Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Organizing my days (with Google Calendar)

How to stop worrying and… actually, if you're a real person, you'll worry anyway. Yet if, like me, you have to work on several projects at more or less the same time, you could have many tasks to attend to, some bound to specific time-slots, others to be done “when there is time” (huh?). And if you don't have some sort of a system, the tasks may start slipping through the cracks in your busy schedule and your close-to-but-not-quite-perfect memory.

You get the idea.
(photo by Criss Cross Circus)

Here's the system I use and enjoy. It is based on the same foundation that GTD (“Getting Things Done” by David Allen) — if you clear your mind of the necessity to keep track of what to do, you'll get more peace to be able to concentrate on the One Task that you're doing right now. Hopefully just one, but oh well. And clearing your mind is done by writing things down.

At this point GTD became too complicated for me, as it introduces several “inboxes” (folders) for specific kinds of tasks, depending on their urgency and importance (which are two different qualities, an important distinction to make in any system). For my personality and current workload I decided that these folders are complications that defeat the purpose. Yet I understand they could be very helpful for someone.

Therefore my approach cuts on the folders, and uses combination of Google Calendar and desktop notifications for my email (provided by several tools / mail services, and you could use mobile notifications as well, if you're into over-organized after work hours — oftentimes not a good idea, but sometimes you do what you gotta do).


To make the process smooth and quick I configured the default task notification in Google Calendar to be “Email — 10 minutes in advance”. This means that adding 95% of tasks (which are essentially reminders) means I click on an empty time slot, enter task name, press enter, go.

Default notifications are configured per calendar, in Settings (under the cog icon) / Calendars / Reminders and notifications. Here's the proof image:

You can also set default event length to 30 minutes in Settings / General, while you're there. This helps if majority of your events are task reminders, and you can always drag-adjust the duration to what's needed for a specific job.

New Task

First step — I find out about something I need to do. It could have a specific date / time, or it could be “don't forget to” kind of task. Examples:

  • Call such-and-such person (could be a pre-arranged time, or I just need to call them, so I write it down not to keep thinking about it).
  • Read an article at this link (paste link into task title).
  • Check a movie I am interested in when it comes out on DVD (set half a year in advance, and forget till then).
  • Prepare for a conference call with a client (one-two hours beforehand) and…
  • Actual conf.call time.
  • Read the Bible (in the quiet time after lunch, daily repetition, good for you!)
  • Write a blog post :) (for this I also set repetition rules)

I then hover (like an eagle!) over the calendar, and find a more or less suitable spot for it. Click, type, go, done:
The default notification helps skip opening the full form (unless needed).
That's it, for planning.

Get Notified

Next step, after I've presumably stopped worrying (hah!), at a certain point in my day I get an email with the task title in it, and get a floating window from my desktop's icon tray. Time to act!

So I act. I do the task straight away, if I can, and later delete the email notification from the inbox. Done.

Need to Delay

If, on the other hand, I can't do the task immediately (which is quite often), I either keep the email in the inbox (if I still expect to be able to do it later today), or re-schedule — with Google Calendar this means dragging to another time slot (and deleting the email message). Rinse and repeat.

…Or Cancel

What I appreciate about this approach is that I can even put down tasks that are just rough ideas, and have them gestate somewhat. Then the notification comes, and I can make a quick decision of whether I actually need to do it at all — in some cases I do, but sometimes, with very speculative thoughts, I just say — nah, not worth it. In which case I delete the email, and do something else.

Bird-eye View

Highly confidential! Well, not really :)

This is how my weekly calendar looks (empty spaces are not “free time”, these are usually tasks that are in the flow for me, I don't need reminders for those). This is a mix of repeated, timed, urgent, important, or speculative tasks. I entered them — so I know what they are, and don't need an overhead system to further sort them.

Add — get notified — act or reschedule (or even remove), repeat.

The “system”, if I can even call it that, is simple and works! So it makes my life easier, and thus makes me a happier man. I wish you the same.

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