Take your calendar back, take your time back


As the recovery continues to a slow new normal, it may be time to jump start your productivity with calendar tools. Here’s how.


Image: iStockphoto/Kwangmoozaa

The slow coronavirus recovery has many of us working from home with more free time than ever. Yet, for some reason, if you’re anything like me, you’re getting less done. Not just less per hour, but less overall, with more hours in the day. Childcare challenges are part of it, but honestly, procrastination and poor time management is a lot more.

So I decided to jump back into calendar planning, using the tools I had learned over the years.

SEE: IT job and salary guide: Highest tech salaries, top-paying cities, and compensation-boosting tips (TechRepublic Premium)

Schedule your time

“An empty calendar is the devil,” or at least it is according to Grant Cardone, the sales training guru. His argument makes sense. With something on the schedule for one hour, we can eliminate distractions and focus on that thing. With an empty calendar, it’s too easy to sit at the desk, check email, check Facebook, check Slack or Skype, maybe open a YouTube tab. Those distraction and work-avoidance techniques can run on a loop. At the end of the day, you’ve gotten nothing done.

So plan the day. Break the work into chunks, and chunk your time. Exactly how you chunk it will depend on your role. Most of us in IT have some sort of input queue, which could be a ticketing system, agile “story cards,” traditional requirements, or a project plan. Instead of a calendar that is a bunch of meetings, block out time to work on those projects, by name. During that time, be focused and effective on the task at hand. Managers, support reps, and other outward roles might want to schedule time to send emails and build relationships.

If you want to block out time to goof around, you can do that too. I suggest a half-hour of discretionary R&D time, twice a day.  You can also block 15 minutes for email at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. Outside of those times, stay out of email; you can use our tips here to make that time count, or consider these Gmail productivity hacks.

Make your focused time effective

If your role is as a heads-down contributor, then eliminate distractions. When working, shut off Slack, Facebook, Twitter, and focus on the task at hand. The Pomodoro technique is as simple as setting a timer for 30 minutes, blazing through the work, and rewarding yourself at the end.

If I run YouTube in the background and type, I am roughly one-eighth as effective as when I just work. My work comes out disjointed and awkward. Better to focus on one thing at a time and do it well. I am suggesting turning off all distractions to work. If you have to, do it after the kids are in bed. 

In the 1980’s in PeopleWare, DeMarco and Lister said that effective contributors in unhealthy offices were coming in early, staying late, or finding a “private office” like a corporate cafeteria off-meal-hours to work. It may be time to re-envision that for a remote work workplace, where the interruptions are a buzzing phone or screaming child.  

Park facing downhill

My old company, Socialtext, was founded with a remote work focus. From 2008 to 2011, I was a QA Lead for the company, which made social media software for business. I worked from home in Michigan for the company headquartered in California, which housed some sales and executive types. At one point the CEO, Eugene Lee, suggested we “park downhill” at the end of each day. That is, review what you have to do tomorrow and schedule your time, so when you start in the morning, you get productive fast, instead of getting trapped in the loop of work avoidance.

You also end each day with the work in a good place. I find if I start this 15 to 30 minutes before I leave, I can review the to do list, schedule the next day, and create a little to-do or small Google Doc notes for how to get started. That small brain tickler reclaims the time between 8: 00 a.m. and 10: 00 a.m. For that matter, it can allow me to skip email in the morning entirely, moving my 15-minute check to 10: 00 a.m. A good, solid two hour push can produce more output than an unproductive new normal day–If you haven’t experienced one of those yet, then you are more fortunate than most.

If you use Google Calendar, you are in more luck, as the company has a small army of people building features for calendar hacking. The biggest problem may be finding the features, so I wrote a bit on my favorite little-know google calendar features. As for me, I used the techniques in this article to separate my personal life from work, then supercharge my work. I wrote this article, for example, in about a third as much time as I had initially planned.

How are you doing?

Executive Briefing Newsletter

Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges.
Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

Sign up today

Also see

7 Google Calendar hacks to supercharge your productivity


Google developers are adding powerful features to Calendar. Learn how to take advantage of them.

The passage of time, calendar

Image: iStockphoto/KangeStudio

Google’s Calendar software may be the most popular in the world, but it is also a product of the 21st century. We don’t write big books of features anymore and when we do, most people won’t read them. That leaves us using just a small fraction of the features available in our productivity software.

And Google Calendar is productivity software. 

Below, I’ll list seven little-known features of Google Calendar you can use to supercharge your productivity, including how to publish your calendar online so other people can schedule meetings with you.

Share Calendars

Bouncing between different schedules can be difficult, especially if one is published on a physical calendar and another is in Google’s cloud. As the world wakes up from the coronavirus pandemic, work from home is becoming the norm for technical work, making personal and professional lives even more intertwined. 

When I started this journey, I gave my personal Gmail account permission to view my work calendar, and even display them together. Open your calendar to find these features. To share a calendar, go to calendar.google.com, find My Calendars in the left-middle to bottom, click the three-dots icon, then Settings And Sharing (Figure A). After that, scroll down to share with specific people and add people. While setting these features, you can consider the option to color code meetings and times.

Figure A

Matthew Heusser

Color code meetings

Every meeting has a color default, but you can change it. You can color code by priority. For example, you might have red for non-negotiable meetings, yellow for interruptible but heads-down work, and green for planned discretionary time. Yes, knowledge workers do need to use the restroom and take breaks. Or, you might make blue personal and brown work, avoiding the priority metaphor altogether. Figure A shows the color codes you can use. 

Enable working hours

With the pandemic, it can be appealing to flex your daytime hours then work after dinner or bedtime for little ones. Sadly, the people scheduling meetings might not know that. If the company uses Google Calendar, you can set your working hours so people won’t book when you don’t want to work. To set working hours, click the gear icon to get to Settings and scroll to Working Hours–you may need to click on Advanced. This way, when someone tries to book you, they will see you are not available. This is a bit like blocking lunch, but it also prevents accidental 3: 00 a.m. meetings from someone on another continent, without making a meeting called “sleeping.”

Email meeting attendees

Yesterday, I ran a Zoom meeting with 26 invites; 10 people attended. Many of the people were using Zoom for the first time, so I wanted to send up a follow-up email with some Zoom tips and agenda. In addition, I wanted to send some follow-up materials.

There is an email option, but it is not when you edit the meeting. Instead, when you click on the meeting and it displays within your calendar, you will see the envelope icon. Click on that envelope to email the invitees (Figure B). You can also combine selections of people who have accepted, declined (change their minds), or not replied yet.

Figure B

Learn the keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are a sure way to cut the amount of time doing a task. When the main screen is up, you can type a single letter to change it. Press:

s – Settings

c – Create event

q – Quick add event

w – For week view

m – For month view

a – For agenda

t – Move to current date/time

Agenda view 

The Agenda view can be a helpful way to start the day. It gives you an overview of all the meetings and tasks listed for that day and gives you an indication of where you are at in the day (Figure C).

Figure C

Commands are not case sensitive so there’s no need to press Shift. Google Help lists the entire list of potential shortcuts, along with how to turn it off if accidental key presses are a problem.

Email meeting options 

One of the most painful, unproductive things in the world is the overly polite meeting scheduling. First, you ask, then they ask you what times, then you suggest a time that doesn’t work for them, and on and on. If one of those people procrastinates a bit, the meeting times will actually fly by. If they don’t, the proposed meetings may be too far out. Add in consideration of time zones and the whole thing is a mess. When proposing a meeting, just email three options. Better yet, publish your calendar and let the other person pick.

Publish your calendar

There are a handful of tools to publish your calendar. Calendly integrates with you Gmail, Zoom, and Google Hangouts, so people can see when you are available and schedule a meeting on their terms. I learned about Calendly through my colleague, Raj Subrameyer, a consultant who was using it for his business. If you just want to send people to a web page to book their own meetings, the product starts with a free tier to experiment with. 

I’ve been using SharpSpring for this for close to a year. Despite the hundreds of dollars a month price tag, the only feature I really use is calendar setting, and that arguably paid for itself. By combining my Google Calendar with Calendly with Zoom, I was able to offer published self-service meetings, with a custom web page, in about 10 minutes. The tool has integrations with PayPal and QuickBooks, so I could charge for meetings, but instead I set up 15, 30, and 60 minute bookings at no cost; you can even reserve some time with me.

Drop the web page address in your email, let people schedule their own time with you, color code your meetings to keep them all on one calendar, use keyboard shortcuts, and you could easily cut your calendar time by 20%. Combine that with good calendar and good email hygiene, and you can turbo-charge your productivity.


Google Weekly Newsletter

Learn how to get the most out of Google Docs, Google Cloud Platform, Google Apps, Chrome OS, and all the other Google products used in business environments.
Delivered Fridays

Sign up today

Also see