Choosing a Calendar System and Planner

Feb 24, 2021Publications

Originally published at Ideas on Fire, February 24, 2021

Finding the right calendar tool can seem daunting. There are so many options! Should you go with an elaborate, colorful paper planner with daily motivations, a totally pared down digital to-do list that lives in a Word document, or something in between?

Like with any organizing tool, identifying what you need from your calendar and planning system is the most important step. Everyone works differently and what you personally find motivating, distracting, or frustrating should guide your decisions when creating your own.

Here are some things to consider when designing a calendar system that fits your life.

Choosing analog, digital, or both

Some people prefer a strictly analog calendar system, some a strictly digital version, and some a mixture of the two. Test out a few of each to see how they fit your life and don’t be afraid to switch things up as your needs or circumstances change.

Many paper planners provide day, week, month, and year views that you can customize. Some have motivational quotes or planning advice embedded in them, which you might find delightful or annoying. For instance, developmental editor Shazia Iftkhar prefers a paper planner that allows her to add events as they come in: “My favorite paper planner hands down is Action Day. Not too much motivational stuff, just the right amount, and I can ignore what I don’t need. I like its week layout the best. I need the act of writing things down to retain them.”

Other paper planners and systems are totally open-ended, where you provide the structure instead of it coming built in via week or month views. Journalist and media studies scholar Meredith Clark notes that “sometimes I use something like a Full Focus Planner or a BestSelf Planner, but I find that I tend to shy away from stuff that has the dates already fixed and set because not every day is going to be the same for me.”

Having a flexible paper calendar system that she can structure however she needs is also a priority for Chicanx media studies scholar Dolores Inés Casillas: “I’m faithful to the bullet journaling (BuJo) method for its flexibility. I love that it’s not already preprinted. Some weeks are busier than others so you can use four pages for two days or five pages for a week and then another week just use a couple of pages. I use it to track my projects in terms of a publishing pipeline, much like Jenny Kelly explained in one of Ideas on Fire’s really helpful posts. I really like to see my projects move from left to right.”

Developmental editor Micha Rahder affirms that the act of physically writing things down in a calendar can help with retention: “I am a diehard paper calendar/planner user. I remember things better when I write them down, and I like the ability to focus on different things at different timescales (e.g., I don’t want to see every little appointment or task when I look at a monthly view, just project timelines). I have settled on the Passion Planner for the past few years. I don’t use it exactly as they intend, but I appreciate the flexibility and multiple kinds of planning that it makes space for.”

The downside to paper planners is that they can get hefty if you use them a lot and they can be less easily modified. Copyeditor Laura Poole recounts that “I went digital when I needed to see my calendar when traveling (back when I traveled 😭). My old paper planners were glorious messes of tasks crossed out and arrows pointing to different days and CANCELED written across certain things.”

That said, if you really dig a particular paper planner or calendar system, there are ways to adapt it to your needs. Meredith Clark explains that “I have a Day Designer Planner that I love, and I use the inserts rather than the planner itself because it’s super heavy….The planner inserts allow me to use a beautiful leather Filofax cover that I have. It’s in my favorite color—purple—and it just brings me joy every time I pull it out.”

You can also use digital and analog systems together, harnessing the power of each format while avoiding some of their limitations. Copyeditor Akiko Yamagata does this to differentiate between longer-term items like client projects and shorter-term items like meetings: “I use TeamGantt for work projects because I like Gantt charts for visualizing how projects overlap. That helps ensure I don’t overbook. For everything else (appointments, meetings, tax deadlines, etc.), I use both a paper planner and Google Calendar. Reviewing the paper planner at the beginning of the week and end of the day helps keep me focused and organized.”

At Ideas on Fire, to track all projects and deadlines we use a shared Asana workspace, which integrates with team members’ iCal and Google calendars as well as our team’s Slack workspace. I also use Notion for my personal planner, which I adore for its visuality, interlinking capacities, and open-endedness (that open-endedness did take some getting used to though). As Micha Rahder puts it, in Notion “you can easily view tasks and projects in multiple formats, including Kanban boards (like Trello), calendars, timelines, and other options. It has a lot of flexibility and capabilities beyond calendar/task management, which could either be overwhelming or wonderful depending on the person!”

Sharing with others

Shared calendar systems can be enormously helpful when you’re juggling multi-player projects, including home and family life. They enable all parties to see the big picture, cutting down on confusion and miscommunication. They also let you see everyone’s events in one place, which can alert you to any changes you might need to make.

There are a few ways to do shared calendars and their usefulness will depend on your situation. The first way is to have a single calendar that everyone involved adds to. For instance, your department might have a single calendar that includes department meetings and events. You could even track all the department courses on there if they would fit. Or your family might have a single calendar where everyone puts their events, which lets you see which days everyone needs to be on Zoom or which dinners might need to be delivered since nobody has time to cook.

Digital media associate and queer digital studies scholar Christopher Persaud uses this calendar system for collaborative projects: “I’m doing a big interview project with multiple PhD students at USC right now. I’m in charge of the logistics and scheduling people. We have a specific calendar for that where I made them set up appointment slots for when they’re free. Then I can schedule people into their calendar, which saves a lot of email back and forth.”

Alternative, each person involved can keep their own calendar(s) and share them with each other as needed. For instance, my wife Adrienne and I keep separate Google Calendars that we share with each other so that my events show up on her calendar and vice versa. What’s great about this is that we can toggle the other person’s calendar on and off for our view, so if I need to focus on just my events, I can uncheck that box and her events disappear from the page but not from her actual calendar.

Sharing separate calendars can help as well if the people you’re sharing with use different platforms or have different kinds of devices. Copyeditor Rachel Fudge finds this particularly useful for moving between iCal, Google Calendar, and Asana: “Family events are shared with my partner, who uses Google Calendar—this lets us sync cross-platform, which is great. I also download the shared Ideas on Fire Asana calendar and add it to my iCal.”

Making it pretty

The aesthetic elements of calendar tools can be enormously helpful in organizing your projects and schedule. Whether you use washi tape in a bullet journal or color-code events in a digital calendar, making your system aesthetically pleasing and visually organized can provide a clearer picture of what you have coming down the pike. You can also use aesthetic elements to differentiate between types of events and projects, which can reveal patterns or allow you to selectively focus as needed.

For instance, in the calendar system I share with my wife Adrienne (described above), we also color code each other’s events as they appear on our own calendar. Because we’re not actually editing the other person’s Google Calendar, just how their events appear on our calendar, at a glance we can tell which events are mine (those in red, blue, and yellow) and which are hers (those in purple). This helps us schedule our own things as well as see when the other person is busy.

Color-coding across digital or analog calendars often reveals patterns that can alert you to imbalances in work/life responsibilities. Dolores Inés Casillas point out that “it helps to glance at a page. If I see way too much pink, I know that I haven’t taken a walk or I haven’t bought that shade of lipstick I’ve been wanting to buy. I haven’t done enough orange family, household, and personal things. And likewise, if I see too much green, I’m doing way too many service tasks. What happened to my research? Where did that go? Why am I not seeing this? I like using the coding system for that.”

Aesthetic elements also can be used to mark progress on new habits or just make your calendar system something you want to pay attention to. For instance, Meredith Clark describes how “stickers are an incredible motivator for me, especially when I’m using my paper planner….When I’m sitting down to look at what is ahead for me that day, I use stickers to jazz up really boring things like doctor’s appointments….When I go through and look through my calendars, as I’m trying to find stuff in the past, it gives me a smile to see them there.”

Color-coding can help with shared digital calendars across platforms and apps as well. For instance, Rachel Fudge uses color-coding to differentiate between types of calendar items: “I use iCal with color coding for different clients as well as personal and family events.”

I’ve recently taken to using emojis (in addition to colors and tags) to code specific kinds of events or projects in our teams’ Asana workspace. This lets me see those categories at a glance—for instance, blog posts have a book icon and podcast episodes have a headphones icon. Consider playing around with different fonts, emojis, colors, or other aesthetic markers to find a coding system that works for you.

Getting real about notifications

We live in a moment when we can get digital notifications for just about anything on our devices. Some people love this and some loathe it. It’s important to be honest with yourself about whether notifications serve you and if so, figure out the kinds and frequency that fit your calendar system needs the best.

For instance, I set up two Google Calendar notifications for each of my Zoom and phone meetings: a desktop+phone notification that pings me 1 hour beforehand and a desktop+phone notification that pings me 15 minutes beforehand. The one-hour-before notification is a general reminder to “start wrapping up whatever you are working on now”—it gives me enough time to finish lunch or wind down a writing project. The fifteen-minute-before notification is the “stop what you’re doing and set up the call” reminder: that’s when I refill my water bottle, open Zoom or make sure I have the person’s phone number, hook up audio equipment (if it’s a podcast interview, for example), close my office door and hang up the “do not disturb” sign, mute all notifications on my computer and phone, and set up the page where I’ll be taking notes.

While I need those notifications to keep me on track, you might find too many notifications distracting. Shazia Iftkhar links her notification preference to planner format: “I don’t like alerts, so paper it is for me!”

Designing your time

Figuring out how you prefer your time to be designed can go a long way toward making your calendar system work for you. Time blocking is one common technique that can provide structure and focus to your day. Time blocking refers to scheduling out specific daily or weekly hours in your calendar to work on particular tasks, and it usually involves grouping like tasks together for that block. Physically blocking out that time—creating an event in your digital calendar or shading in that time in a paper calendar—forces you to see that time as unavailable for other activities. This can be helpful for increasing and avoiding overbooking.

One common use of time blocking is the Pomodoro technique, a tool that many academic authors use for daily writing. This can be used both for solitary writing sessions and online co-writing sessions, like those set up by queer feminist Chicanx novelist Emma Pérez and queer feminist Latinx studies scholar Juana María Rodríguez. Juana explains their co-writing system, which they do every day despite living in different states: “Emma and I write together. What we do is, I wake up, I’m laying in bed, I’m tweeting. At some point I’ll send Emma a text and say, ‘Are you writing?’ And Emma will say, ‘Okay, I’m getting my coffee.’ We get our coffee together. Then at some point, ‘You ready?’ ‘Sure.’ Somebody sets a timer, and we write for 30 minutes. It’s become our morning routine.”

Some people prefer to block out time on their calendar for literally everything. Breaks, naps, meals, exercise time, dates, do-nothing time, and sleeping can go on there alongside work, community, and family tasks. By putting those life things on there in this way, you give them equal visual and cognitive weight, ensuring you aren’t tempted to ignore things like self-care.

Time blocking can be digital, analog, or a combination of both. Indexer and developmental editor Emma Warnken Johnson shares how she toggles between these modes: “I find time blocking works for me but only if I do it digitally. I prefer paper for to-do lists and use those often, but paper is too permanent for blocking time. I need to be able to rearrange the blocks as much as I want—otherwise time blocking feels way too restrictive and if I don’t do something, I’ll beat myself up about it.”

You can also use time blocking on shared calendars to make incremental progress on ongoing tasks like chores around the house. For instance, Laura Poole uses this with her family: “I occasionally use mini time blocks, like 10 minutes or even 5 minutes. It’s particularly useful for tidying and cleaning. I set the timer, EVERYONE cleans up for 10 minutes, then we all quit!”

If you find blocking out everything too overwhelming, you might consider only blocking out particularly significant practices, like your exercise or family time. For instance, Micha Rahder uses time blocking selectively in her calendar system: “I only time block when I’m super stressed out and needing extra structure. It’s a way to remind myself to shut down email/Twitter/Slack notifications etc. for those time blocks and ONLY look at the task.”

In contrast to the time blockers are the time bouncers: those who prefer the freedom to move between tasks as needed and choose what to focus on depending on how they’re feeling that day. In that case, having a lot of white space on your calendar is important, so it can helpful to only schedule the time-specific things like meetings or courses you’re teaching. This is the method I take with my own calendar system, reserving time blocking only for appointments and those high-stakes days when I’m up against a hard deadline and everything needs to be directed toward getting that single thing done. Otherwise, I find time blocking too restrictive and end up resenting my calendar for dictating how I should spend every minute of my day (even though I’m the one who designed the time blocks that way!). As Emma Warnken Johnson puts it, “especially on those days when I’m feeling super burned out, I need permission to move tasks around based on what I’m feeling capable of on the day.”

As you can see from the array of calendar systems described above, you have a lot of options when it comes to organizing your days. No system will be perfect but the one(s) you choose should serve your specific needs at this time.

Make sure to set aside regular time to assess how your calendar system is working for you—you might schedule 30 minutes at the end of each month or semester to evaluate what is no longer serving you, what’s going great, and whether you want to change anything up. Identifying what you need and the tools that can best deliver that allows you to create a calendar system that will support you and your goals over the long term.

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