Updated on 12.11.10

Out With The Old, In With The New: Set Up a Truly Useful Calendar

Trent Hamm

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

12. Set up a truly useful calendar.

For the longest time, I used a tiny pocket planner to keep track of my appointments. I’d write in all sorts of things, from specific appointments I needed to keep to little bits of information I needed to recall.

This served perfectly well when I was a college student and continued to serve me well as a young professional, but as my life got more complicated – owning a home, getting married, having children, starting a small business – this pocket calendar began to get more and more overwhelmed. Things were scribbled all over the place. Arrows pointed from here to there, trying to squeeze things into tiny spaces. Shorthand began to be used, eventually to the point of being indecipherable.

At some point, I began to view the calendar not as a tool for making my life easier, but as something to constantly be wrestled with. Rather than being a stepping stone to success, it became a weight dragging me down.

The thing is, a useful calendar is a huge part of personal, financial, and professional success. Anything with such usefulness is usually rewarded by getting a very strong system in place before you even begin – and that’s the case with a calendar.

I’ve spent the last three years maximizing my own personal calendar. I’ve restarted from scratch several times in the process until I got it right. I’m going to tell you about my own system below, but the key to all of this is to keep tweaking your calendar until you get it to the best possible useful state.

First of all, the whole system is based on Google Calendar. I’ve tried many other calendaring systems, and no other system hits all of my needs quite like Google Calendar. It’s easily available online from pretty much any browser (like the one on my phone). It syncs with a bunch of different programs. It’s easy to enter new things, particularly repeating things. I can set email reminders in advance of particular appointments.

Perhaps the biggest factor that has convinced me to move to Google Calendar is the ability to have separate calendars that can be displayed individually or simultaneously.

For example, I have a distinct calendar entitled “Birthdays and Anniversaries” which, obviously, contains all of the birthdays and anniversaries I need to remember. I don’t always want to see this calendar – it often adds unnecessary clutter when I’m trying to view the upcoming week. On a normal wall calendar or planner, it would be impossible to deal with that aside from just listing the birthdays and anniversaries in another document. With Google Calendar, it’s gone in a click – and it comes back in a click.

Repeat that for every major grouping of events in my life – professional responsibilities, social events, family events, and so on – and you begin to see how viewing one calendar at a time or particular groups of calendars at a time can be really useful.

My actual list of calendars looks like this:
Bills and Finances
Birthdays and Anniversaries
Council Meetings
Community Events
Family Events
Home and Auto Maintenance
Other Professional
Personal Goals
Simple Dollar
Speaking Engagements

Virtually everything that comes into my life fits into one of these calendars, usually in a very obvious way.

The nice thing is that even if I overstuff one of these calendars, I can logically split it into two or three calendars so that each one isn’t completely overloaded. For example, I used to have “Council Meetings” (for the various community boards and councils I serve on) in the same calendar as “Community Events,” but I found it was much easier to keep track of things by having them be separate.

Another thing to note is the “Home and Auto Maintenance” calendar. I use this to keep track of all of the routine maintenance that needs to be done around our home, from changing furnace and water filters to flushing the water heater. I usually do several such items on the weekend, so I just open that calendar and look at what’s on it within two weeks of that day and it forms my “to-do” list. When I finish those items, I just delete that entry from the calendar and since I entered them as recurring events, I know that the next time I need to perform that maintenance, it’s already marked for me.

Altogether, this calendar system has made my busy life far more manageable. I’m no longer struggling to keep up with or interpret an overstuffed calendar, nor am I spending time repeating events over and over.

Now, someday, I dream that those touchscreen flat panel PCs get inexpensive enough that I can simply use one of them as a wall-mounted full screen Google Calendar portal, using that as our new wall calendar. Everything old is new again.

Get your own calendar in shape. Your time, your career, your wallet, and your family will thank you.

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  1. Flaneuse in DC says:

    Thanks for this; it’s always interesting to see how other people do stuff. I like the idea of plugging in things that have a longer timeframe between appointments, like auto maintenance or getting one’s teeth cleaned. Couldn’t bill paying be automated, negating the need to be reminded?
    For me, the best thing is to simplify by removing obligations altogether – for example, I won’t serve on more than one community board at a time.

  2. Your calender system is very organized. I think I would have to start out with just one calender and then work up to the other calenders that you mentioned.

  3. Kat says:

    Another plus to Google Calendar is that it allows coordination with another person. My husband and I each have separate calendars, but have access to (and can edit) one-another’s calendars. For things involving us both, we have an Events Calendar (our lives are not as schedule complex as Trent’s!) To make sure I have access when the internet is down I have all calendars feed into OSX (Mac) Calendar (very easy to set that up) – but all entries are done on Google as I don’t have it update in the other direction.

  4. Suzanne says:

    Would you be willing to share (export) your home and auto maintenance calendar with us (me)? I’d really like to see what an organized person would put on there. I’ve considered doing something like this but it just overwhelms me so I haven’t even started.

  5. kristine says:

    Is it my imagination, or were portions of this post directly cut an pasted from a previous post? Having a very de ja vu experience.

  6. Cathleen says:

    I do the same thing only with iCal on Mac which syncs with my iPhone, MacBook Pro and iPad all at once. I use it for business and personal calendars like talked about here, it’s great. I’m pretty visual so I like the color coding as well…

  7. kjc says:

    Seriously? ELEVEN calendars??

  8. marta says:

    I am sorry, but when I read posts like this and the ones about GTD and such, I can’t help thinking you lead an overscheduled and robotic life. At least, that’s the impression *I* am getting.

    I keep a calendar too and all my papers are organised, but the systems you describe sound way too convoluted.

    Someone else has brought this up already, but you wouldn’t need to worry about being late on bills if you automated those payments. And yes, of course you still need to be checking the invoices and the bank statements to verify if the money was actually debited. But that can be done regularly, just read the statements when you get them. It’s like brushing your teeth… do you actually need to put that on a calendar to get it done?

  9. Rebecca says:

    @ marta, I agree, I am glad the GTD series is over. If I did stuff that way, I’d never accomplish anything.

    I have a main family calendar on the kitchen fridge. It is actually a large desk one that I hang. Every thing goes on there, in pencil only. I say if it isn’t on there, it doesn’t happen. The only things not on there are our bills/ budget, which I have in a separate calendar with my desk. I even keep a note of what meals I planned for the week on the calendar in the kitchen. If my husb has mtgs at work I need to know about, ie he’s out of the office, he puts them on there, otherwise his work stuff is at work. That one calendar is more than big enough for everything, and if we have more than 2 or 3 things in a single day, I often seriously consider dropping one if I can.

  10. Interested Reader says:

    Trent has talked about Google calendars and using multiple ones although I don’t think he listed eleven.

    That just seems so excessive. How many boards and councils do you serve on? I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned that before.

  11. Katie says:

    This and the GTD series has reminded me that there are different kinds of people in the world – some people (Trent, apparently) feel liberated by rigid, scheduled systems; some people (me) feel suffocated by them. Nothing wrong with either type of person; you just have to know who you are and how you accomplish things, and then order your life accordingly. But trying to impose the wrong types of systems on your life — too rigid or not rigid enough — is going to be hellish and make you miserable.

  12. Google calendar has change my life. Or more importantly, it has revolutionized scheduling between my husband and me. Like Kat mentioned, we have access to each other’s calendars and have a shared calendar and I love that we can both make commitments without having to consult with one another.

    We also have another calendar for our daughter and her appointments. However, I had never thought of having a maintenance or birthday calendar. We may have to try this at our house! Thanks Trent.

  13. Cheryl says:

    I’ve used Now Up to Date and Now Contact for many years. Had lots more stuff on it when we had a business and my husband was working. Makes it easy to coordinate people and events.

  14. kjc says:

    Notably absent on his list: a NaNoWriMo calendar!

  15. lurker carl says:

    Does no one use the free hardware store calendar with big squares for each day and hang it in the kitchen for everyone to write their stuff on?

  16. Gretchen says:

    If I don’t know a birthday well enough to actually already know it, I don’t need to do anything for it.
    Ergo, it doesn’t need to be on a calendar.

    (Carl and I use the same calendar.)

  17. @lurker carl…I still use that ol’ calendar! :-)

    My husband likes Google calendar for his business because it syncs with his Droid phone and he can access it anywhere, which is useful when he is on the road. He used to forget his day planner all the time, so this works better for him. Plus I can see it too!

  18. Aubrey says:

    I’ve been using the Flylady calendar (the 2011 calendar came out in time for the ridiculously early school year). No pictures, but BIG squares. In many ways, it’s my brain. It’s not just birthdays and anniversaries and appointments, it’s also got bill due dates, when it’s time for a new flea collar for the cats, it’s where I chart my weight, and the plan for dinner!

  19. Michael says:

    I too follow GTD, but I only use 4 calendars:

    Work Hard Landscape
    Work Possibly / Maybe
    Personal Hard Landscape
    Personal Possibly / Maybe

    I use iCal, which is included with Mac OS X, but use Google Calendar as the back end fir my company, so I can turn on or off my employees calendars for planning around their schedules.

    The ‘Hard Landscape’ calendars are appointments or other commitments that I’ve committed to doing at that date and time. Nothing goes on these calendars that I am going to miss unless something gets rescheduled.

    The ‘Possibly / Maybe’ calendars are where I capture upcoming events of interest that I may want to participate in.

    My calendar is never where I capture tasks or To Dos. I use OmniFocus for task management. Only things that are date and/or time specific make it here. This keeps my calendars clean(er).

    On a side note…
    I seem to have trouble getting this comment to post to your website. This is a last try…

  20. Patty says:

    Also you get to share calendars so my husband and I can share the ‘Occasions’ (birthdays & anniversaries) with each other instead of having a motherinlaw or sisterinlaw missing from each others lists. Either of us can update events and see them but we can also have a peronally color coded calendar for personal or individual professional items. LOVE IT. Love it even more now that we both have droids and thus calendars on the go!

  21. Briana @ GBR says:

    I love Google Calendar, but I haven’t made it my end-all-be-all of calendar. Currently I have 2 calendars on my desk: one Franklin & Covey my fiancee recently purchased for me, which is going to be dedicated strictly for my side projects, and another Staples brand that has my hourly appointments. I use Google Calendar to show me when I have an appointment I need a reminder of (I have my agenda e-mailed to me every morning) any upcoming events after work, and when bills are due (as well as birthdays). It may not be efficient for most, but it sure helps me. I was keeping all of my things on Google until I had a sync nightmare with my Blackberry that I’m STILL dealing with.

  22. Mary Nasfell says:

    Would like some advice about dividing my assets between my five children. One has two children, my only grandchildren, but I am not close with any of them. They don’t visit me, not even the one who lives in the same town I do and has my grandchildren. I am hurt and a bit resentful, and recently found out that one of my daughters expects me to divide my estate equally and she has already estimated her share. I am tempted to leave each child a few thousand dollars and put half of the remainder in trust for the grandkids, and spend or donate the rest. I wish I could feel better about giving it to my kids but I don’t. Is this bad?

  23. Debbie says:

    Love my Google Calendar and especially the reminder system.

  24. I too have been using google calendars extensively. Thank you for sharing all the categories you are using, I broke my main calendar (everything not school, workout, or annually related) into a few more categories. Now it is much nicer to look at and more manageable!

    The one bad thing about splitting everything up is if you need to do some collaboration with others using find a time (http://www.google.com/support/calendar/bin/answer.py?answer=178219&ctx=tltp&hl=en) then you would need access to each individual calendar, right?

  25. Christine says:

    For Mary Nasfell, (#22)
    I, like you have shared your feelings concerning my estate and heirs. I was ignored for a long time. You are not bad, simply hurt. I had never been very close to my family members until they became very ill. At that point I realized how important they were to me. Since they were reluctant to reach out to me, I made the decision to reach out to them. I now help them any way I can, as their suffering was too much to bear and witness. They are fine now after much treatment, but someone had to take the steps towards a better relationship. Much of the inviting is on my part, even now, but in the end, who cares.. we manage to spend time together, and how much time do we have left? I care very much about them, and discovered, when one hurts we all hurt. There is always one family member who is the glue who holds the others together. One who is the beacon of strength for all the rest…. the rock and anchor who holds it together. At the end of the day, we are judged only for the Love we have given, not the Love we received. I guarantee that your children love and need you very much. They always do. Perhaps the kids are longing for a beautiful relationship with you. As for your grandchildren, don’t let these years slip away. They need you too. Be the ONE to reach out to THEM and watch how they respond. I am a firm believer in maintaining a loving, generous spirit, which has been my guide in life. Any other way is not worth it and makes for a lonely life. My advice is to begin a new page, show all the love you have to give to those grandkids and the rest will take care of itself. Plan something special together, a dinner, event, etc. When it is all said and done, you will find a beautiful place for your estate. Wishing you much love and happiness… C.

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