My Year Without A Calendar

I've been living without a calendar for a year now. It didn't happen by design and it didn't happen entirely by accident. The source of the change lies somewhere in between. Here's what happened...

When I left my corporate J.O.B. in April 2013, my calendar was my lifeline to all that mattered, or so I thought. It told me where I needed to be, when, with whom and for how long. It was my guide both at work and at home.

A Necessary Evil?

We're supposed to manage our calendar, but it felt more like my calendar was managing me. I'd set up work time and leisure time but that time would often get displaced because of external demands. I'd love to blame it on my corporate work life, but it extended well beyond this period, as you'll see in the evolution I offer below.

The Corporate-life Calendar

Time is the coin of life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.
— Carl Sandburg

The life of a corporate type is that your co-workers can see your availability, and many who need to can see your calendar in its entirety. That means that others can send you meeting requests knowing you're "available", though many don't care if you are or aren't. These folks request your time or impose a deadline regardless of what else you might be juggling with or find important at the moment. 

Case in point: I was sometimes quadruple-booked for certain time slots, with everyone insisting their meeting or request was of top importance. It was so ridiculous that I started leaving all meeting requests on my calendar until the last minute, hoping others would make the decision for me about which one I should attend by either rescheduling or cancelling them. Amazingly, this happened more often than not.

This assault on my time meant that I'd be in meeting after meeting from as early as 7:30am to sometimes as late as 6:30pm, without getting my "real" work* done.

The Post-corporate-life Calendar

When I left Megacorpland, I entered the first phase of calendar rehab and I sucked at it. I started using my Calendar app (sync'd between my computer and my phone of course) to keep track where I needed to be and when and what I was doing with my time in 15-minute increments—both planned and actual.

My behaviour was a relic of my former life, where I'd use my calendar to help me prepare for weekly meetings with my manager and for quarterly and year end reviews. It was a record of my productivity, my contributions to the bottom line, my leadership ability, my level of commitment, my worth. 

I spent over a year behaving this way, unable to rewire my brain to understand that my gut could guide my behaviour and that I didn't have to record my comings and goings. I didn't have to justify how I was using my most important resource, to myself or to others. I was realizing I didn't understand that I could be free from the obligation, including the self-imposed.

When I realized that things had to change, I didn't know how to do it. I kept recording my time even though it felt wrong. I just didn't know how to stop using the crutch. Then came...

Safari Time

A year and half after leaving my job, I went on safari with my friend Michelle. We followed an itinerary but, other than tending to transportation requirements, there was no need to do anything or be anywhere. We could come and go as we pleased, though we did opt for the planned activities throughout most of the trip. There was power in feeling that every action was truly a choice and not an obligation or a "duty".

Little did I know that this trip would allow me to fundamentally change how I view time itself thanks to three important triggers:

  1. Mental separation from all things scheduled.
  2. Our visit with a village matriarch in Zimbabwe.
  3. The foregone afternoon outing.

1. Separating My Self from A Schedule.

One thing I realized at the beginning of the trip was that I didn't want to worry about the schedule. I knew Michelle would keep an eye on things, this being her first overseas trip and all. I was quite happy to just be along for the ride, taking it in as I went. 

This small decision to not worry about the schedule offered a new perspective. I felt I was more in the moment. I enjoyed every experience. Time seemed to slow to a crawl and my senses seemed enhanced to super-human proportions.

There was a richness to time that I'd lost touch with years prior, other than those times when I meet up with good friends and time just seems to stop. Emotion would well up at any given moment. The experience was timeless, priceless. I was often drenched with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

2. Meeting the Village Matriarch.

Part of our trip included a visit to a local village in Zimbabwe. This excursion enabled us to meet with a local matriarch, an independent head of household responsible for her daughter and grand children. She spent her time on the essentials: gathering and preparing food, building and repairing lodging and furniture, crafting goods for sale, and spending time with family and friends. The only technology she had with her was a cellphone circa 2000 or so, which she carefully transported with her as she moved throughout her day. It was the only possession of hers that seemed out of place. Almost ridiculous.

It was obvious that she had her priorities straight in her head, but what was clear to me was that she didn't have to have these written and tracked on paper or on screen to know what should be done.

Seeing how this capable woman was leading her life offered insight into my own culture and my own behaviour. The way many of us manage our time—our lives—is fairly recent. Things were quite different just twenty years ago and, though convenience and immediacy certainly have their advantages, it does feel that we've given up significant control over our time as a result. Let's call this loss of control one of the  "unintended consequences" of modern life.

 3. Foregoing the Afternoon Outing.

One the second-last day of our safari adventures, Michelle and I were scheduled to go on an afternoon outing, the second of three outings planned for the day. The outing in question involved climbing into a jeep/land rover and going out in search of game such as elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, zebra, antelope, lions, buffalo and the like. On this particular day, we valued rest and relaxation more than the outing.

My safari-free afternoon was spent enjoying the pool. It was time "well wasted".

My safari-free afternoon was spent enjoying the pool. It was time "well wasted".

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time
— Bertrand Russell

The funny thing is that the staff reacted negatively, suggesting we didn't have the proper stamina to hold the expected safari schedule, a schedule that many have no difficulty maintaining for three weeks straight!

What was great was that we couldn't give a rat's a** about what they thought. We were free to use our time as we wished. We didn't have to live by the schedule. We didn't have to answer to anyone.

And we didn't regret our choice one bit. The outing was a sunk cost and using the time as we'd initially planned would have made us feel worse than forgoing it because we didn't want to engage in the activity at that time. Just because it was written on some itinerary didn't mean it was somehow compulsory.

How liberating! This will sound obvious to many people, but for me it was an epiphany hidden in a tiny decision.

My Current "Calendarless" State

I can't explain why I came home to an absolute aversion to all things calendar-related, other than the three experiences/decisions that naturally flowed into one another during the trip. I decided that if something was important, one of four things would naturally happen:

  1. I'd remember the date and time of the commitment: meeting up with friends and family, events, trips, speaking engagements, personal service appointments (dr, hair, seminar).
  2. It'd be a regularly-scheduled activity that didn't require any sort of a reminder: coaching appointments, volunteering, household chores (laundry, watering plants, garbage day, etc.).
  3. I'd receive a reminder or a schedule as a guide for activities I'd registered for that I could choose to follow or ignore: conferences, festivals, multi-day events.
  4. My gut'd tell me I wanted to work on something on a regular or intermittent basis and, given I want to give it some priority, I'd make time for it over other things, and maybe even give myself a goal for what I want to accomplish. I could move "should" items into the "want to" or "obviously it's not that important to me" buckets and forego the guilt of dealing with a schedule that felt more punitive than useful for no good reason.
I think time management as a label encourages people to view each 24-hour period as a slot in which they should pack as much as possible.
— Tim Ferriss

By believing the above, I've learned to avoid putting something in my calendar that just isn't that important. It makes me evaluate what I'm committing to, ensuring that I truly want to do something before I commit to it*** and, once I do, I'm all in. It also makes me more aware of how I use my time than any calendar ever did because a calendar only measures the amount of time spent and ignores what matters most: the focus on quality and proper level of attention put towards its use.

The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.
— Warren Buffet

I don't see myself going back to a calendar any time soon. At least not the way I used to use one. Maybe I'm finally learning to do more of what's essential to me by ignoring the one tool that was supposed to help me do just that. 

*My last boss challenged me on my view of meetings not being "work" but I stand by my belief: if 60%+ of the meetings we attend are of zero worth because they're more about posturing or avoidance than decision making or information sharing, they're not a good use of anyone's time and can't be considered productive.

Additional context: The true nature of the meetings we attended meant we were supposed to be working on email/txt for their duration, which meant we were nothing more than highly-paid chair warmers because successful multi-tasking is a myth. You're either present or you're not. Anything else is bullish*t. As an aside, if you want to see some great Dilbert strips on meetings, click here.

**For most of the trip, we'd done morning, afternoon and evening outings and, on this particular day, we valued rest and relaxation more than the outing.

***How often do we "pencil in" a commitment before really considering whether it's a good use of our time? We seem to value our future time differently than the present, to our detriment.