10 calendar hacks to help you stay productive

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So much of our world today has gone digital. We text and email instead of write letters, cuddle up with e-books instead of paperbacks and choose direct deposits over paper checks. Yet there’s one papery part of life that has remained strong: The calendar.

A report from NPD Group found that appointment book and planner sales grew 10% from 2015 to 2016. Just last year, we’ve seen articles pop up like “The Case For Using a Paper Planner” from The New York Times and “My First Month Using a Paper Planner After a Decade Drowning in Apps” from Fast Company.

Why all the fuss about paper planning? Well, these tangible calendars are easy to personalize, decorate, and mark up with your own notes, adjustments, and hacks.

Yes, calendar hacks. That’s where this piece comes in. With 10 handy tips, we’ll teach you how to customize your paper calendar—with some digital love sprinkled in there, too—to increase productivity, stay organized, and better manage your time.

Let’s get started.

1. Color-code for different schedules

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Image by Patrick Perkins via Unsplash

You know how Google Calendar lets you create appointments in different colors for separate schedules, like “Work,” “Family,” and “School”? There’s no reason you can’t use the same calendar hacks on paper. Simply choose some sticky notes, highlighters, markers, or fun, colored pens to keep each part of your life organized.

Color-coding will also give you a clearer view of how you’re distributing your time. Say you choose red for “Work” and blue for “Side hustle.” Then you look at your calendar and see too much red in the evenings, but you’re skimping on blue. You know it’s time to make more room for that side gig and strike a better balance.

2. Use a combination of daily, weekly, and monthly calendars

Who says you have to choose just one? Try a mix of calendars to find the combination that works for you. After all, it’s important to set both immediate and long-term tasks. And your daily goals are going to look a lot different from your monthly goals. You might set out to “Exercise for 30 minutes” on Monday but “Run a 5K” by the end of the month.

That’s why Canva provides templates all of the above—daily, weekly, and monthly calendars that you can customize to best fit your schedule and lifestyle. Just check out these templates for a Colorful Dotted Weekly Calendar or the Colorful Patterned Classroom Calendar.

The clean, modern designs provides enough space for you to map out each week and day. And then you can print them out or save them as one file to get a bird’s eye view of your month. With just a few clicks, you can also mix and match different colors, patterns, and layouts to create unique designs for each week or day.

3. Categorize by priority

If you’ve never heard of the “rocks, pebbles, and sand” metaphor for time management, you’re about to. And it makes for one of the most effective calendar hacks. As the story goes, a philosophy professor showed his class a jar packed with rocks and asked if it was full. They said it was. And sure, it looked full, but it actually wasn’t. The professor then added pebbles to the jar—fitting in the spaces between the rocks—and finally sand—fitting in the spaces between the pebbles.

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Image by tdfugere via Pixabay

The idea was that the rocks represented your greatest priorities—those most important activities like spending time with family and taking care of your health. The pebbles represent other important activities like school and career pursuits. And the sand represents the remaining busy work and material possessions, which come last.

If you start filling your jar with the rocks (a.k.a. the most important things), you can still fit in the pebbles and sand wherever there is room. But if you start by filling your jar with sand (a.k.a. the nonessential things) you won’t have room for the rocks.

That’s why it’s crucial to prioritize. Create a list of your tasks and label them A, B, C or 1, 2, 3—or even rocks, pebbles, and sand. Start filling your calendar with the most important items and then fit in the others wherever there is room. Otherwise, you could lose track of those truly valuable projects and goals.

4. Try the time management matrix

Author and educator Stephen Covey publicized the time management matrix in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey suggests starting each week by writing down everything you want to accomplish and then filling in this matrix of four quadrants: “urgent,” “not urgent,” “important,” and “not important.”

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The management matrix gives you an overview of the tasks you need to do in order of priority.

Say, for example, you know you want to work on the next chapter of your novel. That could go in Quadrant 2. Or say you want to catch up on your favorite Netflix series. That could go in Quadrant 4.

After filling out your matrix, you’ll see that you may need to cut out Quadrant 4 tasks—like wasting time on YouTube—in order to make time for Quadrant 1 and 2 tasks. You may also need to cut out Quadrant 3 tasks—like unexpected phone calls. You may think these tasks are urgent at the moment, but they’re actually distracting you from the most important things in your schedule.

In fact, the Navy Blue Weekly Calendar and Turquoise & Purple Bold Classroom Calendar templates from Canva includes a little “notes” box that’s the perfect size for creating your matrix.

Print it out and fill it in with pencil each week, or save it as a digital file and create new weekly versions with your matrix. Either way, you’ll be well prepared to increase productivity and focus on what matters most.

5. Employ the arrow method

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Yellow Arrow Led Signage by Isaque Pereira via Pexels on Canva

The arrow method is just a catchy name for front-loading your week with your most important activities. It’s also another version of the “rocks, sand, and pebbles” metaphor. The arrow method helps you prioritize those crucial tasks by knocking them out right away and riding that wave of momentum as your week progresses.

“The goal is to make your weekly calendar look like an arrowhead—a lot of stuff at the beginning, tapering out to a fine point at the end,” wrote Nicholas Sonnenberg, creator of this calendar hack. “In order to accomplish this, I schedule the majority of my meetings at the beginning of the week, preferably on Monday or Tuesday. So I start out my week with a pretty packed schedule, but then the rest of the week is more open.”

Additionally, if any unexpected distractions or opportunities pop up, the arrow method helps ensure that you can attend to them because you’ve already checked off your biggest items.

6. Share calendars with collaborators

Calendars can be personal possessions, but if you’re working on a collaborative project, they can also be tools for syncing up with partners and colleagues. Maybe you and your co-founder are trying to build a new marketing plan, or you and a remote contributor are trying to meet a deadline.

It’s crucial that you have the ability to collaborate on your calendar—not just on filling it out, but on building and designing it in the first place. On Canva, for example, you can start with an eye-catching template—like the Cute Funky Calendar or the Pastel Abstract Shapes Monthly Calendar—and customize it based on your needs. You can create a second calendar in the empty circle—one for each contributor—or add an extra section for notes.

Once you’re ready, just click the “Share” button to invite collaborators via email and start building your joint calendar design.

7. Check “Calendars of Interest” on Google

Oh no! Swedish Midsummer is coming up and you were planning on scheduling an important call with a client in Sweden. (Hey, it happens.) “Calendars of Interest” on Google has your back.

These are collections of important dates categorized by holiday, region, sport, and even phases of the moon. Whether you add some of these events to your Google Calendar or paper calendar, you can use them to stay up to speed and avoid conflicts.

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Add other calendars to your Google Calendar account through the settings page

To access this resources, click the “Settings” icon on your Google Calendar, find “Add Calendar” in the sidebar, and choose “Browse calendars of interest.”

8. Set aside time for emails

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Image by Rawpixel via Pixabay

Here’s a staggering statistic: The average professional spends 28% of the workday—or 2.6 hours—reading and responding to emails, according to McKinsey. Now imagine that chunk of time spread throughout the workday, interrupting deep work and distracting you from pressing tasks.

Although it may seem tough to close your email tab and turn your notifications off, setting aside a specific block of time for answering emails is one of the most valuable calendar hacks. It can help you stay focused on the work at hand throughout the day. And it might even improve your email skills since you’ll be tuned in exclusively to your inbox and correspondences.

9. Make “themed” days

If you’re someone who only wants to concentrate on one project or area at a time, themed days might be the productivity hack for you. Hey, it worked for Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey.

“All my days are themed,” he told Fast Company. “Monday is management. Tuesday is product, engineering, and design. Wednesday is marketing, growth, and communications. Thursday is partnership and developers. Friday is company and culture. It works in 24-hour blocks.”

Did Dorsey convince you? Start making your own themed calendars in Canva with templates like Colorful Bold Weekly Calendar and the Colorful Quote Calendar.

Choose from a variety of ready-made icons, illustrations, and images to codify your days and create fun themes. Taco Tuesdays, anyone?

10. Use both paper and digital calendars

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Grey Apple Keyboard and Grey iPad by picjumbo via Pexels on Canva

Video may have killed the radio star, but digital calendars didn’t kill paper calendars—or vice versa. In fact, they can coexist happily together and you don’t necessarily have to pick one over the other.

After switching from apps to a paper planner, for instance, Contently co-founder Shane Snow found his perfect balance of analog and digital calendaring. He decided to use his paper calendar for planning out his weeks but also used his Google Calendar to keep track of conference information and meeting notes.

That’s why it’s important to take the time and find the calendar configurations that work for you. Whether you’re app aficionado or you still love the feel of a paper planner in your hands, you can use these calendar hacks to increase productivity and stay on track towards your goals—one day, week, or month at a time.

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