If you care at all about productivity and getting more out of your time, you probably are constantly on the lookout for tools that might help you. In fact, the question I hear most often related to improving in any area is usually related to what tools successful people are using. If you know me, you probably know that I believe that principles are much more important than tools, however, I also believe that sometimes the two don’t exclude each other. So if people ask me what I believe to be the greatest productivity tool my answer always is: my calendar.

At first glance, a calendar might not be that exciting. People most often use it to document and keep track of their commitments. Typical entries are work meetings, coffee with friends, and having to pick up some eggs for your spouse after the gym. But that only touches the documentary function of a calendar and even that only half so. A calendar is the simplest tool to not only keep track and document your activities but also to plan, keep yourself accountable, prioritize, keep your peace of mind and design your ideal life. I will show you exactly how I use a simple calendar to create my perfect life.

The Documentary Function

Let’s start with the obvious function that people most often use. Yes, a calendar is great to keep track of your commitments and not forget when you have to be where and meet who. That is the first part of this function that everybody applies.

In addition, your calendar is a window into your past and can provide useful data to reflect upon. Think about it, how easy is it for you to keep track of your past week? What about the past month? Or the past year? If you’ll use the calendar in a similar way as I’m suggesting, you will have a pretty good idea just by scrolling back. Your calendar is an archive of your past activities and poses as a mental crutch to remember what happened and what you achieved.

Every time you sit down for a review and strategy session — which ideally you should do more than once a year — you have almost all the information you need in your calendar. You’ll get a pretty good picture of where you put the most focus and what you achieved in the past weeks. This information then makes it much easier to use the second function of the calendar.

The Design Function

If your calendar can reflect your past life it can also be used to design the future. Think about it, instead of just documenting what you have to do and who you have to meet why not use the calendar to plan your desired future?

There is the so-called “Perfect Day” Exercise in goal setting where one imagines and writes down the perfect day to get a vision to work towards. I found this always too simplistic because no matter how awesome that day is, you don’t want your life to be like groundhog day every day. But a perfect week… that sounds more like it.

Every once in a while, I pull up my calendar, take an empty week and start filling in the blanks. First, I’ll put all my regular commitments, work for example. These are the things I must do every week. The rest is open for design as I like. I want to exercise in some way at least three times a week so I schedule it in. Same with times I want to socialize, self-study, or work on my own projects. Paint your empty canvas so that your desired picture appears.

Painted Calendar

Example of a «painted calendar»

Think of this as your template that you aspire to. You can have it as a separate calendar that you can make visible or not in your calendar app to guide you to your perfect week. I for my part just have it as reoccurring (temporary) appointments that appear every week. I then try to live up to this plan by looking at it daily and letting myself be guided by it. The important thing is to treat even the ‘voluntary’ parts as actual appointments. That way you have some accountability and are conscious when you exchange planned work time with social time for example.

You can also take this further and use it to plan your life one, three, or five years from now. Make a calendar for your vision. How do you want to spend your week if there were no limitations? This could be a visual representation of what you strive towards. You’d have a clear plan from the week you are currently at to the one you want to create for yourself. Furthermore, it is easy to compare your progress by comparing the two over time.

Freedom through Structure

Isn’t this too restrictive? This is the typical counterargument you hear against the practice of calendar painting. However, I think the opposite is true. With this practice, you can make the things in your life that are a priority habitual. This makes it easy to follow your perfect week consistently without needing to source too much willpower. The alternative would be to re-schedule every week on its own or try to live up to your priorities each week by simply keeping them in mind.

Furthermore, your choices become much more conscious. Want to get healthier? Spend more time in the gym. Want to meet new people? Schedule some socializing time. Not making enough progress on your projects? Carve out some time to get them done. You are always free to choose what you do with your time — even with this calendar template — however, your choice becomes much more deliberate.

It is also completely okay to steer off the defined path. You can always re-schedule if your priorities on any given day change, but it is harder to make continuous excuses. If you skipped the gym three times in a row to go out with friends for drinks you can see it clearly in your calendar. This might be alright if your priorities shifted to spending more time with friends, but it is a warning signal if you actually prioritize getting healthier.

How to do it

To summarize, I’ll map out the exact process I use so you can try it out yourself.

1. Pull up a blank week on your calendar

2. Define sleep time

3. Schedule in the obligations — the things you must do

4. Schedule your morning and evening routines as well as eating and commuting times

5. Write down all activities you want to do in a week and allocate percentages to each according to your priorities (don’t forget to list leisure and unscheduled or open time slots as well, you want some buffer)

6. Now calculate the hours for each activity by taking the remaining hours in your week (after step 4) and multiply with the respective percentages

7. Now you just have to schedule the activities according to your calculated time slots

8. Live it and adjust if priorities change