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!
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Looooooove this. I do a lot of this stuff using my paper calendar. I like the links in the reminder idea. I shall do that in future.
Oh, and I do the things where I forget which clocks I’ve changed. I never change the one in the car – which is okay for me, but confuses the hell out of DH, if he borrows my car.
I enjoy your past-present-and-future selves separation! I do the same thing but my various selves seem to have a less harmonious relationship. Ex. Past me sets up a thing (event + reminder + location) because I don’t trust my future self to remember. Present me then checks the reminder set-up of the thing in case my past self did it wrong. Future me wonders if past me got the location details wrong. It’s a bit crazy-making. Does anyone else do this?
@Gina: I totally do that! I had to set up a specific system of making appointments and reminders to clue my future self that I knew what I was doing. Sometimes it’s a checklist in the description, so the appointment would be “Lunch with Gina at Baklava Heaven,” and in the description I’d either copy & paste the email or message that set up the appt, or give myself the date/time/subject of the email so I can double check it, AND tell my future self that I DID double check it by putting that info there in the first place. Eventually I learned to trust my past self. But it’s hard when you’re forgetful — I totally get it!
@Rhoda: I did that, too! Used to drive my husband and kids nuts that the clock would be wrong, but I couldn’t remember how to change it. And if I’m in the car, I have somewhere to be, and don’t have time to Google the instructions! I had to write out instructions and put them in the storage part of the arm rest until I memorized how to do it.
I’m really glad this was useful for you both. This is a bit outside the usual scope of the site, so I was nervous about posting it, even with all the “yes!” votes on the poll! Past Sarah is both forgetful and self-doubting sometimes!
I have numerous calendars set up in Google, and they’re color coordinated for various parts of my life: Reviewing, editing, personal, etc. The best part is I can sync it with my iCal, and if I need to see just one calendar, I can I click the others.
I set up a reminder to water my orchids. Other houseplants are on regular schedules it’s easy for me to remember, but the orchids tend to want every 16 days, or every 22 days, and my brain apparently doesn’t care for those patterns. Now my phone tells me and my orchids (knock wood) survive.
This post is awesome and incredibly helpful. I’m going to try all of them out! I keep switching between paper and digital. I’d love to make digital work for me. I hope you also add in a few details about the to do list. (Is it digital? One enormous list?) I particularly love your point about not doing research over and over again. That’s all I feel like I do!
That’s what I do, too! My next post is about color-coding and dividing calendars by topic/importance. Helps me a LOT – I’m glad I’m not alone!
@silvercleo: What worked for me was saying, “You’re going to commit to this for a quarter, then six months, then a year, and you’re going to be consistent about it, because we (The Trilogy of Sarahs in Time) do NOT like forgetting things, missing appointments, and screwing up.” Once I committed to a length of time, then extended as it continued to work, I found it easier and easier to keep going.
I will definitely add some options for to-do lists. As I said, the three elements of my organization are calendars, email inbox, and my to-do list, but I’m in the process of possibly switching to-do lists to a program that will sync across all my devices. Currently my to-do list is all digital, and it is divided into parts similar to my calendar – daily, weekly, monthly reminders, etc.
YES. Feeling that I am being inefficient, or that I’m re-doing the same work over and over makes me REALLY irritated, and I try to avoid it at all costs — hence my inability to adopt the use of paper planners for everything. I would dread in exaggerated amounts the re-entering of yearly/monthly data and it would infect my ability to use the planner at all. I set up recurring calendar appointments once, and it’s done. And like I said, just about every calendar software has these features, so it’s not exclusive to G:Cal.
I said earlier to the SBTB crew that I felt pretty vulnerable about posting about all of this, partly because it was way off-topic for the site, and partly because I feel as if I’m introducing everyone to how truly goofy my brain is. It’s weird in weird ways. Instead of trying to change it, I adapted technology to work with how unpredictable my memory is. So long as I’m listening to the calendars, I’m doing good.
But it’s kind of embarrassing to have everyone reading how weird my brain is, so I’m very reassured and grateful for the positive comments. Thank you.
I was first introduced to Google Docs during grad school where it was helpful but it was when I had my first professional librarian job that it all made so much sense. Now I could put down the weekly and monthly appointments and I felt like I wasn’t drowning so much in the new job terror. The job didn’t last but I know I’ll be better prepared for the next one.
This also reminds me how much I like that Google Maps tells you what’s coming up. I’m the kind of person who needs to get myself ready for something even when driving as the fear of being late or missing my exit are always there. When I can glance ahead and go, okay, I see my plan, I can enjoy the journey more.
I LOVED THIS!! I use Google Calendars All. The. Time. I can see the calendars for my husband, daughter, and office manager also, so I can schedule thing some or all of us need to do. Ex.-Lunch meeting with the business loan officer, hubby, and me. I can be visiting with loan guy, look at the calendar, and know hubby is free next Tuesday, without having to stop and call hubby.
I also have recurring events so I know WHEN to show up for that meeting every 6 weeks. It’s the only way I can function.
Your brain isn’t any weirder than mine. It’s a jungle in here. With bats.
I always find it interesting how other people organize their lives and work around their weird brains (we’re all weird!!), so thank you so much for sharing this.
I’m a tutor and my schedule changes so often (you can imagine that working with 10+ families means that rescheduling happens all the time!) that digital planning doesn’t work for me. Having to change recurring appointments constantly drives me crazy, and if I don’t change them, I get confusing notifications that cause me to doubt Past Jessica’s competence. I tend to have a running list of my current ideal (no cancellations/reschedules) schedule handwritten and then I make notes and a to-do list every day. It’s not the best, bc I also don’t like the feeling of inefficiency that comes with repeating tasks, but it’s the only way I’ve found that works for the combination of me and this job! Like I said before, the differences bw people’s needs and processes totally fascinate me, and it gives me warm fuzzies seeing other people figure out what works for me.
This morning I showed up early for my doctor appointment only to be told it was an hour earlier than I thought. I’d noted it in my phone calendar, confirmed both a text and phone call from the clinic that I’d be there, but relied on my brain rather than a notification this morning. I’ll start notifying myself from now on.
Somehow I never understood I could have multiple notifications for one calendar entry. WHOA!
Love this. I use a bullet journal for lists and notes and random brain dumps and basic calendar stuff but rely on my digital calendars for detailed calendar management because I too need the oh so helpful little reminders to remind current Mel what past Mel intended us to do to make life easier for Future Mel. I use iCal but works in a similar way. I am not joking when I say a large part of my brain is outsourced to my iPhone 😀 You are not alone!
I share your love for Google calendars. I’m retired now, so there’s not so much stuff, but the stuff that is there is important. My aging brain needs all the help it can get. I also love that my iPhone and my MacBook Pro talk to each other behind my back. If an entry is in one, it automatically is in the the other, and I don’t have to write it twice or try to remember to enter the update in my home computer that I made on the phone while I was out and about. Where were these tools when I really needed them as I was juggling work and personal life? I love that I lived long enough to see what wonderful things technology has brought and hate that I will probably die before the really good stuff like flying cars and personal jetpacks come along.
I love this idea but have never explored it fully as I was concerned that with syncing, my calendar would become accessible to people other than myself. (I likely misread an instruction of check box detail somewhere.)
So I’d like to confirm, is your Google Calendar just for you? Can anyone else access it / view it? And most importantly for me, does it sync with an iPhone?
I currently use a combination of iPhone calendar and iPhone notes. It works but I’m always looking to improve the system.
I also run my whole life with Google Calendars. I use it with Pimlical on Android, which is super customizable but not especially user friendly – but I’ve been using it ever since the Palm Pilot days, so it works the way my brain works. The best parts are that it allows for completely customizable repeats, so I can add weird items like all the days there is no school to one recurring item, and then make edits or attachments to the whole series. It also lets you put icons on a calendar, so I can see at a glance that today is a conference call, I need to go to the bank and my son has karate.
Like Sarah, I put alllll the details in the appointments, including the address and confirmation emails, although I hadn’t tried the birthday one yet, that’s pretty genius.
My main Google calendar hack is not to put the appointment time as the start time, but rather the time I need to leave. So for a 4 PM doctors appointment that is 30 minutes away, I put the time down as 3:15-5:30, and the subject line is Dr So-and-so, 4 PM, take insurance card (Plus a reminder the day before to find my insurance card). That way I don’t accidentally book myself a 3-4:00 PM appointment when I’m supposed to be driving.
And actually, that’s related to my main marriage communication solution. After lots of mixed signals and frustrations, my husband and I have trained each other not to talk about what time an event is, but rather what time we need to leave or what time we need the other person home to take over childcare so the first person can shower and change, etc. It’s helped free up a lot of energy for me to just have to think “I need to be home by 5:15 to tonight” rather than doing the mental math of “H has a meeting at 6 in city X, so he’ll need to leave by 5:30 but he likes to be early and there might be traffic …”, etc.
Q for Sarah: do you keep a separate family calendar or color coded category for each kid, etc? I go back and forth on the best way to keep track of events I need to know about but aren’t specifically my appointments.
I do the same thing with “time to leave for X” appointments. As for separate family calendars, not yet. If there’s something I’m doing that my husband needs to know about, the appointment will read “Sarah doing The Thing, Adam FYI.” Then I share the appointment with him on his G:Cal. As for the kids, they don’t have enough stuff going on that they have their own calendars, but I think that’ll happen in the near future. It’ll also be a good way for me to teach them how to schedule themselves.
Yes, I can make any calendar I create accessible to other people. I can share individual appointments with anyone via email, or I can create a share link for an entire calendar so that anyone who imports the link into their own calendar can see the schedule. I can also make calendars public. And yes, you can sync G:Cal with iPhone. Here are two tutorials:
Syncing to iPhone – Digital Trends
Google Support Tutorial for Calendar Syncing Across Devices
After I paid my student loans twice in one month, I’ve started making a note in my calendar on the day I paid it, so now I know before I hit “submit” to check the calendar and make sure I haven’t paid it already.
I also make a note of when online/recurring monthly subscriptions are going to end (I often pay for a 6-month subscription to Ancestry.com or do one of those Audible 3-month trials) and I add a crazy amount of notifications to remind me to cancel, 1 day before, 2 days before, 3 and 5 days before, all in an effort to make me remember to actually cancel whatever it is before I get charged again.
I have a google calendar that I sync to both iCloud and the Sunrise calendar app so that no matter where I am, I can access my calendar. Recently, I prefer to use the icloud/mac interface because I can add a travel time to my appointments (although I’ve learned the hard way 1: believe siri when she says it’s time to leave; and 2: add 10 minutes to the appointment start time to give me time to find parking).
This was a great post! I teach computer classes for a public library, and my Google Calendar class is coming up in a couple of weeks. I’ll definitely be using some of the examples you provided as well as some of those in the comments. Very timely!
I love Google Calendar! I know you are writing about color coding soon, but one of the things we do is use a specific color for birthdays. Then all of my household shares access to the birthday calendar. We all get text notifications in the morning of “Nana’s birthday”, etc. I also started putting the year someone was born after their name. I can see (and figure out age) at a glance without having to check further in the details. ie: “Suzy’s birthday 2005”.
Great post! I can’t wait to see what other tips I might glean from the series!
I love that you are doing this series! I am fully dependent on my calendar and phone reminders to get things done. I am also afflicted with the write-it-down-or-you-will-never-remember syndrome you described.I schedule a reminder to pick up dry cleaning, this week I also have things scheduled like get the tax stuff together (all day thursday).
My kids are older than yours and so we have taken full advantage of the gmail/iPhone calendar sharing features. Since they each have a gmail account they have it sync their calendar on their phones. I have access to those and schedule appointments for them. I also include “family time” stuff on there so when they want to make plans with friends they can start that process on their own and know if Saturday is open or not. They still have to check with me, but it streamlines those questions. At the beginning of the school year I put in all the school holidays/in service days with reminders a couple days in advance, too.
Google cal (or maybe it’s my new Samsung phone? not sure there) has a great new feature that asks about travel time. If your calendar doesn’t do that, you can do what I did which was set the appt for the time you have to leave and in the subject write the time you have to be there. For example, “Dentist appt at 10 am” *block calendar for 9:30-11:30*
I had to leave those pretty paper calendars behind, even though I stare longingly at them in the book store every year. But I know I just don’t use them. I LOVE having a brain in my pocket. That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.
Side note-Your brain is not nearly as weird as you think it is. Every time you explain some weirdness you have in the podcast I think, that is totally me too. Or maybe we are just the same weird, in which case HIGH FIVE, my weird sister!
Looking forward to the next one!
if you are a to-do list freak, I highly recommend Wunderlist which has a desktop and web application plus apps for idevices and android. You can make tons of lists and sublistts and it’s just so easy to open the app on your phone and jot something down quickly.
This is an awesome article. I just wanted to point out that you don’t need a gmail account to use G Docs or Calendar. I use my old skool yahoo email.
[…] that means creating repeating events. (See this series by Sarah Wendell on how to take this to the next level.) I block in an hour for lunch every day, so that even if my […]
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