Nicky's Blog

Reorganising Everything part 3: Calendars

This is the third part of a seven part series where I talk about reorganising my digital and physical life and activities in order to try and feel more sane and at peace.
Part 1 - Getting Things Done
Part 2 - Email
Part 3 - Calendars: Paper vs Digital
Part 4 - Devices and Notifications: Focus Modes
Part 5 - Stripping Back: The Return of RSS
Part 6 - Non-Actionable Items
Part 7 - The Review

Just as I've tried many, many task management apps, I've tried many calendar apps.

I don't have a lot of meetings and appointments these days, but I use my calendar more as a planner for fitting things in: making sure I get my minimum of three work outs a week, try and socialise and see people, errands, chores, etc. I don't usually plan to the minute, but just enough that I can have a rough view of what I've got on, what is absolutely required on a given day, and what I can fit in around it.

I've tried each of what I would call the big three - Outlook (both desktop and web), Google Calendar, and Apple's I've tried Fantastical, the one everyone mentions as the best paid calendar app, and a few others whose names escape me. They each have their own positives and negatives, but they all the share the same three fatal flaws.

  1. They're clunky
  2. They're ugly
  3. They rely on my devices

While it might be an odd criticism for some, I have always found some degree of clunkiness in my calendar apps. Sure, there's some extremely helpful features, like automatically added travel time to and from appointments, or automatically generated appointments on your calendar based on an email confirming an event. However, when it comes to adding and editing appointments, it never just 'flows'.

Fantastical is probably the best I've used for just adding entries in the calendar using their natural language input. Otherwise, it's click/long press on the hour I want, enter everything in, adjust the time, add alert if necessary, and finally colour code it so they don't all merge into one mess of blue boxes. It doesn't sound like much, but it can take a couple of minutes to get everything right, then woe betide you if you want to edit it.

Drag and drop via touch interface never seems to be accurate to me, always missing the first go by five or ten minutes. To get around this, I click into the event and manually adjust times, but this isn't fluid enough when I'm trying to juggle multiple entries to make sure I fit stuff in. The longer it takes me to do what I need to do with a given tool, the less I want to use it.

Ugliness is subjective, I'll admit, but I am not a fan of coloured rectangles or any of the solutions for any overlapping of time boxes. For example, say I've booked out nine to five for work, and add additional entries to block off time for meetings or focus periods. They either end up overlapping or squishing together in their lane, neither particularly pleasing on the eye, the digital neatness ruined.

The last point is the real killer though. Even assuming I found an app that was consistently stunning and unbelievably easy to use, it would still require a reliance on my devices that I would prefer to move away from. Don't get me wrong, I love my devices, my Apple Watch most of all (although I'm yet to find a productivity app who's intergration I love; special shout to to ToDoist for being consistently awful). But they're laden with tempation and desire, and not always good ones.

There is a practical aspect of this though. It requires all of my devices to be in sync at all times, which unless my iPad is connected to Wi-Fi or my iPhone's hotspot, it won't be. It also relies on the internet, and on services being up and running, and while I'm yet to hear of a worldwide Outlook outage that goes on for days, my ISP has definitely had extended outages.

Enter pen and paper.

Just like with calendar apps, I've tried many different paper calendars and journals. The issues at play when it comes to the physical calendars are size and layouts. Too big and it's clunky to carry with you outside; too small and it's impractical for anything other than one line reminders. Similarly, if the layout is too cramped then I'm limited with what I can put into it, whereas if it's too wide, or a day to a page for example, then it becomes bothersome to review each page in advance.

Unlike calendar apps though, you can't just try a physical calendar for free. Online images of layouts are unreliable , although the physical dimensions help you figure out if it's carriable at least, and gives you a relative size to a notebook you may already have on your desk. Still, you don't really know what a thing is like until you use it.

Fortunately, after weeks of looking through recommendations and ideas, I found the Storage.It, a line from Mark's Inc. A 16 month planner, spanning September to December of the following year, the unique selling point is a 60% recycled PVC cover that has a zip opening for you to store pens, business cards, small notebooks, whatever in the cover. It comes in three sizes: A6, B6, and A5, the latter of which I went for, in a pleasing mint colour.

The layout of it toes the line of cramped, but provides enough utility for it to be a negligible issue. Each week is spread across two pages, with the five weekdays getting the majority of the sapce across their 16 hour layouts. There's space at the top and bottom of each day for any all day events and notes, and a dot-grid free space at hte side of each week for notes and memos (I use this to jot things down for my weekly review). The month pages are similarly laid out, with the month laid out in the traditional format across two pages and a dot-grid memo section on the side.

The paper is where it really shines. Silky smooth to the touch, yet takes my everything from biro to fountain pens perfectly. The inks I use - Cross's Red, Robert Oster's Dragon's Night, and Pelikan's 4001 Blue - dry perfectly on the page with no bleed through whatsoever with normal use (a big problem for brands like Moleskine). The crispness of the white helps each of the colour pop, even my plain black archival ink. Honestly, just like with Rhodia and Leuchtterm1917, the paper alone justifies the cost to me.

Using a physical calendar still has obvious drawbacks, mutability being the big one. While it can still be a pain in the backside to move things around in an app, they are still movable with a smooth, digital neatness. Not so with pen and paper; there's no neat lines and data points you can adjust slightly.

Interestingly though, I prefer it. I enjoy the physical crossing out of entries, the finality offered by a solid line crossing through words and the shift it brings. It also seems to promote clearer decision making in me. If it's harder to adjust the plan without turning your calendar into a series of lines in a cramped space, then you have to be certain that it's what you want to do. Better yet, I can make this decision away from my phone, or my iPad, and can make it anywhere I want regardless of the presence of digital signals.

In this age of constant internet chatter, there's a certain freedom in that. More on that in part 4.

It also provides a great excuse to use my different inks and pens to colour codes entires. One for tasks, one for work, for home, Emma, socialising, etc. The colour code is in flux, depending on if the pen I want is halfway across the room, but usually is:

I kind of want an excuse to buy a brown ink though, so that might change soon.

The weekdays have enough lines to plan down to the half hour, with the weekends only allow a line per hour. Another limitiation which could be infuriating with a digital app but feels better with a physcal product. It reduces the focus on minute by minute planning, and forces me to group tasks and items, whilst acknowledging that the thing I thought would take me ten minutes will almost always take longer so I'd better be prepared to make the time for it, especially consider my handwriting is nowhere near as neat as Apple's default font.

On a good week, I'm reviewing the week before and the week ahead every Sunday in my weekly review. I'm checking at events that have come up through the week have been entered, and what I'm committed to for the following week, adjusting as necessary. Per Getting Things Done, I'd adding time sensitive tasks to the planner as opposed to my lists, and I'll review it first thing every morning alongside my task lists, adding at least one item from my next actions list that needs doing.

It's been a while since I've had that kind of week, but I'm picking it back up again, which is the only way to improve.

I don't think I'll be looking at different planners for a while. Once I've found a thing I'm comfortable with and have integrated, that's usually it. But never say never, right?

Words - 1,658
Running total - 14,368 (28.74%, 1,032 words ahead of target)

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