The power of a year-at-a-glance calendar

You know you need to prepare for exams, but you tell yourself, “I’ve have plenty of time”.

But how much time do you actually have?

It’s hard to get a sense just by thinking “My exam is in three weeks.” After all, three weeks sounds like plenty of time, right?

Don’t be fooled. This is your brain playing tricks on you.

No one ever has a full three weeks (504 hours) to prepare for an exam. Thrown into the mix is time for sleep, getting ready for school or work, working on assignments, socialising with friends and family, etc. Plus, you usually have more than one exam to study for.

But we can forget this. And when we do, we end up procrastinating with our work and it piles up for our future selves to deal with.

What’s missing is that your brain needs clear visual feedback. It needs to have a sense of the big picture (i.e., all your commitments laid out in front of it).

How can you quickly get a sense of the big picture?

By using a year-at-a-glance calendar.

Earlier this year, I printed out a massive year-at-a-glance calendar (A0 size).

I scheduled all my upcoming presentations, holidays, important events (e.g., birthdays), deadlines, etc., onto the calendar and placed it in a prime position where I couldn’t miss it.

This calendar has made all the difference. It grounds me in reality, helps me feel more in control of my schedule, and gives me clear visual feedback. It also makes me think twice before I agree to take on a new project.

In the past, whenever I’ve said yes to a new opportunity, I haven’t always been grounded in reality. Too many times, I’ve been unintentionally cruel to future Jane.

Let me explain . . .

Back in 2016, I was on the home stretch with my PhD. The path forward was clear. After years of struggling with my PhD, the end was in sight. I was on track to hand in my thesis in a few months’ time.

But then something happened that threw me off course (well, erm, I threw myself off course).

I was asked by a company to run a series of workshops. Without even thinking, I said “Yes! I’d love to!”. It seemed like a great opportunity. One that was too good to pass up.

When I shared the news with my PhD supervisor, she seemed to think differently. Her face said it all: a mixture of concern and confusion.

“Why did you say yes to this? Do you need the money? What about your PhD? You’re so close to finishing”, she said.

The truth was I didn’t need the money. I said yes because without having my other commitments staring me in the face, I had all the time in the world. I was engaging in magical (delusional) thinking. I fantasised about having superhuman capabilities and being able to do it all.

I was wrong. There were only so many hours in the day, and something had to give.

To cut a long story short, pretty quickly the magical thinking wore off, and I regretted taking on the job. I had burdened my future self with a ridiculous amount of work and unnecessary stress.

But worst of all, I had delayed handing in my thesis by several months. A few months might not sound like much in the big scheme of things. But when you’ve been plugging away at a PhD for seven years, every month becomes precious. I risked losing momentum.

If I could teleport back in time and place a year-at-a-glance calendar in my office space, I like to think that I would have prioritised my PhD over the shiny new opportunity.

The value of laying things out in physical space

I recently finished reading an excellent book called ‘The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain’ by Annie Murphy-Paul.

In this book, Annie explores nine principles for expanding our intelligence (note: these principles are not taught in schools). She argues that instead of pushing our brains to work harder and harder, we can use our bodies, relationships, and surrounding environment to boost our cognitive abilities.

In the chapter called “Thinking with the Space of Ideas”, she writes:

“Whenever possible, we should offload information, externalize it, move it out of our heads and into the world. It relieves us of the burden of keeping a host of details “in the mind,” thereby freeing up mental resources for more demanding tasks like problem solving and idea generation.”

After reading this book, I understood why a year-at-a-glance calendar can be such a powerful tool. Seeing all your projects and commitments in one glance allows you to think smarter and more strategically.

These calendars also help to orient you in time. You can see how much time you have between now and doing the things you need to do.

Your projects and deadlines stare back at you every day. There’s no escaping them.

Seeing your life in this way also helps you to plan and pinpoint busy periods.

Here’s an example . . .

This month, I have more presentations scheduled than usual. This means I need to manage my energy levels, prioritise sleep, and eat healthily.

But a quick glance at my calendar tells me I have a few ‘free’ days before all these talks begin. I can use this time to cook a few meals to pop in the fridge and freezer to make life a little easier during this busier period.

One of the worst things I can do when I get busy is order takeaway food and sacrifice sleep to work. I refuse to do it as it always backfires. If I’m functioning at half capacity, my talks and work will suffer.

These calendars can also provide useful information to help you manage your energy levels, reduce ridiculous workloads, and avoid burnout.

Earlier this year, there was a week when I delivered more talks than usual. During this week, I found myself taking 15-minute power naps between talks to recharge before the next one. Even with all these power naps, by the end of the week, I felt tired. I drew a tired little emoji face on my calendar to represent this.

That tired emoji face is a constant reminder: you have mental and physical limits. Don’t overdo it.

Making your year-at-a-glance calendar

It’s important to find a calendar that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional for you. This means you probably can’t just go to the shops and pick something off the shelf.

You could order a hard copy calendar online, but when the year is already well underway who wants to potentially wait weeks for their calendar to arrive in the mail?

Here are some cheap and fast DIY options:

You can purchase a digital download online and take it to your local print shop on a USB stick. Some templates display the month as a long list of days; whereas other calendars group the month into weeks, with each week on a separate line (see examples below).

Alternatively, you could buy a monthly calendar, cut it up, and stick it together.

One of my friends suggested I try doing this. I gave it a shot, but my calendar looked like a failed arts and crafts project (with messy bits of tape plastered everywhere). Plus, the boxes were too small and cramped my style.

After some trial and error, I purchased a digital download from Etsy for $20AUD and printed it A0 size for $10AUD. All up, my calendar cost me $30AUD – money that was well spent.

The bottom line is you have to figure out what works for you and how much you’re willing to spend.

Tips for using your year-at-a-glance calendar:

• Write on the calendar when all your exams, appointments, special events, and major projects will take place.

• If you don’t yet know the specific dates of each exam, note the week they begin and assume the worst-case scenario (your exams will be sooner rather than later).

• Consider laminating your calendar so you can use whiteboard markers on it.

• If laminating is too expensive, use sticky notes and washi tape instead.

• You can mount your calendar on core-flute material or foam board to give it a sturdier structure.

• Resist the urge to put every detail on your calendar. Focus on the big project deadlines, appointments, exams, etc. The details for what and when you work on each project can go into your weekly planner and/or on your to-do list.

• If you have the wall space, consider printing your calendar A0 size (841mm x 1189mm). You want plenty of space to write in each box.

To sum up

In our noisy world where we are bombarded with endless opportunities, many of us would benefit from embracing analog tools like the year-at-a-glance calendar. These calendars help to ground us in reality and focus our minds on what matters.

If you have a lot going on in your world and find yourself saying “Yes!” to every shiny new opportunity that comes your way, do yourself a favour and create a year-at-a-glance calendar. Having your commitments stare you in the face every day is a simple but powerful way to live with greater focus and intentionality.