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May 01, 2022

Simple Steps: Using Your Calendar for Improved Productivity

Allison C. Johs
Your calendar is one of the least expensive and most effective productivity tools you have in your arsenal.

Your calendar is one of the least expensive and most effective productivity tools you have in your arsenal.

iStock / lemono

Is your to-do list out of control? Are constant interruptions preventing you from completing your daily tasks? Do you find yourself constantly doing your work at the last minute? Are you managing your practice from your email inbox?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be time to learn to use your calendar effectively to make sure you get the most important things done. 

Your calendar is a productivity tool

Your calendar is one of the least expensive and most effective productivity tools you have in your arsenal. And in this day and age, it’s more important than ever to use a digital calendar that synchronizes with all your devices and that you can view, edit and update from anywhere, at any time.

If you’re like most people, you use your calendar to record meetings, appointments and deadlines, but to get the most out of your day, consider using your calendar as the main tool to track all your daily tasks.

Unlike the typical to-do list, your calendar is, by definition, finite. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Using your calendar as your main productivity tool forces you to be more realistic about what can be accomplished in a single time period, whether it is a day, week, month or year. It requires you to prioritize and make choices. 

Transitioning from your to-do list to your calendar

You may still want to maintain a to-do list, especially to keep track of long- term tasks, projects or ideas that are not your most immediate priorities, but your to-do list won’t be the main tool you use to determine what you will do in a given day. Instead, take tasks from that to-do list and move them to your calendar. You can do this through a technique called time blocking.

The concept is simple. It’s all about planning. Instead of haphazardly choosing tasks with no rhyme or reason, convert a to-do list item or task into a block of time on your calendar at a specific date and time, just as you would for any other meeting or appointment. To do this effectively, you will need to determine how much time it will take you to complete a specific task and block out the corresponding amount of time on your calendar.

For example, I write this column every other month. Although I make sure to include each column deadline on my calendar, recording the deadline alone isn’t much help in making sure the column is completed on time. When I log the column deadline on my calendar, I also add a reminder—typically a few weeks in advance. When the reminder pops up, I look at my calendar and start blocking out time to write the column. Occasionally, I will need to schedule another appointment at the time I was planning to write or something else will interfere with my scheduled writing time. But by having the time blocked out on my calendar, instead of leaving “write column” on a to-do list, I must look at my calendar to see when I have another opening available to move that writing appointment. And I know from experience that I never complete the column in one sitting, so I may need to block out several times to get the column done. I can do that all at once or as I go along, scheduling additional blocks of time as needed. 

Estimating time

If you’re new to time blocking or haven’t paid too much attention to how long it takes to accomplish certain tasks throughout your day, it will take some time to learn the difference between the time you think you need to schedule for tasks and the time you actually spend on them. Most people will significantly underestimate the time it will take to accomplish a task—even a task that they perform regularly. Underestimating will cause your calendar to become quickly overloaded, adding unnecessary stress. 

Before you undertake a task, estimate the time you think it will take, and write down your estimate. Once the activity is complete, compare your estimate with the actual amount of time it took you to complete it. Adjust your estimates accordingly in the future. In the beginning, it might be worthwhile to block double the amount of time you think you need for each task. This will put less stress on you and your calendar. 

Time-blocking tips

You can also use the time-blocking technique to schedule longer blocks of time for groups of tasks or for focused projects. For example, you might want to schedule a larger block of time each month to review your bills before sending them out to clients, or a weekly half-day to focus on marketing or other nonbillable tasks. My friend Dennis Kennedy blocks a day every quarter to do his “quarterly offsite review” of the previous quarter’s goals, projects and progress, and map out the same for the upcoming quarter.

If you’re a Microsoft Office user, you may have seen the “daily briefing” email messages from Microsoft Viva encouraging you to schedule focus times. This tool works on the same time-blocking principle, finding free blocks of time in your calendar and reserving them for focused work. You can use these focused time blocks to work on your most important tasks for the day or week, or to accomplish a group of similar tasks.               

Don’t confuse projects with tasks. A project is comprised of a series of tasks. Instead of trying to block time to complete the entire project at once, block time for the tasks separately. You don’t need to block time for each step or task all at once; try simply blocking time to complete the first step necessary to move the project forward. When that is complete, schedule the next step, and so on.                         

Treat each time block as you would an appointment with a client. Don’t allow interruptions. If necessary, leave your office, tell your assistant you are unavailable for a specified period. Put your telephone on “do not disturb.” Turn off notifications on all your devices. If something more pressing arises that you must do during the time scheduled to complete the task, move the appointment to another place on your calendar to ensure it gets done.    

Make sure you leave some empty space or downtime on your calendar to account for unexpected emergencies or to give yourself a break. Don’t schedule every hour of every day.                         

It is just as important to block out personal time as it is productive time. It may sound silly, but sometimes the only way you find time for yourself to recharge, engage in activities you enjoy or spend time with family and friends is to reserve that time in advance on your calendar to ensure it stays available.                              

Finally, don’t forget to take time to review your larger to-do list and your calendar regularly. Reviewing your calendar at the end of each day and at the end of each week to see what you need to do and where you have free time the following day or week can help you schedule time to tie up loose ends, move tasks from your to-do list to your calendar, and make sure that your calendar contains a good mix of billable, nonbillable, focused and personal time.  

Allison C. Johs

President, Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.

Allison C. Johs is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including Make LinkedIn Work for You (2019) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA 2014). [email protected] 

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