So in our planners giveaway, over 200 of you asked for an entry about how I use digital calendars from Google to manage most everything in my life. Ok! Let’s do this! This will probably be a multi-part series, because when I started to write down all the things I do, I realized this would be way too long to read in one entry.
I’m calling this series You’re So Organized because I hear that a lot, and I think it’s funny because I’m often completely in my own hazy headspace and don’t think I’m organized at all. But maybe I am? I plan ahead, and calendars are a very large part of that strategy.
This title is also shorter than my other title idea, Hack the Crap out of Google Calendars and Run Your Life Smart Bitch Style. Ask me again why I’m not allowed to name things!
But more importantly, I think you can be organized, too. Anyone can be better organized when you set something up once and have it remind you of what you need to do far into the future. So here’s one of however-many in a series!
I’ve done a lot of research and bookmarking when it comes to productivity and figuring out what system works best for me. There are two major concepts that drive my digital organization. The first is the red sock in your white laundry. This is a concept I first read about in an article by Dr. Susan Biali on Psychology Today:
Is there anything in your life that you really dread?
There was a commitment that I was involved in for quite some time, (which shall remain nameless), and as the years went by I successfully decreased the time spent on it until it was just a handful of hours a month.
I noticed a strange phenomenon, though. When I was initially spending a lot of hours on this, it drained me and frustrated me and I fantasized about how nice it would be to do less. I progressively decreased the hours committed over time, yet every time I did so it felt better for a short while and then I started feeling drained and frustrated again. In fact, a handful of hours doing this eventually started feeling the same as many more originally had. This baffled me – and I started to wonder if I was the problem.
I talked to a wise friend about my situation, and she diagnosed the situation within seconds.
“It’s the red sock,” she told me.
The red what?
“The tiny red sock that will wreck your entire load of white laundry if it’s in there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a huge sock or a baby sock, it will still bleed and stain everything.”
Now, not everything in the article is feasible in terms of addressing those tasks that are intimidating, frustrating, and consume far more energy in my life than they should. Life is full of crap we can’t eliminate that we don’t like doing.
But I’ve found a few ways that efficiency and pre-scheduling can help me with those tasks I dislike. Having the following questions helped me figure out what I need to change, eliminate, or make more efficient so I wouldn’t feel that awful dread of “here comes that thing I don’t like doing.”
First question: What are the tasks I dread? What are my red socks?
Second question: What can I do to minimize if not eliminate them?
The second related concept is the idea that Past Sarah and Present Sarah should work together to help Future Sarah out. (YES. I AM MY OWN TRILOGY.) All three versions of Sarah are sometimes forgetful and often distracted, and if any of them remember a thing that needs to be done, it needs to be written down immediately or completed immediately because that thought won’t surface again anytime soon. Past Sarah and Present Sarah also assume that Future Sarah will be tired or busy (or both) so they work together to make things better for her. High-fiving your past self is a great feeling, too. (Thanks, me! You’re welcome, self.)
In Dr. Biali’s example, the “red sock” is one task that stains the time around it. A friend of mine used to hate running trivia night at a particular pub, and it would screw up the weekend immediately before (“Ugh, gotta go do that tomorrow”), the day of (“Fuck, it’s trivia day”) and the day after (“Ugh, that sucked”). He knew all the reasons he didn’t like it; he couldn’t change anything about them except his own participation. Switching the schedule so that pub wasn’t on his weekly set fixed that easily, but getting from “I hate this” to “How can I make this less crapful?” was a big shift.
For me, the “red sock” is almost always related to time and due dates. My “red socks” – the tasks I dread that screw up my day in various levels with negative self-recrimination if I haven’t managed them better include things like: What’s for dinner? What’s due today? Did I miss the window to rent/return the kids’ ski equipment? What day is it? Did I remember to do the thing? I PROBABLY DID NOT.
I know from the “red sock” feeling that I don’t have any aptitude for remembering deadlines and I don’t like to make decisions at the very last minute. I know that I work much more creatively well in advance, and not at the last minute. I also have more fun and enjoy getting shit done when I have ample time to do it. So avoiding anything last minute makes for a lower-stress Future Sarah.
Using digital calendars helped me a LOT with mitigating that creeping, infectious feeling of “You are completely out of control, have no idea what day or time it is, and I bet nineteen crucial things are due tomorrow! AGH!”
So let’s take “What’s Due Today?” and break that down, calendar wise.
I use Google Calendar so this series will focus on that software, but there are a bunch of different digital calendars available, all with the same features. If you have a Gmail address, you have a Google Calendar, so if you’d like to follow along and set things up, you should already have a calendar online waiting for you.
The features that are crucial to the Trilogy of Sarahs, and to avoiding Red Socks are as follows. (That sounds vaguely like a fantasy series.)
Every calendar allows you to repeat an appointment. This is tremendously useful! Here’s what it looks like on the desktop version of Google:
Repeat! The checkbox of power!
Oh, there are all sorts of awesome things in there. Have a look:
The drop down box is an area of much power.
There’s also a second area of great power inside Google Calendars: Notifications!
You can have Google:Cal email you or spawn a pop-up in your browser as a notification. I use the email notification because my triad of organization is my calendar, my email inbox, and my to-do list. If I don’t see an appointment on my calendar for whatever reason, it’ll show up in my inbox thanks to my notification settings, ready to prompt me to either deal with it or assign a to-do item for that day.
The Notifications and Repeat functions of calendars aren’t earth-shattering, I know. But the way I’ve used them helps me a lot.
Because here’s a truth that all three Sarahs have had to acknowledge: I have no idea what day it is, what day of the week it is, or what month. Or year. Or what time it is, for that matter. Seriously. I look at the date several times a day because it does not stick in my brain.
So let’s take something annual as an example: birthdays! I LOVE birthdays, and I love celebrating them, including my own, and I like to REMEMBER them. That last part is really hard. Here’s how I give future forgetful oblivious Sarah a hand:
New appointment: someone’s birthday. Let’s say it’s YOUR birthday!
First, your birthday lasts ALL DAY. We need a lot of time to party AND sip Bacardi, right? Right. So: new appointment, all day!
Next, we know it’s your birthday every year, right? Every year for ever and ever! So, click “REPEAT” and select Yearly, and repeat every 1 year. We’re not missing any parties, future you. No way.
NOW! Here comes the FUN part. (Fun if you’re me and you’re into digital calendars.)
Celebrating your birthday requires some advance notice so that we know to prepare correctly. What do I need to do to celebrate your birthday? I need a present for you, and possibly also Bacardi.
How much time do I need for that? Let’s say 4 days. Three is enough to find a present on Amazon Prime and have it delivered domestically in the US in most cases, but if we need Bacardi, and we certainly do, then actual commerce with humanity may need to occur.
Hello, notifications! I need one to remind me to wish you a Happy Birthday on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and text as is The Way of Our People Now.
I set this one so it will email me at 11:50pm (past my bedtime, even on your birthday eve) so the email will be in my inbox in the morning.
The next day, Future Sarah shall be Adequately Reminded and shall fly across all social media proclaiming it is your birthday!
I also need a second notification to email me 4 days prior to remind me to acquire gifts and Bacardi!
Click “Add a notification”
Then specify when and what time you need that reminder to go shopping. For me, 4 days prior at 10am, which is when I typically deal with email,
The email future Sarah receives will have a subject line as follows:
Notification: YOUR BIRTHDAY! @ Feb 18, 2016
Usually that’s sufficient to remind me, “Oh! I need to buy a gift and alcoholic merriment-making liquids!”
But maybe you need more detail? No problem! Edit the appointment name to read, “YOUR BIRTHDAY – NEED TO GET GIFT & BACARDI” and the subject line of the reminder email will say just that. It will also say that on the later reminder arriving at 11:50pm the day before, which will either be an “OH SHIT I FORGOT” reminder, or a “I TOTALLY DID THAT, GO PAST SARAH” reminder.
My rule is: If the calendar says do it, GET IT DONE. No quibbling. Your future self will thank you.
If you find yourself in OH SHIT I FORGOT territory too often, you can reschedule your notifications or add some so that you nag your future self. Your past self can be as obnoxious as it needs to get things done.
But wait! What if you don’t know what to get?! This is where the “Description” area will help a LOT.
For annual events like birthdays, I write down what I purchased in previous years (because there’s no way I’ll remember) and I add notes when I have an idea for a present.
You know how sometimes you see something that would be perfect for a birthday gift, and you can’t buy it right then? Sure. Would I remember when it’s time to buy? Oh, HELL no. I’ll remember that I had an idea, but I won’t remember what it was. Past Sarah and Present Sarah both know that Future Sarah needs specifics.
So, that’s where the description field is most useful for me:
I can record what I bought in previous years, which I do when I purchase it, and I can write down ideas when I have them, too. If I search my calendars for “Your Birthday,” I can edit the appointment description to include whatever info I need – “Does NOT like gin, prefers rum,” or whatever.
Once you edit a repeating appointment, G:Cal will ask you if you want to change just that individual appointment, that appointment and all that follow, or all of them – past and future.
If I’m keeping track of birthdays or gifts, I edit all the appointments past and future so my records remain the same year to year.
Now, I know this is really, really long, and I hope your eyes didn’t roll back into your head. I want to share a few additional examples of how I use the Repeat and Notification features:
Monthly and Quarterly purchases. My fridge needs a new water filter every 6 months, and I didn’t think it made a difference until I changed the filter and WHOA. So now, I have a recurring Saturday appointment every 6 months in perpetuity WITH a link to the specific filter my fridge requires in the description box. I get the alert, I click the link, I buy the filter.
Similarly, my dogs are extremely anxious about everything, and pheromone collars help them a LOT. Again, didn’t think it made a difference until I changed them every 30 days as suggested, and WHOA. So every month I get an appointment reminder that says: “Order Buzz collar – link in description.”
These are examples of another thing I really dislike: having to do the same piece of research over and over again. What type of filter does the fridge take? What’s the model number? Which collar is the one Buzz needs? I do it once and include the information I need with each repeating appointment. No re-inventing the wheel if I can avoid it. If I notice myself doing the same thing repeatedly, I find a way to make that stop.
I also have financial monthly reminders, such as what exact date my credit card will autopay. That appointment comes with a notification two days before to check both the amount due and that the funds are in place.
Yearly reminders. You know how you’re supposed to change the batteries in your smoke and CO detectors when you change the clocks? I never remember. I’m too focused on making sure the clocks are right, then running around checking the time against my cell phone because I can’t remember if I already changed that clock or not. Welcome to my brain! It’s weird in here.
I have yearly appointments for changing the batteries, and for things like going to rent the kids’ ski and snowboard equipment (tip: go in late September/early October to get the better selection of rentals), and then returning said equipment when the season is over (otherwise we come across the stuff in August and go OH SHIT WE FORGOT).
I also have yearly reminders for things like “Schedule your mammogram,” and “Schedule your annual physical.” “Get your flu shot.” “Time to renew your Epi-Pen prescription.”
Basically, the irritation I try to combat is the daily fear that I’ve forgotten something or missed something because I have no idea what day, time, month, week, or year it is. Ever.
For me, successful planning and scheduling isn’t so much about finding the perfect paper planner. It’s important to not have to repeat work I’ve already done. I don’t want to have to write all the yearly anniversaries and dates in a new planner when I get a new one (or when I order another one because I forgot that I owned two already). I don’t want to have to reinvent the repeating appointments I’ve set up. I set them up once, and I obey when the calendar (aka Past Sarah) tells me to do something.
I hope this was useful for you. This was sort of a 101-level explanation of the basic features, which I’ve built upon to manage my home, personal, professional, and family life. This entry was hella-long, but I have still more to talk about! Next up: using separate calendars (and different colors!) to manage different parts of your life.
I hope you’re enjoying this series. If you’d like to receive the new You’re So Organized entries directly into your email inbox, we can do that!