The Complete Calendar: schedule it so you’ll get to it

If you’re a knowledge worker, you might have a pretty flexible schedule. It can be hard to manage your time.

And if you don’t manage your time well, you might end up procrastinating, or not getting your most important work done.

Since my recent mini-retirement, I’ve had a lot of freedom, so I’ve experimented with different ways of managing my time. And the latest method I’ve tried is a good one.

Now, this time management method is not perfect. I didn’t like it enough, because I couldn’t make it work while letting me sleep in, as I like to do. But I couldn’t argue with the results: this method made me quite productive. It reduced my stress and my procrastination, so I want to share it with you.

It’s called the Complete Calendar. The idea behind it is that you schedule everything that you want to do.

This means scheduling when you’ll do your hardest work, when you’ll process your email, when you’ll plan your week, and so on. If you’re lucky enough to be self-employed, as I am, you can even extend the scheduling to your life outside of work. You could schedule when you’ll play sports, when you’ll clean the house, and when you’ll get the groceries.

Why schedule everything you want to do, though?

Normally, you might schedule only appointments and meetings. What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that you’re more likely to do the things you’ve scheduled, and less likely to do the things you haven’t. Is it your priority to have meetings and appointments? That’s not my priority. And it probably isn’t yours either.

The logic behind the Complete Calendar is that since you’re more likely to do what you’ve scheduled, you should schedule what you want to do, and not schedule what you don’t want to do. If you follow your schedule, you’ll do more of what you want to do, and less of what you don’t.

The alternative is to let your week happen to you. The alternative is hoping that you’ll have time to get to what you want to do—but in practice, things don’t work out that way.

So to use the Complete Calendar, you list all the things you want to do, and you put them somewhere on your calendar. You do this until your week is full or until you run out of things you want to do.

But where do you start? You start with what’s most important to you.

Start with your deep work

What’s most important is probably your deep work. It’s the work you do that requires intense concentration and effort and it’s the work that produces the most value.

The opposite of doing deep work is doing shallow tasks, busywork. Tasks that make you feel good in the moment for checking off boxes, but that don’t contribute much to long-term productivity.

So figure out how much deep work you’d like to do each day, and put it on your calendar. I like to do this in big chunks of at least 90 minutes, but preferably of two to three hours. Then fit your other work tasks around your deep work.

Now, you might worry that if you block off large chunks of time for your deep work, you won’t have enough time left for those smaller, less important tasks. And while those smaller task may not add as much value, you still need to do them.

In practice, this isn’t a problem. The less important tasks seem to fit in between deep work chunks.

If you schedule five hours of deep work a day, and you work a regular eight-hour workday, that still leaves three hours for all the less important work. Those three hours probably won’t be one long stretch of time, but you don’t need long stretches of time to process your email or to tell your manager what you’ve been up to.

Just last week, I was chatting with someone who schedules his deep work to great effect. This man volunteers for the same organization I do, but in his day job he works full time for a municipal government.

His schedule is bimodal: he schedules half of his week in big chunks, often working from home or from a café so he can work without being interrupted by his team. This is when he does his deep work. The other half of the week, he explicitly makes himself available for his team.

This schedule allows him to be productive, because every week he makes time for his deep work. At the same time, the schedule works for his team, because they know there will be set times when he is available to them.

(In fact, a key to scheduling your week using a Complete Calendar is to communicate. Tell the people you work with what your schedule is, so they know what to expect.)

You don’t have to use the bimodal schedule to use the Complete Calendar method; it’s just one way to use it. The point here is that you shouldn’t dismiss a “deep work” schedule as infeasible for people who are not self-employed.

After you schedule your deep work, ask yourself what your next most important work is. Maybe it’s keeping your manager up to date on your progress. So schedule that. What’s next? Writing a weekly report? Schedule that. Keep scheduling everything you want to do, in order of priority, until you run out of time.

What happens then? In other words, what happens when your schedule is full, but there are still things you want to do that you haven’t scheduled yet?

Getting your priorities straight

If you have 12 things you’d like to get done this week, and you don’t use the Complete Calendar, you might think to yourself on Monday, that’s reasonable, I can get those 12 things done. But if you estimate how much time each things will take, and try to fit all of them onto your calendar, you might realize you can’t do all 12 of those things.

Unless, of course, you give up something else. And that’s the beauty of the Complete Calendar: it forces you to get your priorities straight.

For example, if you want to play sports for six hours a week, schedule six hours of sports on your weekly calendar. You might have to eliminate other things from your schedule to free up those six hours. If you’re not willing to eliminate other things—well, then sports aren’t as high of a priority for you as you thought they were.

In that case, accept your priorities as they are, or change your priorities. Either way, you’re dealing in reality, not in wishful thinking.

A few implementation tips

When I created my Complete Calendar, I got some things right, but I also made some mistakes. Here’s what I learned.

First, if email is a big part of your job, try scheduling when you’ll process your inbox. I process my email once a day, but you could do it two or even three times a day. The key is to schedule when you’ll do it, like you’ll schedule anything else you want to do, so you don’t end up processing your email when you’re supposed to be working on something else. Again, make sure you communicate this to your team.

For example, in my volunteer work, when I started checking my email once a day, I didn’t tell my team. That meant I was a little slow in responding to some urgent questions.

Since then, I have told my team that I check my email once a day, and also that I typically write on weekday mornings, and now they know what to expect. If they need to reach me urgently, they’ll call me or send me a message on WhatsApp.

Second, should you schedule literally everything you do? Of course not. Use your judgment. For instance, I scheduled my weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (more or less). That means I scheduled lunch, but not breakfast. I didn’t schedule my daily meditation, because I did that before 9 a.m., but I did schedule processing my emails.

Try keeping what you schedule at a high level. For example, I blocked off time for “writing” and “business development”.

At Cal Newport’s suggestion in Deep Work, I scheduled time each Monday to fill in the details—to plan the work I’d be doing the rest of that week. I used OmniFocus to review my projects and to decide what to work on, but you can use a different system if you like.

Third, having a schedule doesn’t mean your week is now set in stone. Circumstances and priorities can and do change. When they do, just update your plan for the week. Continue to deal in reality.

Fourth, leave some unscheduled time on your calendar. Unexpected things might pop up, or some tasks might take longer than you thought. You can use the unscheduled time to take care of surprises.

Finally, make sure to schedule everything that is a priority for you. For example, I did not schedule time to chat with my parents on the phone, even though that’s something I do a couple of times a week and that is very important to me. That meant that each time I chatted with my parents on the phone, it was while I had something else scheduled. Oops.

Your mileage may vary

Scheduling work ahead of time using the Complete Calendar can eliminate worries about whether you’ll get to a specific task in a given week. If it’s on your calendar, you’ll get to it; if it isn’t, you’ve decided that other tasks are more important. You have clarity.

I also found it helpful not to have to decide in the moment what I would work on. Decision stress is a real thing for me, and if it’s a real thing for you too, that’s an especially good reason to try out the Complete Calendar. The calendar will have you schedule in advance what you’ll do, so in the moment you only have to execute, not plan.

But because we are all wired differently, the Complete Calendar method of managing your time might not be for you. You might find it stifling or boring. Or perhaps it might be somewhat effective for you, but not the best way for you to manage your time.

In fact, while the Complete Calendar method worked for me, I would like to find an even better way to manage my time. Maybe I’ll find a better way; maybe I won’t. But I’ll keep experimenting.

(My next experiment will be to do monk mode mornings. It’s wildly different from the Complete Calendar, so I’m intrigued to see whether it’ll be right for me.)

That’s the real key, anyway: experiment with different ways of managing your time and see what works. Go about it scientifically: set up an experiment, stick to it, and measure the results.

If you haven’t tried the Complete Calendar yet, it’s a great place to start. Give it an honest shot, and let me know why it does or doesn’t work for you.


Photo credit: James Box

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