How To Use Calendar And Email Alerts To Build A Better Life

We can all use reminders to do the things we want to do, not just the things we have to do.

How To Use Calendar And Email Alerts To Build A Better Life
[Photo: ymgerman via Shutterstock]

Not long ago, a woman with a demanding tech job and an equally demanding 2-year-old told me that she wanted to have more fun on the weekends. Like most of us, she was focused on the week during the week. Then she crashed into Friday without the energy to plan much. At that point, it was easier to do nothing beyond chores and childcare. That’s all right sometimes, but as the blah weekends stacked up, she’d started hitting Sunday feeling dissatisfied with how her family spent this precious time off.


I suggested one of my favorite tips: Plan the weekend on Wednesday. That gives you time to make reservations or coordinate schedules with friends. Thursday and Friday are more tolerable if you know there’s something fun coming up. She agreed to give it a try.

When we talked a few months later, I was pleased to learn that not only had the tip worked, but she’d improved on my advice. She’d created a recurring plan-the-weekend calendar entry at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, but got the reminder on Wednesday morning. The reminder made her think about the weekend in between meetings and emails. By the evening, when it was time to plan, she had great ideas. She was having much better weekends as a result.

I love the idea of using calendar alerts or reminder services (e.g., Follow Up Then, Remember the Milk, etc.) for to-dos beyond meetings or scheduling doctor visits. Used well, these tools can nudge you to live a more enjoyable life. Beyond weekend planning, here are more great uses for alerts and reminders:

Anticipate Your Vacations

Last-minute getaways are great when they happen, but some research has found that the major happiness boost people get from vacations comes from the anticipation, not the trip itself. So set an alert in early February to remind yourself to daydream about the perfect summer vacation. With that much time to plan, you’ll be able to book the beach house you want, or the European tour you’ve been dying to take. A late summer alert is good for Christmas vacations; mid-November is good for spring break. If you’re doing something pricey, thinking this far ahead of time will give you time to save too.

Give Your Future Self A Present

The tulips are beautiful in April. The problem is that if you want to have tulips in April, you need to plant them in the fall, and there is no natural cue to remember that your April self will be happy that your fall self did this chore. Set an alert for October 1 (or whatever date is right in your USDA zone), and you won’t be staring at your neighbor’s yard in envy come spring.


Establish Good Habits

Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book The Power of Habit popularized the concept of the habit cycle. There’s a cue, a response, and the reward. You don’t debate every morning if you want to brush your teeth; your morning breath triggers the habit and the minty-fresh tingle after makes you feel good.

But many good habits–such as meditating or journaling–lack an obvious trigger, at least in the beginning. A calendar alert can become the cue. When you see the note on your phone, you know it’s time to start writing. Or better yet, if you stay up too late checking email, arrange for an email alert to show up in your inbox reminding you that it’s bedtime.

Stay On Track With Your Goals

There are two ways to do this. You could send yourself a recurring email with your annual or quarterly goals every week, timed to show up as you’re planning the next seven days. That way, if you know you intend to run a half-marathon this year, you’ll remember to schedule in a few runs for the coming week.

But if you’re less of a resolution-making type, you can also use a calendar alert as a prompt to check in about how life is going. Once a week or so, you answer a few questions: What’s working right now? What do you want to change? We seldom create space for reflection in a busy world. An alert can help you do that.

Be A Better Friend

Facebook will remind you it’s your friend’s birthday, but won’t remind you that it’s the anniversary of a tough time in a friend’s life, and he might need some extra support. Set a reminder, and you can let your friend know you’re thinking about him.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at