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Never Enough Time? Schedule Your Priorities by Color Coding Your Calendars

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Color-coded calendar

Calendar management is important not only for balancing your commitments, but when used correctly can actually help you achieve your ideal future. In this article, we’ll show you why your calendar is a reflection of your priorities and how you can use a color-coded calendar system to help you achieve your goals.

Many people manage their appointments and tasks by using only two calendars:

  1. Work
  2. Personal

The problem with this strategy is that it is built on the idea of work/life balance. But as we talked about in episode 139 of The Productivity Show, the whole idea of work/life balance is a myth based on a couple of incorrect assumptions: 1) that there is a clear distinction between work and life, and 2) they are at odds with each other. But most people no longer work a job where they can just disconnect when they clock out at 5pm every day. So to build our calendar around this model results in a plan that is doomed from the very start.

That doesn’t mean we should be working all the time or that we can never take a break. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be chasing an ideal that we can never achieve. Instead, we should be intentional about how we’re spending our time. We should make sure that the work/life choices we make are in line with our values so that they help us achieve our goals.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” – Jack Welch

If that sounds a little bit selfish, it is. And that’s ok. You must fight to protect the things that are important to you, and the battle for your time is fought on your calendar.

But the good news is that this is a battle you can win. And we’re going to show you how you can tilt the scales of intentional imbalance in your favor by color-coding your calendar.

#1: Decide what calendars you are going to use

We’ve told you not to just use work and personal calendars, but how many calendars SHOULD you use?

It depends.

Only you know how many calendars you should use. You will need a calendar for each “mode” you want to operate in through a given day. You should have as many calendars as you’ll need, but you shouldn’t have a bunch of extras that you never use.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

The first calendar we recommend you create is a “Planning” calendar. Everyone should have a planning calendar. This calendar will contain all of the major events you are going to this year and any trips you are planning to take. These should be all-day events that allow you to see major commitments you’ve made. For example, my Planning calendar right now consists of the following:

  • the family vacation we’re taking next month
  • the conference I’m going to in May
  • the dates for AE quarterly planning
  • the talk I’m giving in July at Macstock

I almost always have this calendar visible because I want to make sure that I don’t book something else by accident during these dates.

It can also be helpful to set up shared calendars with important people. For example, my wife and I use a shared “Family” calendar that contains all of our family events. This calendar contains things like:

  • the field trip we want to take to the National Railroad Museum
  • the birthday party for my nephew that we’re invited to
  • the date my wife and I are planning on going on this week
  • the appointment we have with our accountant to go over taxes
  • the breakfast I have scheduled with my 8 year-old for Friday
  • the basketball games our kids have at the YMCA this Saturday

Here’s what a typical week looks like on our shared Family calendar:

Family calendar

This shared calendar makes sure that neither my wife nor I book something individually during a time that we need to do something as a family. Because family time is important to us, we make sure that we prioritize it by looking at this calendar during our family meetings.

I also have a specific calendar for managing my deep work sessions. I put these on my calendar so I have time and space to work on things like writing or content creation. Here’s what a typical weekly Deep Work calendar looks like:

Deep Work calendar

Another calendar I use is called “Goose” where I put things that are important for my self-care. The inspiration behind this is to protect the golden goose. On this calendar, I have things like going to the gym, making sure I have time to eat lunch, and going for my runs. Here’s what a typical week for the “Goose” calendar looks like:

Goose calendar

I also have a calendar for recordings of The Productivity Show that we share with the Dojo audience so that they can listen live and ask questions. These live recordings are always a ton of fun and one of the perks of being a Dojo member. Often we’ll hang out after we’re done recording and just answer whatever questions the community has, AMA-style.

Here’s what a typical weekly TPS-recording calendar looks like (in gray) alongside the calendar of all our internal AE team meetings (to make sure I don’t double-book):

TPS calendar

Another calendar I have is for the conference room at my coworking space. We use a simple Google Calendar to block off time instead of using complicated (and expensive) scheduling software, and it works just as well. Space is available on a first-come-first-serve basis so it’s helpful to be able to see who has reserved the conference room when.

Hopefully you’re starting to see why color-coding your calendar is so important. As you view more calendars, it’s important that you are able to discern which events belong to which calendar visually. Digital calendars let you have a virtually unlimited number of calendars and you can color-code them in any color scheme you want. Whatever color scheme you decide to use, color-coding gives you an easy way to filter what you have going on during any given day, week or month. It’s a form of data isolation.

Here’s what my weekly calendar looks like with all these different calendars displayed at once:

All calendars

But these are just a few of the ways you might decide to set up your calendar. Here’s some highlights from the rest of the Asian Efficiency Team:

Thanh personally uses BusyCal and has a calendar that imports all of the data from the AE Team calendar we use in Confluence. That way, he has a calendar on his computer which shows all of our internal team meetings (I use this one too). He also has a TripIt calendar that imports all of his own travel data automatically, including flights that he’s taking and places that he’s staying.

Brooks and his wife have calendar dedicated to JUST planning for spring and summer trips when their kids are out of school. He’s currently planning a trip to Europe, so all of the different cities and places that they want to spend time at are listed here. He uses the same calendar for planning what their kids will be doing during summer break.

There are countless other ways that you may decide to set up your calendars as well. For example, you may decide to set up your calendars based on areas of life. If you decide to use this strategy, your calendars may look something like this:

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Relationships/Social
  • Personal Development
  • Play/Leisure
  • Admin/Life Management

You could also set up calendars based on your state. For example, you might have calendars based on energy levels, which might look something like this:

  • High physical energy
  • High mental energy
  • Admin/Low energy

The basic idea is this: have a calendar for everything that is important to you. You can’t possibly manage 50 separate calendars efficiently, but you MUST decide what is important to you before you can make time for it on your calendar.

#2: Set up your calendars in your calendar app

This part is pretty straightforward – simply create a separate calendar for each mode you identified above. You can create these calendars wherever you’d like, but we HIGHLY recommend you use a cloud-based service to sync your calendar like Google or iCloud. Most calendar applications have built-in support for Google, and on Mac or iOS they will also have support for iCloud calendars as well (if you prefer to keep everything within the Apple ecosystem).

The reason we recommend your calendars be synced via a cloud service is that your calendars are always up-to-date. There will be times when you need to check your calendar while you’re away from your computer and it’s important that your calendar is correct. If your calendar doesn’t show you the right information, you’ll train yourself to not trust it and will stop looking at it.

This is really dangerous because like we mentioned above, achieving work/life balance is impossible. The best thing you can do is hope to tip the scales of imbalance in your favor towards the things you decide are important. But that requires a calendar-based system you can trust to determine how you should be spending your time. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself making decisions based on what is urgent because it’s easy to lose sight of what is important.

When you create these separate calendars, try to use different colors for each one. This allows you to quickly filter things visually by selecting the calendars you want to see in the sidebar. If you want to see just the family events you have coming up next week or the big trips you have to take the rest of the year, having a specific color for each makes it much easier to identify what you’re committed to.

PRO TIP: Some calendar apps (like BusyCal and Fantastical on the Mac) have a feature for calendar sets which can quickly toggle multiple calendars on or off with a single click. Calendar sets can also make scheduling events faster by automatically switching the default calendar based on the current calendar set. The specific implementation will vary, but if you want to quickly filter multiple calendars definitely use a calendar app that supports calendar sets.

One question we get asked all the time is, “what app do you use?” Almost everyone on the Asian Efficiency team uses BusyCal. It’s an incredibly powerful calendaring application, but it is a little pricey. I’ve used it for years and love it because it allows you customize just about everything. For example, I like to have my weekly calendar display 8 days instead of 7 so that when I look at it on Monday I can see next Monday as well.

There’s a 20% discount for BusyCal (and several of our other favorite productivity apps) inside the Dojo, our online productivity community. One of the cool perks of being a member.

#3: Schedule everything you intend to do

Everything you need to do must get done within the context of time. That doesn’t mean that you have to put every task currently on your to-do list on your calendar, but you do need to make the time for the things that you’ve decided are important to happen. I shared the story from Stephen Covey about putting the big rocks in your jar first during our 5-Day Focus Challenge, and your calendar is where this plays out. You MUST put the things you want to do on your calendar before that time gets assigned to something else by someone else.

One of the major culprits of time theft like this is email. Email is a to-do list that anyone can write on. But when someone sends you an email and asks you to do something, what do you typically do? If you’re like most people, it probably looks something like this:

  1. Look at the email and understand what the person is asking of you.
  2. Look at your calendar and see if you have to physically be somewhere else.
  3. If not, say “yes.”
  4. At the end of the day, be stressed out about not having enough time.

Putting your major responsibilities on your calendar can help you say “no” to things that aren’t important to you but are urgent to other people. For example, one of the things that typically gets pushed to the side is making time for exercise. I’m currently training for a half-marathon (my first one!) and I put my runs on my calendar. So if I get a request that’s going to take me more than a couple of minutes less than a half hour before my scheduled run time, I can overcome the pressure to say ”yes” simply by looking at my calendar and seeing my scheduled run on there. My calendar reminds me of my priorities, and when I see my scheduled run I am forced to ask myself:

Is what I’m being asked to do important enough for me to say “no” to the thing I’ve previously committed to?

Do you see how different that question is framed? It’s no longer a question of whether I want to help someone with something. Instead, it’s being realistic about whether I can help someone with something. And sometimes, the answer is “yes.” If it’s something important, I’m happy to skip my run and help out. But often it’s not, so reminding myself that I already committed to something important provides additional context for making the correct decision.

So how much should of your time should you ideally schedule?

All of it.

Now before you call me crazy, let me ask you a question:

How much of your time is important to you?

For me, it’s all important. I want to be intentional about how I am spending every hour of every day. And the way that I’m intentional about how I spend my time is I put it on my calendar.

And I’m not the only person in the productivity space who does this. Cal Newport (author of Deep Work, one of my favorite books) wrote a blog post about the important of planning every minute of every day. He believes that a 40 hour timeblocked work week produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week without the same structure.

So if you really want to make the most of your time, you have to tell it where to go.

A Word of Caution

One mistake we see people make all the time is trying to stick to this perfect schedule that they’ve created. But life happens. Just because you’ve planned your entire day doesn’t mean that your day is entirely rigid. In fact, you may never have a day go exactly as you’ve planned it! But that’s ok. Former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower once said, “plans are useless, but planning is everything.” It’s the not the plan for your perfect day that helps you be more productive, it’s the thought you’ve given to directing your attention in the direction you want it to go.

Speaker and author Brian Tracy says, “every minute you spend planning saves 10 minutes in execution.” If that statement is true, planning every hour of your day will give you a 1000% return on your energy! If you want to know why managing your energy is the real key to being productive, check out episode 142 of The Productivity Show where we dive deep on this topic. But understand this principle: unless you plan out how you are going to spend your time, you can’t possibly manage your energy to make sure that you are able to follow through and take action on your goals.

Conclusion

Your calendar is ultimately a reflection of your priorities. If you say that working out is important to you but you can never find time to get to the gym, put it on your calendar. The great part about your calendar is that YOU get to decide what goes on it. Even if you find yourself with limited options, every decision about how to spend your time is a choice that is left up to you to make. If you want to achieve next-level productivity, you have to be intentional with how you spend your time.

If you want to dive deeper on the topic of intentionally managing your time, attention, and energy, we’ve got a free presentation for you THIS WEEK. The presentation is called, “How to achieve superhuman productivity and get a year’s worth of work done in the next 30 days.” I’ll be hosting it along with Brooks Duncan, and we’ll be giving away copies of Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. If you’re interested in joining us, grab a spot before it’s completely filled up!

Click here to register

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5 Comments

Posted by Rahman  | September 7, 2018 at 11:39PM | Reply

I had previously tried colour-coding my calendar, but with not much success. Thank you for sharing tips on how this could be made more effective, and make more efficient use of my time/calendar.

Posted by Heather Fraizer  | May 6, 2017 at 8:40PM | Reply

I’m a corporate trainer and use color to indicate my level of preparation for upcoming training sessions — so at a glance I can tell where I need to focus on energy. Red means I haven’t done any prep, yellow is I’ve handed off some information to our assistant, and green means I’m good to go. Coming from a lean background I prefer color to give me indication of status or next step.

Posted by Jasmine W. Davis  | November 18, 2016 at 2:27PM | Reply

I realize this is an old post, but I just tried this out, and I am loving it so far! I was afraid of having too many calendars because I thought it would look cluttered!

Posted by Stefan Nilsson  | December 3, 2013 at 11:50AM | Reply

Interesting to see your calendar. I always find it interesting to see how other people schedule their day. Have you seen any major improvement by stretching once a week? I’m looking to become a bit more flexible (currently stiff like every other soccer player) but I’m not really sure how often you need to do it to see improvement.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | December 3, 2013 at 5:34PM

I actually stretch every other day now. Check out Becoming a Supple Leopard – great book on improving mobility that goes beyond just stretching.

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