Track Actual Versus Planned Time in a Calendar to Improve Leadership
Updated: Aug 21
Planning is a key leadership quality, and leadership starts with leading yourself. Therefore, how well you plan something as simple—or complex—as your own calendar is reflective of your own leadership capability.
What's the right amount of time with team members for alignment and problem-solving? How well do you allocate time for your own creative work, without projects bleeding into late nights, weekends, or your own personal care and family activities?
To answer these questions for myself, I've been tracking how I actually spend my time versus what I had previously planned in my Google Calendar. Here's what it looks like mid-week:
The blue blocks are what I originally scheduled last Friday, whereas the yellow blocks are what actually happened.
Now I'm able to see at a glance which activities started and ended on time, and which activities didn't. As you might guess, I'll oftentimes spend more time on an activity than I had planned, or I'll need to interrupt a block of focus time for an urgent opportunity or challenge. Occasionally, I've been pleasantly surprised that a task required less time than I had planned.
Before starting this practice, I would look back at my calendar and realize that it didn't tell me anything about what I had actually done. It was a mishmash of my uncorrected predictions and/or last-minute changes based on things happening in real time.
For example, I might change an appointment to another day and forget the time I had originally planned it. Or I would reschedule things an hour before they happened—last-minute planning—which really isn't planning at all. It's reacting, and reflective of poor leadership.
Make Your Calendar a Game
I now realize that whether or not my plan is any good is exactly the point. It reflects how well I'm leading myself now, in these circumstances.
The real game is to plan a full week or more in advance, and then track against that plan. I try to "lock in" the blue blocks on Friday afternoon, when I plan the following week. But even starting with planning a single day, and tracking actual time against that plan, is better than nothing.
And it really is a game. By setting up this little competition for myself, I'm now able see how productive and creative I can be in the time allotted. I find myself with more energy and focus throughout the day, with more bursts of creative focus.
For example, rather than allowing a creative marketing project to spill beyond the scheduled 2 hours into 3 or 4, I play the game of, "you've got two hours, make the most of it!" Thus, I end up producing great content—arguably better content—because of the constraint.
Use Time Constraints to Drive Innovation
Jason Fried wrote about the power of constraints in his book, Getting Real: "Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage."
The constraints of a calendar—of the time in a day or a week—should literally drive innovation and focus. By tracking your actual versus planned time, you're holding yourself accountable to your own plan. That integrity makes you a better leader when you, in turn, hold others accountable to their plans.
It also gives you insight when helping others create plans for themselves. You'll be better able to identify, for example, when someone is being unrealistic about how much time and money a project will require. Obvious ideas like calendar tracking may seem banal on the surface but oftentimes reveal the deepest insights about our own natures.
Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage. - Jason Fried, 37 Signals
When Plans Unravel Week After Week
"But Joel," a friend confided, "I've done this before. Typically, by Tuesday morning, my entire week is turned upside down, and what I had planned is thrown out the window."
I get it. I've been through phases in my life when my lived reality was so unrepresentative of my plans, I insisted that planning was fruitless.
And planning isn't a results-specific deliverable. It can feel less important than client-facing and team-focused activities, so carving out time for it during the workweek might seem, paradoxically, like an inappropriate allocation of time.
I now realize that whether or not my plan is any good is exactly the point. It reflects how well I'm leading myself, now, in these circumstances.
During the times in my life when planning seemed pointless, I was undertaking enormously difficult, high-risk challenges and stretching my abilities. Sometimes, my plans were off-track, but I was growing. Other times, I was just making bad decisions, throwing good money after bad in a losing venture, not making the difficult decision to let an employee or contractor go soon enough, and neglecting my own personal well-being. In other words, I was doing a poor job of leading myself. If I had done a better job of reflecting on my plans at that time, who knows? Maybe things would have turned out differently.
Now that I've turned my calendar into a game, I'm catching things that are working, and things that aren't. I'm more realistic about how much I can handle, and more likely to say "no" to lesser opportunities that might otherwise creep into my schedule and distract my focus. My personal care and family time are consistently attended to, I'm leaving work earlier, and working fewer weekends. Overall, my simple calendar is making me a better leader—and it all starts with leading myself.