This week I celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary.
My wife and I have a wonderful relationship, and we live full lives as partners, parents, and professionals. We align on most things and rarely disagree.
There is, however, one realm where we do not align, and it’s been a source of friction for us over the years. It has to do with how we keep track of everything in our busy lives so that we honor our promises and commitments (a.k.a., keeping your word) to each other, as well as to our family, friends, and colleagues.
You may be thinking, “honoring promises and commitments is so passe.” You may be right. In response to that thought, I will say that keeping my word is an excellent foundation for a healthy and happy marriage, as well as strong friendships, and a productive work environment. It’s called living a life of integrity, and it’s a topic that is covered more fully in an Advanced Leadership Course that I co-lead. It is also something that comes up frequently in my work with clients as an executive coach, usually in the leadership context of creating cultures of candor where gossip is not tolerated.
The challenge many of us face in leading a life of integrity is how to keep track of all the commitments and promises that we make when we lead busy lives full of competing priorities, multiple electronic devices, and a pace of activity that seems always to be accelerating? It’s a challenge that we must confront if we are to give and keep your word to others. It’s a challenge that we can meet by putting in place a structure that systematically helps you honor your commitments once you’ve made them.
The structure that has worked best for me in this regard for over 30 years is a calendar. Using a calendar effectively began early in my professional life in the days before widespread use of personal computers, email, and cell phones. In those days (as now) I frequently traveled across North America and Europe to discuss possibilities with clients and customers to develop business and deliver results. Appointments were often made weeks in advance by telephone, and I was expected to show up on time, frequently traveling by plane, train, and automobile over hundreds and thousands of miles. In those days I carried a bound calendar-planner where I kept track of all my activity (phone calls, faxes, visits, follow-up actions). Today, I use a digital calendar for the same purpose, which has made keeping track of commitments much easier.
I schedule nearly EVERYTHING! And, I encourage you to do the same.
Right about now some of you may be saying, “I’m a list person, not a calendar person.” Creating a daily list of appointments, actions, and tasks is just about the next best tool to using a digital calendar for productivity. The trouble is that it requires that you maintain two systems (a calendar and a list) as opposed to just one since nearly everyone I know in professional life uses a digital calendar to schedule appointments. Once you have two systems for keeping track of commitments, the chance for errors and mistakes multiplies.
Many people I know pride themselves on remembering the commitments that they make and actions they need to take. Unfortunately, science is demonstrating that short-term memory is a highly unreliable system for this purpose. In my own experience, unless I use my phone or computer to schedule a future action I need to take, the chance that I will remember to take that action is very low.
For example, someone very close to me uses text messages as a primary mode of communication and does not use a calendar to schedule tasks. Like memory, text messages are an inferior system for keeping track of commitments primarily because of the large volume of texts that many of us deal with and the fact that they disappear (or, get pushed down) very quickly. In the case of this person, I recently sent her a birthday greeting on a Friday. She texted me back that she would call over the weekend. By Monday morning, no phone call. No biggie, you may say. And, I agree. Her intention was good. Except intention and execution are two different things. And, this kind of breakdown frequently happens with this person. The impact is that I do not depend on her to follow through on commitments.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting here that you need to schedule EVERYTHING. Just NEARLY everything. For example, you need not schedule each and every email, text, or phone call that requires a response from you. However, you do need to have a system for dealing with those forms of communication. One method that I’ve introduced with many of my executive coaching clients is: Do It, Delegate It, Delay It, or Dump It.
Here’s how the system works. If you can handle something that needs handling in about 2 minutes or less, Do It. If you are not the best person to deal with the thing that needs to be handled then Delegate It. If you are the best person to handle an item and cannot deal with it in 2 minutes, then Delay It (ie., schedule it on your calendar). Finally, if what you’re handling is neither urgent nor important, then Dump It.
While the Do It, Delegate It, Delay It, Dump It system is highly effective, no system is foolproof. And, while a digital calendar that synchronizes across all your devices is about the best tool I’ve come across for keeping track everything in my life, I recognize that some folks use a combination of tools to help them honor their commitments and live a life of integrity.
In my wife’s case, she currently uses a combination of digital calendar, journal, and paper planner (she’s a 1st-grade teacher). It works for her…most of the time. On the 19th we will celebrate our 20 year wedding anniversary with a meal together at a local restaurant. I’m looking forward to it. And, you can be sure the date, time, and location are on my calendar.
David Langiulli is an executive coach and trainer who helps leaders and their teams get results.