Your calendar represents how you use your most valuable asset – your time. It represents your priorities, and if used correctly, it is an invaluable tool to help you achieve your goals. In this article, we are going to teach you to leverage your calendar for the maximum benefit using a color-coded calendar system.
There was a time when calendar management was simple. Work was something that happened between 8 am – 5 pm. Everything else in life was personal. At most, you only needed 2 calendars to manage your appointments and tasks:
Today, we live in a different world. There is no such thing as work/life balance. Renowned CEO Jack Welch said,
“There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” – Jack Welch
As we talked about in episode 289 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.
The modern workplace is evolving. What only happened in the cubicle of a large office building now happens at the kitchen table or the neighborhood coffee shop. There is little or nothing to mark the transition from being at home to being at work.
In the new paradigm, you need a new method. In this article, we are going to teach you how to manage your calendar in a way that brings enormous clarity to how you are using your time. With a color-coded calendar system, you can clearly see your commitments. You will know instantly if how you are spending your time is in line with your priorities. A color-coded calendar system will help you make the best work/life choices.
#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?
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 the 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 within the next three months
- the dates for AE quarterly planning
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:
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 color-coded 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:
Another color-coded 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:
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):
Another calendar I have is for the conference room at my co-working 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 a color-coded 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:
But these are just a few of the ways you might decide to set up your calendar. Here are 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 a calendar dedicated to JUST planning for spring and summer trips when their kids are out of school. 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:
- Personal Development
- 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 color-coded calendar system
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 to 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. Best-selling author and successful CEO, Michael Hyatt says, “What gets calendared, gets done.” If it is important to you, it has to appear on your calendar.
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:
- Look at the email and understand what the person is asking of you.
- Look at your calendar and see if you have to physically be somewhere else.
- If not, say “yes.”
- 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 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 importance of planning every minute of every day. He believes that a 40-hour time blocked work week produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour workweek 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 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 220 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.
Being intentional about how you use your time is one of the most important skills you can develop. It is not only for being productive at work, it is how you manage your entire life. The great part about your calendar is that YOU get to decide what goes on it. You have agency over your life and every choice that you make about how to spend your time. Using a color-coded calendar system can transform how well you manage your time and ultimately accomplish your goals.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of intentionally managing your time, attention, and energy, we’ve got a free presentation for you. The presentation is called, “How to achieve superhuman productivity and get a year’s worth of work done in the next 30 days.” If you’re interested in joining us, grab a spot before it’s completely filled up!