You Need a Time Budget — 4 Rules to Tame Your Calendar

View through the clock face at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France.
View through the clock face at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France.
Photo by Dan Kiskis.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve become a huge fan of You Need A Budget (YNAB) to manage our household finances. It’s great software that puts our budget front and center instead of buried back under multiple menus like the other financial software that I used for the past couple of decades. (Note: I have no financial stake in YNAB, nor do I make any money if you click the link to learn about it). I could go on and on about how great their software is, but that’s not the subject of this article. Instead, I want to focus on the other great thing about YNAB, their Four Rules:

The YNAB software is designed to support these four rules. I found that the more I followed them, the less stress I had about my finances. This was clearly a good thing.

As I go about my normal day at work, I often hear people complain about how they have too much work, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they have, they can’t manage the new, unexpected work that always arrives, and they worry about work/life balance. This made me wonder, if YNAB did such a great job at relieving my financial stress, could I apply the same rules to manage time stress? In both cases I’m trying to allocate finite resources (money and time) to a prioritized demand (expenses and workload). Based on this realization, I decided to give it a try.

Rule 1: Give Every Hour a Job

So let’s start with YNAB Rule 1: Give every dollar a job. This means that every time you have income, you immediately assign each dollar to a budget category. You don’t leave dollars unbudgeted “just in case”. By consciously assigning dollars to categories, you make decisions about your priorities for spending your money. What’s more important this month, going to the movies or buying new clothes? Money spent on one expense can’t be used for another.

For work scheduling, this is Rule 1: Give Every Hour a Job. It is implemented by a technique that I learned in MOR Associates leadership training called Defensive Calendaring. In defensive calendaring, you block off time on your calendar to do specific work. In the spirit of Give Every Hour a Job, you should schedule every hour of your work week. Usually, you may want to do this on Monday morning or Friday afternoon. Look at your to-do list for the week and enter blocks of time on your calendar to work on each task. In most calendaring systems, you can mark scheduled appointments as either Busy or Free. I mark scheduled work times as Busy if the work is high priority, and I don’t want them to be overwritten by other meetings. For lower priority work, I mark the times as Free. I want to leave some time slots on my calendar free for colleagues to schedule meetings. I find it very frustrating when I try to schedule a meeting with someone, only to find that their calendar is booked solid for the next three weeks. I don’t want for others to have that experience with me.

Once you’ve scheduled out your week, you just have to follow your calendar and do the work that you planned. This can take some discipline. Sometimes it will be time to work on that end-of-month report, but you’d rather work on something more fun. Since you prioritized your work at the beginning of the week, you already made the decision of when to do the report. So don’t procrastinate, just get it done.

Rule 2: Embrace Your True Workload

YNAB Rule 2: Embrace Your True Expenses. This means that you make sure your budget categories include big expenses that occur throughout the year. This way, you can set aside money for those expenses each month. When the big bill comes around, you have already saved up enough money to cover it. Gone is the stress of trying to figure out where to find the money for the Fall property tax bill in the same month when you are paying for back-to-school supplies. Since you know these expenses are coming, you can save for them in advance.

This becomes Rule 2: Embrace Your True Workload. I hate the stress of doing things at the last minute. If I know a big task has a deadline in three months, I want to start on it now instead of trying to get it all done in the last month. If I try to get it all done in the final month, it throws off my schedule for the other work I need to do. There’s always the likelihood that I didn’t do a great job estimating the total effort. If I start early, I have more ability to adapt if the task takes longer than expected.

To implement this rule, create a to-do list using a tool that allows you to categorize tasks. Create a category for each project or type of work that you have to do. Be sure to include near-term work and work you know is coming up in the next 3, 6, or even 12 months. There will be some categories for ongoing work like monthly reports, annual reviews, etc. There will also be categories for individual projects that will be removed once the project is completed. Within each category, create all the tasks you can think of and assign due dates where you can. Then, when you are planning your week under Rule 1, you can look at your list of tasks to see what tasks need to be scheduled in the upcoming week.

Keep your to-do list up-to-date. As new work comes along, be sure to categorize it correctly or create a new category if needed. If working on a task spawns the creation of additional tasks, enter them in the proper category.

It takes practice to write tasks in a way that makes sense to you. Ideally, each task should be something where you know how to determine if it is done. Remember that you need to be able to schedule the work for the task using Rule 1. You don’t want to reach the hour when you have scheduled to work on the task and you defined the task so vaguely that you can’t figure out what you are actually supposed to do to complete the task. If this is the case, create new tasks to do the work to clarify the existing task. When you create a new task, think about how long it will take to complete. If you are scheduling in one-hour increments, try to note how many hours you think the task will take. Another option is to break work down into 1–2 hour tasks that can be easily scheduled.

Keep in mind that all of this is to help You. If it doesn’t work for you, then you won’t do it. I’m not going to come to your desk and rap your knuckles because you didn’t follow my advice to the letter. Feel free to experiment and find a system that you can actually follow.

Rule 3: Roll with the Punches

YNAB Rule 3: Roll with the Punches. Your budget isn’t a straightjacket. It’s a plan that represents your priorities. Unexpected, high priority expenses can occur after you’ve already allocated money to budget categories for the month. In that case, in YNAB, you simply move money from a lower priority category to the higher priority one. If this causes you to run out of money for that low priority category, then perhaps you’ll need to put off that expense until your next paycheck.

For time scheduling, we don’t even have to rename the rule. When you’ve scheduled out your week, it’s inevitable that some new task or meeting may pop up that wasn’t already on your calendar. In this case, move your scheduled tasks around to make room in your schedule for the new item. This may require a couple of moves as you postpone low-priority tasks to free up time for the higher priority ones. If a task gets postponed and removed from your calendar for the week, make sure to update your to-do list accordingly, if needed.

As with any true prioritization scheme, there is a likelihood that you’ll run into a case where some low-priority task will never get done. In this case, there’s a good chance you’ll have to go to any stakeholders and inform them of this fact. This can be uncomfortable, but at least you can have that discussion with real data about your current time commitments and your priorities. If those stakeholders are also stakeholders on other tasks you own, this can be a good opportunity to discuss all the tasks to make sure you are still in agreement about their priorities.

Another option for handling low-priority work that gets pushed off your schedule is to delegate work. Delegating is not synonymous with assigning. You shouldn’t just drop work on someone else’s desk and tell them it’s their job now. Delegation is like handing off a baton in a relay race. It requires that both parties agree to the delegation and that the person taking on the work is willing and able to receive it. It’s important to note that it may not be your lowest priority tasks that you delegate. Those have the risk of being the lowest priority tasks for the receiver and still not get done. Instead, look for tasks that you are willing to give up and that will either be a growth opportunity for the receiver or better fits their existing responsibilities.

Rule 4: Extend Your Horizon

YNAB Rule 4: Age Your Money. This means that you are paying next month’s bills with last month’s paycheck. You’ve achieve the ability to plan ahead financially. In YNAB, this is mostly just a consequence of successfully applying Rules 1–3. If you follow those rules, you’ll be saving money for future expenses. Thus, when bills come in, you already have the money in your account waiting to be used to pay the bill. This is when you really stop stressing about money.

For scheduling, Rule 4 is Extend Your Horizon. As you mature in your time management, you’ll find that you’ve created task categories for just about every type of task that can come along. You’ve carved out time in your schedule for all your work, and you have mechanisms in place to readjust your schedule when needed. At this point, you can start looking out past your current week and plan for the next couple of weeks, or even the next month. With experience, you’ll learn what a feasible planning horizon is for your job. There’s no magic number. The goal is to plan ahead enough to relieve stress, but not so far that you spend a significant amount of time reordering your calendar every time something comes up.

Four simple rules to tame your calendar. It takes a bit of organization and a little discipline to follow the process. Set aside some time to plan the upcoming week. Keep your to-do list up-to-date and use it when you plan your week.

Give it a try. Let me know if it works for you.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

IT strategy expert, Enterprise Architect, Stoic, Humanist. I like to help people find the path to what they think is important. https://usingstrategy.com

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