Year for Productivity; Session 6: Calendars – As Old as Time, as New as Tomorrow

year_productivity_graphic_6 Now that we are past the Mayan Calendar scare of 2012, we can talk about the use of calendars in productivity without looking at the date and wondering when the world will end. The problem is that writers on productivity are divided into two camps as dogmatic as “You got chocolate in my peanut butter” vs. “You got peanut butter in my chocolate”. The first camp argues that your calendar should only be used for events that have a specific time associated with them:

Out came a rule that fit those times, and it’s embedded in today’s productivity books: “Only put appointments with other people in your calendar.” (Its corollary is: “don’t put anything else in your calendar.”) Some have modified this to say that you should only put major commitments that “must” happen on a particular day and time in your calendar. (The weak definition of “must” makes the rule a hazy one.)

(Wade, Evolution of the Calendar). The other camp argues that you should schedule everything that you need to devote time to, including scheduling time for creative, brain-intensive work, time you are available for meetings, etc. (see, for example, the Feltner post).

In MPOW (My Place of Work) we use Zimbra, a web-based software that combines calendars and email. Calendars can be shared among users of the system if all parties agree to the share, which makes it easier to schedule meetings. It is fascinating to look at and compare how people use their calendars. One of my colleagues who is particularly busy and organized, schedules time to work on specific projects among all the meetings she attends. Other people people looking at her calendar have a hard time figuring it out, since there are 2-4 items on her calendar for every time period. However, since she accomplishes so much, it works well for her. I have fewer events I’m required to attend, so I only mark those on my calendar and use the unscheduled time for working on the projects in hand.

Sometimes you have had an idea percolating in your head for some time, at an almost-but-not-quite conscious level. Then you read or hear someone express that idea so eloquently that it bursts into your consciousness like a thunderbolt. That happened to me the other day while reading Francis Wade’s “8 Edgy Ideas from Time Management 2.0“. He refers to Time Management 1.0 as static systems some productivity guru has devised and expects readers to follow step-by-step, year by year, forever after. What he calls Time Management 2.0 is a dynamic system wherein each person takes the skills most useful, uses them, and updates his or her system with new techniques as needed to improve the system or take into account new circumstances. I think most all of us do so, but either don’t articulate it to ourselves or feel guilty that we aren’t, for example, following every single GTD step. So that is what my colleague and I are doing – we each use our calendars in the way that works for us. What’s important is to take some time to read about other people’s techniques and adapt what seems useful. In other words, ideally one should be open to ideas for improving productivity but not get locked into just one system. Instead, adopt a methodology that is flexible, fits the way you work, and is updated as new techniques or life changes may suggest.

Now that we’ve had that refreshing digression, back to how to best use your calendar. The practice of setting up appointments with yourself for working on projects is called time blocking. As already mentioned, some people are for it, and some are against it. Maura Thomas, in Personal Productivity Secrets, approaches it sensibly. She has three rules: (1) Don’t time block too far in advance, as schedules change often; (2) use it selectively for the most important things; and (3) don’t make your time blocks too long. (Thomas, p. 158). A recent New York Times article (Schwartz) discussed research about natural work cycles. It arose out of sleep research that showed that people cycle through the different depths of sleep approximately every ninety minutes. So researchers then looked to see if a similar cycle applied to time awake, and found that it did. People are most able to pay attention for ninety minutes and then need a break. So if you do time block, it makes sense to do so in ninety minute intervals.

A couple of the readings mention an interesting productivity tip using calendars known as either Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret or Don’t Break the Chain. It involves deciding on a few goals that you’ve had difficulty achieving. Set aside a specific amount of time to work on them. As you get that done, put a red X on your calendar for every day you work on that goal – and don’t break the chain, i.e., work on it every day. (see Isaac and Dachis). Dachis, for example, set aside 15 minutes a day for each of three goals, and found himself accomplishing a remarkable amount in that time. This is a version of the Pomodoro technique, though he doesn’t call it that, combined with marking progress on a calendar.

The best way to be productive using calendars may be to take something from all of these ideas, in a way that works best for you. Combine time blocking, Pomodoro, Don’t Break the Chain, and the ninety minute energy cycle. Block off ninety minutes each day to work on your top three goals. Work on each for thirty minutes. At the end of the ninety minutes, put a big red X on your calendar and then take a break. Get up, walk around, don’t look at your computer for ten minutes or so. Lets call it the Modified Don’t Break the Chain technique.   My co-blogger Crystal reminded me that our calendar system Zimbra allows us to mark an appointment as either free or busy. If you are in a job that requires you to be highly responsive to the needs of colleagues or your users, you might want to mark your time blocks as free, if the calendar you use has a similar function.

Those of you who decide to try one of the methods discussed here, please add your comments as to how well it worked, or if you use another technique that works for you please share comments on that as well.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  Try the modified Don’t Break the Chain Technique for a week.

(2)  Write in a comment how well it worked for you.

Selected Readings:

Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Viking.  Section on calendars and the tickle file is p. 136-139.

Dachis, A.  “How Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret Fixed My Procrastiantion Problam“.  Feb. 20th, 2012,

Doodle – great online site for scheduling meetings.

Feltner, J.  “Use a Calendar and a Schedule to Improve Productivity and Reduce Stress“.  June 14, 2012,

Isaac, B.  “Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret“.  July 24, 2007.

Schwartz, T.  “Relax!  You’ll Be More Productive“.  New York Times, Feb. 9, 2013.

Smith, C.M.  “7 Ways You Shouldn’t Be Using Your Calendar“.  June 22, 2011.

Thomas, M. (2012). Personal Productivity Secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley.  Discussion of calendars is on p. 155-158. – Calendar page.  Includes printable calendars of various sorts.

Vardy, M.  “How to Use a Calendar to Create Time and Space“.  March 7, 2012.

Wade, F.  “The Evolution of the Calendar:  How to Use a Calendar Today“. September 21, 2012.

Wade, F.  “8 Edgy Ideas from Time Management 2.0.”  Special report available from

Wax, D.  “Back to Basics:  Your Calendar“.  July 18th, 2008.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email