essence you're giving yourself permission to procrastinate for a set amount of time. But when you put off tough decisions this way, it's actually quite productive. You're giving your subconscious mind time to work on the problem in the background, and make the right decision clearer to you.

Of course, the key to using your calendar to manage your time well is to always have it with you. Make sure you're either syncing your digital calendar to your phone or handheld, or that you carry your paper day planner wherever you go so you can refer to it each day.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Work Smart: Must-Have Mobile Apps for the Road Warrior

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5 Comments

  • Jørgen Sundgot

    As much as I agree regarding the weekly review, the general need for better calendar management and not least scheduling self time either for the purpose of focusing or to give oneself the opportunity to simply think, my personal opinion is one of separating tasks from the calendar.

    Yes, it's a great place to stick a truly important reminder, but this often gets out of hand to the point where the calendar has numerous reminders for what you'd LIKE to do in addition to what you MUST do. What ensues is the shuffle dance, where things are visually rearranged in the calendar as they're postponed and postponed again, numbing the user towards the importance of his or her calendar.

    I believe a better way is to keep the calendar for appointments only, and rather get a task manager that either works well enough standalone (with calendar-style reminders for due items) or integrates sufficiently well with ones primary calendar application that this can hold the entirety of ones task library - that is, what needs to be done that doesn't require being at a specified place for a specified amount of time, optionally with specific people.

  • Dr. Joseph Harder

    Gina, great article. I'll definitely recommend it to executives I work with.

    Holly, as for calendar type, a recent hard drive crash means I lost the ability to synch with my Palm phone, so I've gone back to paper...I know that won't work for a lot of people in corporate settings, but I like the tangibility and portability of my Day Timer :-). I'd be curious how many people are digital vs. paper...

  • holly britton

    Gina, super advice! What kind of calendar do you recommend? I have yet to find a system that works for me.

  • Jeffrey Colgan

    Gina, I couldn't agree more. Not only do I use this technique and encourage my clients to use it. I also go a step further and book a conference room away from my office (or cubicle) to help ensure the time is not interrupted with the constant "drop-in" this will only take a minute conversation. I have a very open door policy but sometimes when you really need to get something done, blocking the time and removing yourself from your usual work space will help guarantee the time is well spent.

  • Michael McDowell

    Gina, Great advice. For the last year I've had Friday's from 1-4:30 blocked out on my calendar for just this reason.

    Always nice to see a fellow Marist '97 grad doing well.......

    Mike McDowell