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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Simple Calendar Trick That Made My Life So Much More Manageable

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It shouldn’t be surprising that I developed my intense organizational habits during my college years. Between the classes, extracurricular activities, and campus jobs (not to mention the downtime needed to make it all work), I was stretching myself pretty thin. Luckily, the ambitious schedule paid off: It was during that hectic time that I picked up scheduling habits that made doing everything not only possible, but easier.

Many people arrange their calendars by categorizing events around different spheres of their lives. I’m no different: As far as I’m concerned, my “personal,” “professional,” “commitment,” and “academic” calendars have the final say on what I’m doing with every minute of every week.

By the time I transitioned to a full-time working schedule at The Muse this spring, I was well equipped to handle all the different things coming my way. Between the typical responsibilities of this job, the weekly pitch meetings, and the additional tasks I oversaw on the side, my days filled up rapidly. Add to that mix some design projects and my (healthy) obsession for summer reality TV, and you might think I sacrificed sleep and lived in a constant state of stress to fit it all in.

If you’ve ever had a crazy busy week (and, who hasn’t?) and wished you could just slow down and give yourself a break, then you understand. So, how did I pull it all off? The answer is simple: I had an on-off switch for when things got too overwhelming. And I call it the “optional” calendar.

Here’s how it works: Put anything that isn’t mandatory on this calendar. In my life, that includes professional events, enrichment programs, local activities, and leisurely TV watching, too. These are events that, ideally, I’ll be able to fit in, but they’re the first to go when I’m feeling stressed.

Remember the last time you were on the fence about a networking mixer? You eventually talk yourself out of going, and make it official by deleting the details for it on your “professional” calendar. Then, the day before the event, a client meeting gets cancelled, and you have a change of heart about going. Unfortunately, the email with all the info is buried deep in your inbox, and you figure you might as well forget about it.

But, if you had used an “optional” category, you could have made those same decisions with much less difficulty. Instead of adding the event when you initially heard about it, removing it during crunch time, and searching for it when you changed your mind, you could’ve used one button to reap the exact same de-cluttering benefits.

My personal favorite use for this extra calendar is scheduling my much needed television time. That means I can set aside an hour or two for Netflix some nights each week, or have a standing Scandal date with my roommate during its usual Thursday block. Find out family is coming to town next week, so your football viewing party has to take a back seat? Easy. With one click, sports madness is out of your hair. (And you won’t have to Google the kickoff times next time you’re ready to watch.)

Here’s an example of what yours could look like:

What I love most about the “optional” calendar is that you can be as hopeful and idealistic as you want. You can be the yes-sayer you’ve always wanted to be—and at the same time, you can use it as a guilt-free “no” when you’re feeling overscheduled and overwhelmed. (So long as you remember to cancel the right way—without burning any bridges.)

It doesn’t require anything to turn it on and off, and the relief you’ll experience when you realize all of the things you don’t have to do is awesome. On the other hand, if you suddenly find yourself looking for something to do, it may be as easy as seeing what your optional options are. Much easier than coming up with something on the fly when your afternoon unexpectedly opens up, or searching through your text messages for that one workshop you didn’t plan to attend.

The important thing to recognize with this shift is that it’s more than a small logistical quirk—it’s symbolic of the way you fundamentally view and value your time. Distinguishing between the true obligations in life and the stuff that doesn’t (and especially the stuff that usually just makes you want to say “pass!”) can be a great exercise in living intentionally. Which, given how chaotic and crazed our lives can feel at times, we could all do more of.

Going to give my calendar trick a try? I’d love to hear how it works out for you. Tweet me and let me know!