What I learnt: How a calendar trumps a to-do list to boost productivity

Let me start this post with one of the most common productivity questions, “What all do I want to achieve today?”. Chances are that in response to this question, you will most likely whip out a pen and a sheet of paper and start listing out all the things you want to get done over the course of the day. Hmm, so should we write the blog post for the day? What about my bathroom with its white tiles no longer looking white? Oh, I am out of sugar and unless I buy it, I cannot have good tasting tea this evening. That reminds me, I am out of milk too. I have to get it if I want to avoid having last-minute black tea. Okay, so in summary, I must write the blog post, clean the bathroom and buy milk and sugar. Okay, my to-do list is nicely mapped out with a list of things that I want to achieve today. Good job! Okay, let’s check Facebook now for just 10 minutes and I will get to my to-do list. Soon, we realise that our Facebook checking has gone on for a couple of hours, followed by a link in one of the posts which took us on an endless spiral of hyperlink chasing until…… tea time!!! Oops, I want tea and I don’t have sugar and milk. God dammit, not bitter black tea again!!! I knew it… I need something better than just a to-do list to keep me focused!

What takes our focus away and what to do about it

Believe me, the above para describes a problem faced by most of the world, I being one of them and still recovering from it. The fact is that the world has become extremely distracting with all its swath of technological goodness, that it is very difficult to stay focused on what is important. Add to it the random phone calls from friends or acquaintances who want to talk to us for just sometime. While it is sweet that they think of us, it does take chunks of time away from what is our productive zone and we should do better than just letting the call happen. I will talk about all these issues and how to deal with them in this post, using a simple tool that has been around for centuries, but has been made better by technology — scheduling on a calendar. And I will teach you how to use a smart phone’s most distracting feature, i.e. the push notification, as your best friend.

The perils of a to-do list

First of all, let us look at why a calendar is preferred to a to-do list. A to-do list gathers a list of tasks to do. It is good for getting a general sense of what to do in the coming hours, days, weeks, months or years. A to-do list narrows down your focus to things that you should be working on, thus throwing away what you shouldn’t be wasting your time on. A to-do list is indispensable, but trust me, it is what you should be STARTing to plan with, it is NOT the final product at the END of the plan. A to-do list does not tell you by when you should achieve something. It is all open-ended. There is a sense of intent, but no sense of commitment. A to-do list needs active checking and reviewing. Hell, you even need to remember to check and review your to-do list. Why can’t we automate this process, where someone can periodically review our to-do list and assign us the next task to do? Well, you can achieve some of the automation by assigning a date and time to some of the to-do tasks and have your phone ping you when it is time to get to it. Even in your deepest state of Facebook checking intoxication, a scheduled task pinging you out of your phone can shake you out of your spell. A tool where you schedule all your tasks as per date and time has another name for it. Yes, you guessed it right. The calendar.

How a calendar can keep us on track

A calendar calls for commitment by binding your task to a specific date and time. Once you put it into a calendar, any digital calendar will make sure that a notification is sent to you when the time to take action comes by. A pen and paper calendar will work too (e.g. a diary), but you do need to remember to consult the diary everytime you finish a task, to check what is coming up. A date and time will still make you commit to finishing the task, rather than making it a want-to-do on a to-do list.

Not only will a calendar guide us on what to do, but really importantly, it will help us say NO to what is not there. If it is not on the calendar, it isn’t scheduled today and I need not do it or more strongly, SHOULD not do it.

Now that you know that a calendar is good at enhancing productivity, I will share with the you the calendar routine that I use on a daily basis to get things done.

Why care about staying on track

Everyone has aspirations of achieving something in their life, work, relationships, play and so on. To get to where we aspire from where we are currently, we need to put one foot in front of another in a systematic consistent fashion. If we can find a way to keep walking towards our aspired self without getting distracted towards side alleys, then our chances our getting to our destination sooner grow manifold.

As I enter my entrepreneurial journey, I can do more with my time, but it is also easy for me to lose track of my time and get sidetracked. A productive day would mean getting more done and earning more money and getting my entrepreneurship onto the fast track of growth. Which gives me a lot of incentive to take control of my time today.

My calendar routine and tips for you

It is very important to have a routine to plan your calendar everyday, so that you can go through to-do lists and put things on the calendar. You can alter habits and make space for new things. You can weed out what is not working, give more time to things you realise are more worth to you than other stuff. I am a really early morning person and that gives me the luxury of a nice headstart to plan my calendar. My calendar time is from 6:00 am to 6:15 am every single day. 15 minutes is plenty of time to plan around 8-10 tasks for the day.

Prioritising tasks

Next, I colour code my list of tasks ranging from red to blue and all the shades in between.

Uncompromisable tasks

I have green coloured tasks, which are never to be overridden or replaced by other tasks at any cost, e.g. all my electronic screens are to be switched off at 11pm, no compromises. My dinner time every weekday is 9pm and lunch is at 12 noon, come what may. I should be in bed by midnight. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I am scheduled to call my wife at 1:30 pm to have a small chat with her about how both of day is panning out so far. These green tasks are what I call the foundation of my calendar. These are tasks that I have to commit to, whatever be the situation. That gives me the rules to plan my other tasks. E.g. no client calls to begin at timings like 11:45, since it is certain to make me skip my lunch time at 12. No late night project work, since I have dinner, screen-off time and sleep all firmly scheduled. In fact, I finish all my project work by 8pm, since I am a morning person and my ‘work brain’ starts to shut off late in the evening. Without foundational tasks, you are cutting too much slack and are liable to get the schedule go awry and hurt your meal and sleep times.

Assigning priorities to other tasks

Once the green tasks are set in place, you should start building your next set of tasks by referring to your to-do list and by deciding what needs to be achieved for the day. Do not try to cram more than 8-10 tasks for the day unless some of them can be delegated to a person who also has room in his/her calendar to fulfill your requests. Each of the 8-10 tasks should be colour coded into a set of three priorities, each represented in a different colour.

Estimating how much time each task takes

You should also assign a tentative time to each task, so that you know how many can be accommodated for the day. E.g. if each task takes two hours on average, you can only do about 8 tasks for the day and there is no point cramming more. Don’t worry too much about getting the timing perfect. I will discuss the issue of not being able to stick to the time later in the post. And of course, a time table once made can be adjusted later in the day, although try avoiding too many changes since that alters your intent of commitment.

Scheduling by task importance

Next it is a matter of arranging tasks on the calendar by colour codes. The most important ones get done earlier in the day and the least ones slide down. In the end you will have a stack of tasks to follow in a pleasing gradient of colours, ranked in order of importance that means a lot to you.

Margin between tasks

Please remember that you are not a machine and that you need breaks between tasks. Make it a point to schedule 5-10 minute breaks before moving onto the next job at hand. You can use this to take a walk around, talking to friends or loved ones over phone / chat, brewing a nice cup of tea / coffee to pat yourself for a job well done…. you get the point.

Guarding your calendar with an iron fist

004-no

Remember, your calendar is a commitment that you make to yourself to take control of your day. This means that it is important not to allow others to take away precious chunks of time away from it. A calendar is much a list of things NOT to do for the day as much as it a list of to-do things. Social networks and phone calls are to be banished while you are hard at work at some task. It is okay to pick up a call and ask to call back at a time when you are free. It is okay to tell a friend that you will call back when you can freely listen to him/her and actually enjoy the conversation. And sorry folks, as I said, things which are not on the calendar do not get a green signal. Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are to be banished until the margin phases in the calendar or unless you specifically schedule times for them too. If Facebook and Twitter engagement are part of your business, you should probably schedule half an hour in the day for it, but cut out free-fall surfing! Switch off or silence notifications from all the distracting apps. The only notifications allowed are those from the calendar app itself!

Adjust and refine

During the initial weeks, it is hard to keep the deadlines for every task you schedule, since you might still not have got a hang of estimating task times very accurately. That is perfectly alright, since life is all about learning and improving. This is why we need the early morning routine where we can spend conscious time on planning our calendar for the day.

Let your hair down once a week

Just like your work, your calendar can take a rest for a day every week, e.g. a Sunday. Feel free to spend one day doing adhoc stuff and not adhering to a schedule.

Conclusion

As you can see, a calendar is a much effective tool compared to a to-do list in setting up your life for success. But remember that it is not so because it is a tool which is built to instill discipline over you or to behave like a dictator, but because by committing dates and times to your tasks, you have made a promise to yourself and breaking a promise to self hurts. Calendar drives us to fulfillment emotionally rather than using any disciplinary tactics.

Inspiration

I do not claim to be a wizard at planning a daily calendar. I have to profusely thank some productivity superstars that I have been following over the last year over blogs and podcasts. Please go through their super inspiring blogs and podcasts and you will come out of the other end a truly transformed person. Here is the list of some of the persons who emphasize the importance of habit building, morning rituals and calendars and being intentional about how you shape your life.

  • Ramit Sethi is the author of the book I Will Teach You To Be Rich and his article (Anti-Laziness tactics) was the one that inspired me to take my daily schedule seriously. Besides, he is amazing at effective communication and setting yourself up for success by having excellent systems in place.
  • Michael Hyatt is the author of best selling books like ‘The Platform‘, Michael is probably one of the best examples of how to intentionally plan your life and follow through with an equally intentional execution and learn everyday through feedback. His blog and podcast (named ‘This is your life‘ are phenomenal).
  • James Clear is a blogger about how to successfully build and form habits and how to use processes every day to achieve your goals.
  • Nir Eyal is the author of the book ‘Hooked‘, which is a definitive guide on how to create habit forming products using behavioural traits shown by our brains. Read about how to create habits from one of the leading experts in the field.
  • John Lee Dumas is a giant when it comes to habits and intentional living. With a podcast that has new episodes every day, 7 days a week, he has taken the habit of podcasting to new heights with 1266 episodes (as I write this post) on his daily podcast EOFire. Besides, he has conceived the Freedom Journal which is a journal that you use to achieve your most desired goal in 100 days, by single-mindedly focusing on it, committing to one action plan every day and reviewing your progress periodically.

Published by

Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

74 thoughts on “What I learnt: How a calendar trumps a to-do list to boost productivity”

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  27. Hi,
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    As someone who has used a ‘To Do’ list and is trying to switch to a calendar, I was wondering which particular calendar you use.

    1. Hey Malvika,

      Thanks for the fact that you found the article simple, valid and useful 🙂
      Now about what calendar to use…… I am an app person, so I end up using apps for automation. Google Calendar helps us set reminders, even recurring ones, and pings us when it is time to do something. They also have advance reminders like e.g. 10 minutes in advance of your desired time. Whats more, they have recently added the feature of ‘Goals’, which automatically looks for free blocks of time in your calendar and suggests that you add your unscheduled goals there.
      However if you prefer pen & paper, like Priya does, then I suggest you get a beautiful leatherbound diary, preferably one which does not sideline Sundays to the bottom of a page as a weekend (You’ll know what I mean when you look at standard diaries). Divide a day’s page into two sections, a scheduler which is for tasks to do that day along with time, and a section for journaling at the end of the day, such as what you missed and why and how you will tackle it next day.

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