Posts filed under Calendar Management

Helping Students Manage Part 3: Common Pitfalls

It can be frustrating for faculty who try to help students manage tasks and commitments, particularly when students seem to "shut down" during the mentoring process. Often, students will ask me to help them to develop a system, but give me the infamous "blank stare" as we get into developing a process. The easiest, and least helpful, way to respond to the student is to is assume that he is lazy or unmotivated - that may be true, but there are other possibilities as well. I've found that it helps to parse the reasons why students shut down during this process, and to think about mitigating the approach based upon these challenges. Frankly, I've seen these same processes at play for my colleagues who have asked for help in developing workflows as well!

1. The "Silver Bullet" Problem

Somewhere between "I want to use your system" and "That doesn't work for me" lies a vast landscape of different options and approaches to time/task management.  Helping students discover a system sometimes means choosing between thirty different methods, and then an overwhelming number of options within each system. I've used the Franklin Quest, the Covey, and the GTD methods in my own career: I don't even know what I would call my current method. And how many apps on the iTunes store claim to be the "perfect GTD solution?" Students can face a choice-paralysis paradigm - I first have to spend all this time finding the perfect system, just so that I can get around to completing all of the work that I needed a system for in the first place. This is, in my experience, the primary reason for the "shut down." I can almost see the language on the student's face; "I'll just work on getting my current assignments done and maybe pick something during the next break." 

Solution: Start really small. I will often ask the student to bring her syllabi to the meeting, and we will go through the assignments and get them into a single list. No software, no fancy system, no clever methodology. Presenting students with software options may be overwhelming, as may the introduction of your own methodology. If a student has NO system, start with paper. If a student has a paper system then needs to be managed by a database, I will often introduce her to Wunderlist, and then encourage her to use that database for a semester. If a student has used several options, I will help her explore the strengths and weaknesses of different software options. If there was a silver bullet for time and task management, we'd all use it - but there isn't. Start small - VERY small. 

2. The "Emotional Intelligence" Problem

When I attended Hyrum Smith's workshop on time management, he encouraged us to write down EVERYTHING we did on a legal pad for a week. That turned out to be a difficult task. I didn't mind writing down things I was proud of doing; "10:15-12:00 - Graded papers." I did, however, find it emotionally difficult to be honest about how I spent other chunks of time in my day; "1:15-2:00 - Stood at the coffee machine describing "Weekend at Bernie's" scene-by-scene with Larry." Having the emotional honesty to write EVERYTHING down can be a difficult, partly because we start to see places where we are less productive. It's much easier to lie to ourselves about what we do with our time, and build a narrative that makes us feel better about our productivity. When a student says, "I've been working on this paper for three weeks," what he actually means is that he worked on the paper for about four hours over the span of the last three weeks. But this emotional honesty is super-important in developing plans that will be productive and effective.

Solution: I encourage students to put "time wasters" on their calendar (XBox, NetFlix binges, Facebook) when they are longer than 15 minutes. If these activities are going to happen, then they are important to the student - regardless of how important they are to other people. The reasons this is valuable for students is that they have the opportunity to make micro-commitments to themselves that they will keep, and also deal rationally with the work that they find less attractive or enjoyable than Candy Crush. If a student unwinds each day with a couple hours of xbox, why not put that on his calendar? He can schedule an appointment with himself to play xbox from 6:30-8:30 p.m., set a timer to remind him to quit at 8:30, and go on to the next commitment. 

Naps are an excellent, and extremely necessary, part of this exercise. I've only known of one student who didn't like naps - and he was a weirdo. Students have infamously poor sleep-hygiene, and will often discount the importance of a good nap in the afternoon. Frankly, I find that the promise of a nap is the only GOOD reason to get up in the morning. I recommend to students that they schedule 90-minute naps as part of the plan, and be good to themselves an follow through with those commitments.

3. The "False Expectation" Problem

I worked with a student several years ago who put everything into a system, and gave a lot of time and energy into crafting what eventually developed into an elegant task and time management solution. I confess that I was surprised when he didn't turn in his major paper in my class. When we met to figure out what went wrong, he launched an interesting complaint - "I did all this planning, but stuff still doesn't get done." Yep - stuff doesn't get done. The passive voice of that verb is really important. Planning doesn't mean that stuff gets done, it merely shows me what needs to be accomplished.

As I reflected on his choice of phrase, I realized that my language contributes to this passive position. I often try to make things sound easy so that students will not feel overwhelmed by the many options (see Problem #1). But things on my task list don't "get done" - I do things. It is possible that my own language in helping him contributed to some magical thinking, deemphasizing the doing, and emphasizing the benefits.

Solution: There are two approaches that I believe help with this problem. First, I changed the way I use language when discussing productivity. I used to tell students that "When I put something on my task list, it gets done." Now I tell my students, "When I put something on my task list, I DO IT." The change from passive to active helps mitigate the false expectation that making lists is productive work.

Second, I help students focus less on "capture" and more on "doing." I read and followed some advice years ago that has paid off immensely (for the life of me, I can't find it to give credit). The author suggested that one start small. My first "task" was "to put my socks on tomorrow morning." I wrote it down the night before, and checked off the next morning when I put my socks on. This was a genius suggestion - because I discovered the joy of crossing things off my list. It also resulted in an awareness and intentionality in completing tasks, even the ones that might get done without planning. It focussed attention on planning and doing - not just planning. I always grin when a student starts putting things on his task list that he already did, and then checks them off. That's the moment when he is focussed more on what gets DONE than what gets captured. Besides, I do that for myself ALL the time (wink).

Image Credit:

Posted on December 5, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management, Calendar Management, General.

Helping Students Manage Part 1: Using iCal for Task Management

I've elected to start a series of posts on helping students manage time and tasks effectively. I have learned that when students see their faculty using good methodology, they ask for help. That said, setting a student up for OmniFocus is not always a good first step.

Several weeks ago, a student asked me whether he could just use his iCal to manage tasks.  My first reaction was, "Probably not." But as I looked into it, I found a way to make that happen.

The key to this method is to use the "All Day" banner section of the calendar to create tasks. This really only works when a person has a few tasks to manage, but it can be done. It's not REALLY a GTD approach, but the students with whom I've shared this have found it to be a great entry-level approach to managing tasks. Time will tell whether they let me help them navigate thicker weeds ;-)

Below is a screencast I created to help my students use the method. Feel free to share it with any students who need a quick and easy solution.

Image credit:

Posted on October 2, 2015 and filed under Calendar Management, Task Management.

Daily Meeting Agendas in Evernote

I've mentioned before that I practically live in Evernote.  One workflow that I've found especially helpful is to have an agenda sent directly from iCal to Evernote using Automator, so that I can log notes from my meetings in one easily searchable place.  I adapted a workflow that I found at

To start, create a notebook in Evernote where your daily agendas will land.  I named this notebook "Agendas."

Then open Automator, and select the "Calendar Alarm" option.  This will create a workflow that runs by your calendar at an appointed time.

You'll want to create a workflow that will find a specific calendar (step 1), filter that calendar (step 2), summarize the events (step 3), create a mail message (step 4), and send the message (step 5).  Here's a description of the workflow step-by-step...

Step 1 - Find Calendars

In the "Applications" library (on the far left column of Automator), choose "Calendar."  You'll notice several application choices - click and drag "Find Calendars" to the workspace.  Edit this selection so that you Find calendars where: All of the following are true: Title contains yourcalendarname

Step 2 - Filter Calendar Events

In the Calendar library, click and drag "Filter Calendar Items" to the workspace.  Edit this selection so that you Filter events where: All of the following are true: Date Starting is today.

Step 3 - Event Summary

In the Calendar library, click and drag "Event Summary" to the workspace.  No need to edit anything here.

Take a look at my example of the workflow steps 1-3 below...

Step 4 - Create a Mail Message

In the "Applications" library (on the far left column of Automator), choose "Mail."  You'll notice several application choices - click and drag "New Mail Message" to the workspace.  Enter your unique Evernote email address, and a subject line.  I chose to call mine "Daily Meetings Agenda - Date Month, Year"  To enter the date and day variables, click "Variables" and click and drag "Current day," "Current Month" and "Current Year" into the subject line.  I also added @Agendas so that the note goes directly into the "Agendas" notebook in Evernote. I recently edited this and added #taskclone to my subject line as well - this way, I don't have to select the taskclone tag if I suddenly find that I have a task in my daily notes.

I have chosen to leave the message block blank.

Step 5 - Send Outgoing Message

In the Mail library, click and drag "Send Outgoing Message."

You can test this workflow by clicking "Run" (it's the play button on the top-right of the Automator window), and you should get a Daily Agenda into Evernote.  (Excuse the blackouts - I had to redact private information).

Automating the Workflow

When you click "Save" in Automator, it will prompt you to add this event to your calendar.  The default is a one-time event, so you'll need to go to the Calendar App and edit how the event recurs, and what time you want the agenda sent (mine sends at 5:30 a.m., M_F).

Working with the Agendas Workflow

Each morning, my agenda is sent to Evernote.  When I am at a meeting, I am able to immediately take notes. And since I have lately added the #taskclone tag to the subject line of the outgoing emails, if I do add a task in the meetings, I can be sure that they immediately sync to my task manager.

Please let me know whether this works for you.  Even more valuable, what modifications have you made to this workflow that improve it even further?

Posted on April 6, 2015 and filed under Calendar Management, Evernote.

Geektool Desktop

If I were nearly as cool as I like to think that I am, I would have probably done something different with my Friday night; but as it is, I spent waaaaaaay too much time putting this together.  Scratches every nerd itch I've ever had!

Geektool is a kind of hacky program that allows a Mac user to create "live" desktops by combining images, shell scripts and textfiles.  I actually know VERY little about this stuff (I can't write even a simple script without creating wrinkles in the fabric of the space-time continuum), but there appear to be lots of helpful and creative people working with this stuff, and they share their scripts and geeklets (little shells with commands already programmed) freely around the net.

For the record, I created a desktop image with the boxes and saved that image as a jpeg.  The Geektool shells sit on top of the image.  Here's a rundown of the scripts that are running...

  • Geektool - This is the actual program that makes live-desktop possible on the mac
  • Agenda - This block is empty on the screenshot - I was already done with appointments for the day ;-)
  • Weather - This is a set of scripts and commands that some guy called roadglide03 put together.  Shows the temp, and image of the weather, and a little text for the general weather for the day
  • Calendar - This is a simple shell script where you command "cal".
  • Email Inbox - This script, written by someone with the screen name Tresni, will query the apple mail inbox and list emails (up to 8).  This helps me keep track of how many emails need to be processed.
  • OmniFocus - Some guy with a screen name Psidnell created a really command line tool that will query your OmniFocus database and export to different outputs.  This honestly took me the most amount of time to figure out.  I created one that is called OmniFocus Inbox to keep track of how many tasks need processing, and another called OmniFocus Due that show tasks that have a duedate of Today.  Rest assured, if I did it, you can too.  


Posted on March 27, 2015 and filed under Calendar Management, Task Management.

Office Hours Done Right


The Problem

I have to be honest - I hate "office hours."  We put them on our syllabi, usually because we are required to - but "office hours" are a terrible way to use time efficiently.  It's just not practical to sit in my office hoping that a student will drop by.  And when assignment due-dates start pressing, a line of students starts forming in the hallway who a) need help, and b) have other classes or responsibilities they need to get to.

Many of us have changed the way we do office hours.  Instead of promising that I'll be in my office from 1:30-3:30, I might simply state that my office hours are "by appointment."  But appointments are rarely scheduled face-to-face or on the phone - they are usually requested by email.  The email exchange often looks something like this...

Sarah: Can I meet with you this week to review my paper?

Me: Sure - I have time open tomorrow between 3:30 and 5:00

Sarah: I have to work tomorrow

Me: Ok, does Wednesday morning work for you? I am free between 10:00 and 11:00

Sarah: Can I do 4:00 Wednesday?

Me: No, I'm busy then

Sarah: Nevermind, I decided I can do tomorrow at 3:30

Me: Sorry - another student just took that time slot

Multiply this exchange times the number of students who ask for help, plus the colleagues and administrators who also want some of your time, and this can become nothing short of insanity.  But this is the kind of insanity we seem relegated to - especially if we don't want to post office hours.

The Solution

The solution is a booking site.  For example, will integrate with your gCal so that you can send a URL to your students (or colleagues).  When they click the URL, they can see what times are available to schedule a meeting with you.  When they choose one, they fill out a short form (customizable) that places the appointment on your calendar.  And since the booking site looks at your gCal in real time, it will not book appointments in times where your calendar shows "busy."

I've looked at several different services, but decided on for several reasons.  

  • It's free - you can pay for premium custom upgrades, but I've never needed them
  • Integrates seamlessly with gCal
  • Allows user to modify the booking form and the details on my calendar entry

Tips and Tricks

Everyone in my office (including tutors in my tutoring program) now have booking sites with  We've discovered a few tips that make using the service a real dream.

  • Set how far in advance you require notice: I want a little advanced notice of a meeting request, so I set mine to 12 hours.  This means that students cannot schedule a meeting with me any earlier than 12 hours from the time they are booking the appointment.  When I get up in the morning, I know that my schedule will not change unless I change it myself.
  • Add your URL to your email signature: My email signature includes a link to my booking site.  Since students are always receiving email from me, they are always reminded that I am available to meet with them.
  • Train others to use your booking site: I will not schedule meetings with students or colleagues on the phone or by email.  I simply point them to my URL.  As time passes, everyone becomes used to the idea of booking on your site - but you'll need to be consistent in the beginning.
  • TextExpander Tip: I set my booking URL as a snippet.  My booking site URL looks something like  I frankly don't want to type that every time - so I set a snippet (;book) that types it all out for me.  This saves me a great deal of time and frustration.
  • Block entire days: If I am out for a conference, I'll usually note that on my calendar as an "Entire Day Event" - on gCal, it shows up on the top runner of the calendar (where birthdays and holidays are displayed).  These all-day events are usually show as "Free" - but if I am going to be out of the office, I change them to show as "Busy."  It marks the entire day as unbookable.
  • Keep your calendar updated: If you don't create an event on your calendar for your appointment with the dentist, it will show as free.  The use of this kind of service really depends upon your discipline to keep your calendar up-to-date and complete. 


Posted on December 2, 2014 and filed under Calendar Management.