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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