Break free from your electronic calendar

Free as a bird
photo courtesy flickr user Bex.Walton

(MoneyWatch) I still have a paper calendar. It fits in my purse, and I scribble all my appointments and calls in there. I recognize this system has its downsides. If my purse was stolen I'd have no idea who I was supposed to talk with over the next few weeks. My paper calendar can't send me reminders, so I have to keep looking at it. I also need to keep emails in my inbox as back-up, because conference call dial-in numbers have a bad habit of getting smudged.

But there are upsides, too, I've realized in my conversations with people forced to use Outlook or other such calendar systems as part of their corporate life. In theory, technology should make scheduling easier, especially when you're working in teams and in multiple locations. But here are the downsides with electronic calendars:

1. Meetings conform to standard units of time. Not every conversation needs to take 30 minutes. Sure, some systems allow for 15 minutes, but this reliance on standard units keeps people from figuring out exactly how long any given activity needs to take. Blocking 30 minutes for 20 minute activities doesn't seem too crazy, but do that three times per day, and that's 2.5 hours wasted per week, or the equivalent of roughly 3 workweeks per year.

2. Open time is hard to protect. A good assistant will play defense with your calendar, but the existence of electronic calendars has also coincided with fewer assistants covering more people. If you don't like to have meetings before 11 a.m., because that's your thinking time, you wouldn't offer it up if people asked when you'd like to meet. But if they can see your electronic calendar, it's there for the taking unless you resort to the subterfuge of coding it "unavailable." Incidentally, it's the same thing with personal activities. If you want to meet with your personal trainer over lunch, that's your business, but people are often loathe to put the actual helpful scheduling details on a work calendar. So you keep two calendars -- and that's inefficient.

3. The bias is toward more meetings, rather than fewer. The good thing about my small, paper calendar is that I really can't fit the details for more than 5 activities on any given day in the space available. This winds up serving as a visual cue to me that the day is full. Physical space is less of a constraint in a world of electronic calendars -- and that's too bad.

How do you escape the tyranny of electronic calendars?

Photo courtesy flickr user Bex.Walton