Organising your time honestly and flexibly (with a digital diary)

Our work time is regulated by hours, weeks, and months. Organising our work activity temporally (that is, by time) is a challenge that can be conquered with a diary (of the datebook kind, not the daily record of experiences). With a digital diary, it becomes easier to manage an emerging or changing schedule, such is the nature of modern work practice that attempts to include inherently changing acts of creativity and innovation.

When I was an employee in a large organisation, our digital calendars were visible (with some concessions for privacy) to other staff members. As a dedicated user of the calendar, I often found others commenting that according to my calendar, ‘You are so busy’. I was bemused and wondered: Were people with empty calendars considered to be ‘not-busy’?

Tom Peters (in his “Mother of all Presentations”) says: ‘You ARE your calendar. You ARE how you spend your time. Calendars NEVER LIE.’

The technique explained in this blog is about making visible how-you-spend-your-time, and enabling flexibility to better manage what, where and when factors of your activity.

Managing your temporal space

From Shutterstock

My diary is my temporal space made visible. It enables me to map my intentions about time. I create and shuffle around blocks of time to firm up what my schedule will look like, while also experimenting with what it could look like. With a digital diary it’s particularly easy to drag and drop entries; and to append extra information to capture the meaning I have given certain entries, for example: Tentative, (In) CBD. Then my diary appears clean, and (re)organised – no whiteout or erased pencil lines in sight!

Putting entries in my diary gives me a schedule to follow for the day. While my days might not have a regular routine, I am assured a degree of order as important things needing my attention are factored in.

Many of my entries are not appointments with others, but simply an entry for me to work on a specific activity. Rather than work from a general To-do list during the day, I work from my calendar schedule of activity. Many of these activities have an associated and specific To-do or next-action list which is my exclusive focus during the allotted time.

Entries in my diary are an agreement with myself about what I am going to focus on, and help me to focus on one thing at a time. I’m not a fan of multi-tasking, but on occasion my thoughts are scattered and I free them from the leash, within a boundary of ‘Planning’ time or ‘Admin’ time – simultaneous chaos and order!

Making diary entries also enables me to more accurately forecast how much time activities will need, particularly those that are spread over multiple days, and to ensure sufficient time is reserved. In addition, I can better evaluate when to sequence individual activities in context of other things, e.g. other activities, my location, and my anticipated energy level or attention capacity.

While not an Activity per se, I’ll often add entries to my calendar for deadlines or time-sensitive milestones. Because I am following my schedule for the day, it’s handy to have time-sensitive things co-located with my actions, in case I need to re-evaluate action priorities.

If you are following an Activity-Time Budget, you could assign colours to each Budget category and apply these colours to the items you have in your diary. With a quick glance you’ll be able to see how well your projected budget matches your actual budget. (See Calendar 2 below.)

Being honest about your time

Every day we have activities that use time (and attention and energy) but are not typically accounted for in our calendars. Some examples of ‘invisible’ use of time: travel (on foot, by train, parking the car); general administration (filing, processing correspondence/incoming email, paying bills, etc); reading (correspondence, articles); preparation for meetings; processing note; preparing task-lists; lunch breaks; etc. (Hopefully you’ve created your own Activity-Time Budget that allows for such time.)

Start to put this time in your calendar. Particularly when entering linked activities. For example, after creating a Meeting entry, add Travel time to either side of the Meeting entry. Or, when creating a Meeting entry, add entries for Prep/Reading time and Note Processing time in close proximity to the meeting entry. See examples in Calendar 2 below.

There are two screenshots of my sample Calendar here. Calendar 1 is the typical calendar of most people, and reflects the events or appointments I have that involve other people – often because the appointment is linked to their calendar, or because it’s important to be ‘on-time’ for these. Calendar 2 extends Calendar 1 showing the activity of ‘invisible’ time, as well as colour coding to align with an Activity-Time budget (and no, I haven’t explained my colour coding – it’s meaningful only to me.)

Calendar 1 (Partial)

Calendar 2 (Complete)

Scheduling serendipity (or Planning for the unplanned)

While I am advocating filling a digital diary with entries, I am not advocating filling every waking moment with scheduled activity. Leave space for the unexpected that might better deserve your attention, or for spill-over when you’ve underestimated the amount of time needed or things have emerged with unanticipated complexity.

You might need to schedule ‘contingency’ or ‘open’ space in your calendar, simply so you (or others if you are sharing a calendar) don’t mistake it for Free-to-schedule-any-Activity time.

Dov Frohman (with Robert Howard) in the book, “Leadership The Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t Be Taught—And How You Can Learn It Anyway“, advocates scheduling ‘day-dreaming time’ where you engage in “loose, unstructured thinking with no particular goal in mind”. An approach they recommend for dealing with complexity and ‘fuzzy’ problems.

One of my students shared this technique: she schedules a calendar entry called ‘Lucky Dip’ – the time is reserved but the activity is unknown. She has a bag in which various activities, both delightful and necessary, are written on strips of paper. When the appointed time arrives, she dips into the bag without looking, selects what she will do, and does it.

Another type of time you might consider scheduling is disconnected time, i.e. time when you don’t access the internet, read your email, look at Twitter or other social media sites. A practical way to support day-dreaming time!

Organising your temporal affairs effectively means you can utilise your time wisely and for greatest benefit. Effective use of time requires knowing what you spend your time doing, as well what you don’t spend your time doing. Hopefully the suggestions in this blog can help you better align your reality with your intentions.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Making and applying an Activity-Time budget

I manage work with a knowledge focus [1].  I manage teams with a knowledge focus because I value the knowledge members create, acquire, share and cultivate.  Therefore I value the activities that are knowledge generating. Here’s a technique I use in management to better support and promote knowledge activity: activity-time budget system.

The concept – overview

Promoting and endorsing particular knowledge cultivation activities, while  quantifying and qualifying the time expended on activities per week. A systematic method to maintain new mindsets and behaviours in professional practice of managing knowledge.

Why the technique came into being

As a Team Leader,  I wanted empowered team members who had effective personal knowledge work practices. Specifically, I wanted:

  • To address work-life balance: Setting realistic expectations and reasonable conditions so knowledge workers could do good work, then truly and deeply rest their knowledge engines switching off from work.
  • To address the tendency to overlook and under-do important but ‘boring’ or ‘passive’ knowledge activities like  record keeping, organising, planning, reporting and reflecting;  to treat these items as necessary, not discretionary work.
  • To reign in the tendency to over-do some work achieving a quality not valued, or to drain resources for little return: To invoke the principle of ‘good enough’ given the available resources and time constraints.
  • Better decision-making about work priorities and energy expenditure with definitive yet flexible guidelines that would continue to be useful in professional practice.
  • A culture of autonomous creative action and approaches that didn’t require my specific input or endorsement; to enable opportunities to make a personal mark on work, or develop lateral professional interests. Staff could do what they believed was vital work without my permission as long as they could justify it against expectations.

So I mused about ways to address the underlying issue of finite resources (time) and expenditure of resources (energy and time). This triggered childhood memories of the personal power and discipline that came from receiving and spending pocket money; from there the concept of activity-time budget system seemed obvious …

How it works

The normal number of employed hours per week is the 100% activity-time allowance.  Percentages for 5-6 categories of activity expenditure  are assigned, with explanation about the kinds of activity each category represents. Individuals then autonomously allocate their activities and time to meet budget.

It is important to monitor expenditure against allowance. If there is significant variance (it’s an accounting thing!)over a 2-4 week period then a closer look is warranted, with adjustments made. Maybe the budget breakdown isn’t right, or the employee has insufficient skill or resources to be effective, or there is simply too great a volume of work expected.  A key reason for setting the allowance and the budget, is to ensure that an activity-time debt doesn’t mount up, for then you risk the quality of the person, and the quality of the work.

Specific steps to get started

1.  Decide how many hours a week you allow for ‘work’.[2] This becomes your 100% of work allowance.
2.  Define a list of activity categories against which work allowance will be assigned.  Define examples. Check that examples don’t overlap into other categories.
3.  Define how much work allowance (%) you want to assign to each activity category.
4.  Schedule time in calendar for each allotment of work activity (either individual or group of activities). Break into multiple allotments as is most useful.
5.  Monitor your expenditure against allowance, and adjust as necessary.[3]


Below are examples of the categories and assigned percentages for two work-place scenarios where I have applied the method.

Scenario 1: Team of fixed-term employees assigned to internal development project
10%    Administration
10%    Project planning and reporting
5%      Professional development
10%    Internal/team participation
65%    Project and client work

Opening and processing correspondence (including email)
Maintaining business records, including filing
Keeping desk and work space in order
Weekly or fortnightly 1-1 meeting with team leader

Project planning and reporting
NB: Not for a Project Manager but for personnel on project team
Reviewing and updating plan of work for coming week and coming 1-2 months
Reviewing progress and composing reporting content (for verbal or written delivery)
Contributing to project documentation, e.g. Risk and Issues log, Project Plan

Professional development
Attending courses and professional association meetings
Reflecting after attending courses, etc (including note taking or journaling)
Reading books, blogs, tweets
Networking with professional contacts outside organisation (including using social media)
Participating in mentoring or coaching activities
Preparing and maintaining personal Performance Management documentation

Internal/team participation
Attending and contributing to team meetings
Organising and leading team meetings when it’s your turn
Contributing to team well being (organising ad hoc social events, checking in with people)
Maintaining relationships with team colleagues
Contributing to team collective knowledge, participating in briefs and debriefs

Project and client work
Stakeholder engagement work (including discretionary coffee meetings)
Designing, organising and executing activities listed in project plan

Scenario 2: Single person self-employed
10% Admin
10% Professional enrichment
20% Business development
60% Project/Client work

Doing filing, invoicing, expense claims
Internal business meetings and discussions
Managing computing tools including backups and configurations

Professional enrichment
Activities that replenish my mojo
Reading professional books, blogs
Attending seminars, courses and conferences
Networking with professional contacts

Business Development
Networking with strategic contacts
Developing products and services for business
Developing and managing proposals for work
Developing and maintaining prospective client relationships

Project and client work (typically income generating)
Maintaining customer relationships
Project management for client projects
Providing services to clients


[1] I can’t take credit for the brilliant phrase “Management with a  knowledge focus” that goes to
[2] You could also apply the time budget system to your life, with 100% being the total number of hours in a week (n=168), then allotting how you want to apportion  where you spend your time.
[3] Consider allocating and monitoring your activity-time expenditure using an electronic calendar. For future time, make entries of how you intend to expend the time. Ensure your forecast is within budget constraints. For past time, make entries of how you actually expended the time. Compare the actual time against the budget, to determine the amount of variance.


Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.