Recently I had a conversation with my brother over a Reuben sandwich and a beer. In a moment of business geekishness we scheduled this time to talk about our productivity systems, to see what we could learn from each other. By “productivity system” I mean how we make plans, schedule time, track commitments and manage the things that matter most.
By the end of two and a half hours, my biggest realization was this: the backbone of a successful productivity system is the chunk of time you spend using and updating the system each week. It is that one or two hour period where you turn off your phone and step back to review the whole picture of your week, and make some thoughtful decisions about how to best use your time. If you can’t get yourself to spend time “working your system” consistently, then even a wonderful system won’t work; if you do invest time every week, then a decent system makes a big difference.
But doing this consistently is extremely difficult. In the midst of so many requests and commitments, distractions, travel schedules and enticing opportunities, it can be almost impossible to maintain a sacred time for planning. Even if you know that it represents vital strategic thinking time about your business, family and whole life–perhaps the single most important use of time in your whole week—it’s still incredibly challenging to follow through on doing it. The question is, how can you make that time inviolable? How can you make it something that happens no matter what else is going on?
After musing about this for a while I came up with a solution that I am now playing with: using different colors in Outlook calendar to visually distinguish between different degrees of commitment. By using different colors, I have an easy way to see just how critically important any given commitment or appointment is, and this helps me keep some things sacred. When a new urgent matter comes up, the colors help me see what I can move around to accommodate it, and what needs to stay put.
Not all commitments are at the same level of importance. Your child’s birthday party, for example, probably rises higher on the list than a routine meeting of a professional association. You constantly make decisions about the level of importance of what goes onto your calendar. The idea here is to use colors in your calendar to make some of these distinctions more explicit so it’s harder to lose track of what’s truly important in the heat of a crazy busy life. Also, the discipline of having to choose a color each time something goes on the calendar helps keep a focus on what’s important.
I decided on green, yellow and red to follow the pattern of a traffic light. When I see a commitment on my calendar, the color tells me how solid or important that commitment is. This is a variation of David Allen’s idea that a calendar should only be used for the “hard landscape” of one’s week. Instead, my calendar shows how hard or soft each commitment is:
Green—Moveable Commitment. Some commitments are not as critical and may be easier to move around than others. I use green for medium-level commitments so that if something must go or change on my calendar, I look to the green items first. Green is for go.
Yellow—Important Commitment. Most commitments should only be moved with caution. Many meetings and appointments fall into this category. Some are more important than others, or harder to move, but in general yellow indicates a typical commitment that involves another person or group of people. Yellow can also be a commitment to yourself to do something that you want to be very cautious about moving. When I see a yellow commitment, I think “Slow down. Don’t move this around unless you really have to. This is important.”
Red—Inviolable Commitment. So far I am reserving red for only a very few things. These are commitments that I want to think of as completely fixed on my calendar–the true “hard landscape” of my calendar that I don’t want to change, even if something else comes up and demands attention. My early morning meditation time, and my weekly strategy / planning time are examples of this category because they are extremely important to me. Although I am not recommending fanaticism here, the idea is that inviolable commitments represent the most important use of time, and the highest commitments to ourselves and others. Only a real emergency should move these.
I suspect I’ll make some changes to the system as I go along. But so far it’s helping me remember my weekly strategic thinking time. On my calendar today in yellow–publish new blog posting.