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Family huddle

If you’re a parent, I’ll bet that you have lived through some version of this story from one of the moms on the AE team years ago:

Her son brought home an invitation to a friend’s birthday party, and the invitation was set aside.

Fast forward a few weeks, and she was out doing errands. She comes home, and there’s her son nicely dressed and waiting to go to the party.

Can you guess what happened? The invite didn’t make its way onto the family calendar, and she had forgotten all about the party that day. By the time she was home, it was way too late to go.

Her son was upset, she was upset, and it wasn’t because she was a bad mom (although I’m sure she felt like it at the time!). It happened because a habit and a system for using the family calendar hadn’t been developed yet.

We’ve all been there as parents, and lucky for you, you can learn the lessons that we, and the thousands of parents we have helped in the AE community, have had to work through the hard way.

In this article, we’ll cover a system and give you some tools that you can use to have a well-functioning family calendar. It will save you hours of stress, frustration, and slammed bedroom doors.

The more people you have in your family, the more having a reliable and trusted family calendar becomes critical. How do you keep everyone in the loop, and do it in a way that avoids conflict and mismatched expectations?

Want to learn to master your calendar?

We’ve written and podcasted a lot about calendars over the years, and for good reason: by mastering your calendar, you are giving yourself the ability to be in control of your time, or at least how you prioritize your time.

If your calendar at home and at work aren’t in alignment, it can lead you to a feeling that you constantly aren’t able to get things done and constantly feeling like you are behind.

Here are a few AE resources that will give you the skills to master your calendar, no matter what the situation:

What’s so important about a family calendar?

So why is a family calendar so important? Can’t your family, you know, talk to each other?

When it is just you or you and your partner, it’s still important to have a calendar, but co-ordinating things becomes easy. As long as you have open communication (an entirely different topic), you can generally keep in the loop.

When you have a baby or very young kids, it’s a little more complicated but not too bad. Chances are when you’re not at work your kids are with you. If they have an activity or some sort, you are probably putting them in things around the same time or location.

Once the kids get older, the wheels can come off very quickly. You can no longer count on the kids being into the same thing, and even if they are, there’s a good chance that you are all over the place.

For example, this was my Saturday a few weeks ago:

  • 8:45 am – 10:15 am: Youngest son had a soccer game in North Vancouver 18 km (11 miles) from home.
  • 10:45 am – 1 pm: Oldest son had a soccer game 46 km (28 miles) from there in Surrey.
  • My wife was 4,000 km away in New York City.
  • I was going to Seattle that afternoon.

Admittedly that is not typical, but it’s the sort of thing that can happen if you have a busy family (allowing your family to become too busy is, again, another topic!), and while not typical it’s not extremely uncommon either.

So a day like this raised some questions:

  • How early do I have to leave to get out to North Vancouver in time?
  • Can I watch all of my younger son’s game and make it out to the older son’s game in time? (answer: no)
  • Given that, what the heck do I do?
  • Given that both my wife and I are out of town, what should we do about the kids?
  • Will my wife bring me back a Black and white cookie from New York? (answer: no)

Everything was stress and problem-free (except for the cookie), and the reason for that was simple: we have a family calendar system and routine that allows us to be on top of things and sort out problems well before they happen.

Your day might not be as crazy as that, or you could have more kids and be thinking to yourself “man, that sounds like a rest day for us.”

Either way, a family calendar, or lack thereof, can become a significant source of stress and conflict in the family, but it doesn’t have to be that way!

Why kids thrive with a family calendar

Kids thrive with predictability. Dr. Paul Schoenfeld from The Everett Clinic says:

There are many reasons for this need for predictability. But one reason is that kids are absorbing vast amounts of new knowledge and information every minute. Like sponges, they are soaking up new rules, values, norms, expectations, and social data in gigabytes! This can be de-stabilizing, so children take refuge in a certain amount of predictability. Actually, they love it.

That’s not to say you need to fall into a rut or have things be boring, but the more your kids know about your family routine and what is happening, the better.

When you involve your kids in planning your family’s week when they are young, it helps them feel ownership and agency over what is happening, even if they don’t get a vote.

Once the kids get to be pre-teen and older, participation in a family calendar becomes even more important because they are suddenly making plans independent of you. You’re no longer “making playdates”, but (hopefully) being informed that things are happening.

If your older kids have an expectation for what the day and week holds, it avoids conflict.

Having no family calendar (or a family calendar that no one looks at) is a recipe for mismatched expectations and unnecessary conflict.

The 3 Critical Features of an Effective Family Calendar

The specific tools you use for a family calendar are not as important as what you put on it. Here are three features a family calendar should have to be effective:

  • Complete: You should have everything on there that will impact members of the family. Kids activities obviously, but also parents’ activities, both work-related (if it is outside regular working hours) and personal. Need to go in to work next Wednesday at 7 am for an early call? Put it on the calendar. Squash league on Tuesday? Calendar. Drinks with those former co-workers that you only see every 18 months but you swear “we should do this more often!” every time? Calendar. Even if it is just an FYI, that FYI can become significant when another event comes up. Lack of completeness often leads to mismatched expectations.
  • Accessible: Your family calendar should be accessible by everyone (or all adults anyway), ideally when you are out of the house. Why is this important? You want to avoid this scenario — Partner 1: “I ran into the Joneses at piano today. We made plans to get together next Saturday for dim sum! Isn’t that awesome?” Partner 2: “What? We already made plans to go snowboarding that day! I put it on the calendar!” If your calendar is accessible (and complete for that matter), you will avoid this situation because you always have access to your family’s schedule.
  • Visible: Your family calendar should be easy for everyone to see at a glance. If it is annoying to get to, people won’t use it. Ideally, a version of it (the highlights anyway) are somewhere prominent where the whole family can see, even young kids. More on that in a moment.

Those are the three features of that a family calendar should have: Complete, Accessible, and Visible. Now how do you put it into practice?

Best Practices for Using A Family Calendar

Here are some suggestions for getting the best and most effective use out of a family calendar:

Make sure to capture everything and capture as soon as possible

Digging through your kid’s backpack and find a birthday party invite buried under the three water bottles they keep leaving at school and finally brought home?

At the desk at the orthodontist’s office and handed the little card with the next appointment?

Get those events on your family calendar right away. The longer you wait between knowing about an event and putting it on the calendar, the more likely you will forget about it.

Make sure that everyone can view or access it — even your kids

As we said, it should be accessible and visible. Your life will be much easier if everyone is on the same platform. If you’re all on Apple devices you could use iCloud, but if you have a mix of iOS and Android devices or Mac and Windows, you’re probably better off using something like Google Calendar.

As soon as is practical age-wise, show or discuss the calendar with the kids, and show them how they can see it. Even better, have it where the kids can see it without your involvement.

Make use of color-coding

If you use a digital calendar, it can be hard to keep your obligations straight.

The good thing about a digital calendar is you can have as many calendars as you want. The downside is that things can become cluttered and confusing.

We have an article about color coding your digital calendar, with examples here.

Have one centralized “master” calendar and have one adult as the keeper

This tip comes from Julie Morgenstern in her book Time To Parent. We talked to Julie on the podcast in TPS 232 about time management strategies for parents.

Different people have different ways they prefer to use a calendar, so it’s only natural that in a family, both partners may prefer to do things differently.

That’s normal, but there needs to be one calendar that is considered canonical. One calendar that, if you look at it, will be trusted to have everything that impacts the family.

This pairs well with our article about using both a digital and an analog calendar.

Even if one parent prefers digital and one parent prefers a paper planner, no problem. You just need to make sure that one of them (more likely the digital one) has everything and is the “master” calendar.

As much as it would be nice to have both parents (if there are two) committed to using and updating the family calendar, there are often cases where one of the parents is more “into it” than the other one.

And let’s face it, if you are reading this article, that parent is probably you!

We touched on this in our podcast 4 Strategies For Making Your Friends & Family More Productive (TPS205).

The fact is, you aren’t going to be able to force or badger the other person into embracing the family calendar.

All you can do is model behavior and take it upon yourself to make sure the calendar is as accurate as you can make it. Eventually, by showing how useful it is, the other person often converts when they are ready.

The Calendar Huddle

Here is the secret sauce for an effective family calendar.

You can have a beautifully color-coded family calendar with your week nicely planned out, but there is still the human element — is everyone on the same page about what is happening?

Is there anything that is not on the calendar that you don’t know about?

Are there any logistics you need to iron out about the things that are on the calendar? Who is taking who where?

The easiest way to knock all this out at once is a calendar huddle. A super-quick family meeting where you all get together and talk through what is on the calendar.

In the Time to Parent book, Julie Morgenstern recommends doing the huddle daily. If you can pull it off, that’s an awesome idea.

In some cases that may not be possible. For my family, we do it weekly. Here’s our routine:

  • Every Sunday morning, I have a task in OmniFocus that reminds me to plan the calendar.
  • I go through our shared family Google Calendar and put everything relevant for the upcoming week on a whiteboard that is at the bottom of the middle floor stairs.
  • At some point during that Sunday when we’re all together/available, we gather on the stairs and talk through the week.

It usually takes only 5-10 minutes, but it’s amazing what comes up sometimes.

  • For example, my wife had a good solution for that crazy Saturday I described at the top of this article that I would not have thought of.
  • One of my kids had a field trip that we didn’t even know about until he thought to mention it during the huddle.
  • My wife decided to come back from New York one day early and realized in the huddle that she didn’t update the shared calendar about it.

And this was just from one huddle!

Marie, an AE team member, does a version of the calendar huddle daily while she is driving with her son (presumably she is not looking at her calendar while driving). That’s a good example of finding time to implement systems where you can.

However you do it, having a calendar huddle is an excellent strategy because it lets everyone stay in touch with what everyone else is doing, and it’s a good way to involve your kids in calendar planning.

It also eliminates surprises and the “Didn’t you see it? I put it on the calendar!” arguments.

This quote from Time to Parent is very true:

Spending ten to fifteen minutes a day, even over dinner, will keep you attuned to each other and save hours of chaos and damage control.

Family Calendar Tools

With a family calendar, the tools you use are not nearly as important as how you use them, but here are some suggestions.

Master Calendar — Digital

For a family calendar, a digital calendar is ideal as a master, canonical calendar.

It’s shareable if you use a technology like Google Calendar or iCloud, and it’s accessible from nearly any app or web browser from anywhere in the world.

Here’s an example of a family calendar. Thanks to our calendar huddle, those conflicts on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday are sorted.

Second Calendar (if required) — Analog

For years we just went with the shared digital calendar that I mostly maintained, though my wife is now a shared digital calendar evangelist.

We felt, and this was her suggestion, that while everything was on the calendar and that was fine, as a family we still didn’t have a great overview of what was happening during the week.

Our solution? We put a whiteboard at the bottom of our stairs, and every week I go through the whiteboard-and-calendar-huddle routine I described above. Here’s a sample:

Whiteboard Family Calendar

Very simple, decidedly low-tech, and very illegible (left-handers + whiteboards don’t mix well), but it has been a total game changer for us. You can’t help but see what is going on every time you come down the stairs, and all family members are in the loop.

How to implement your own family calendar

It’s never too early or too late to start. My oldest was a teenager before we started fully using this system. Here’s how to start:

  • If you don’t have it already, decide what calendar to use and make sure it is Complete, Accessible, and Visible for everyone. Simpler is better if it means people will use it.
  • Talk to the family about making sure that everything that impacts the family is on the calendar. Have one person (probably you) take ownership, especially at the beginning. Be ok with entering other people’s events if the result is a trusted system.
  • Establish a calendar huddle routine, whether it is weekly or even better daily.

Even better, create a system for all your calendars. Pair this setup with your personal and work calendars. We have a great Calendar course inside The Dojo, our online productivity community. Create a system that works for you and that allows you to achieve your important goals in the time that you have. You don’t need to have work time bleed into family time.

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Brooks Duncan

I love taking technical topics and translating them so that they make sense to non-nerds. I'm a Chartered Professional Accountant and have been a software developer and have run software support in very small startups and extremely large public corporations. I strive to be relentlessly helpful in everything that I do. I live in Vancouver, Canada and insert extra u's in many of my words.

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  1. I already have multiple calendars I’m pulling in into my Fantastical app and keeping separated by color. I like my personal calendar to be private, so does this mean I have to create yet another calendar for family to log kids/school items, and then have other calendars (such as the school calendar) sync with this family calendar as well as my private?
    I think the best way in my situation is to just create a calendar invite and send that to each other, and let the family accept it and put it on their calendar.

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