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How a 'zero-based calendar' can boost your productivity and protect your personal time

Wasted time may be a thing of the past.
Image: Group of people with two laptops at a meeting
Use those ten and 20 minute blocks of time between meetings to cross important tasks off your list. Getty Images

Consultant and professional speaker Melanie Deziel is always busy, but she has a clever way to make time work in her favor. She puts everything — no matter how small or seemingly trivial — on her calendar.

This ‘zero-based calendar’ concept, created by Cathryn Lavery and Allen Brouwer, leaves no space for wasted time, according to Deziel.

“They basically explain that by putting everything you do — from your commute to your meal times, to your showers, to your sleeping — you get a much better sense of what free time you actually have,” Deziel tells NBC News BETTER. “And it also helps you to manage your tasks more efficiently because you understand how much time they will actually take.”

How to create a zero-based calendar

1. Book everything

As an busy entrepreneur, Deziel spends a lot of time on the road. Between meetings, phone calls and speaking engagements, it can be difficult to manage time, she says. She says the zero-based calendar helps her fill in the gaps.

The first step, she says, is to book everything you need to get done in your calendar, no matter what it is. From breakfast, to your daily commute, meetings, phone calls, and going to the gym, everything counts, she says.

“It just has given me a much better sense of how I’m actually spending my time,” she says. “And I feel I’ve been more productive by understanding what are the real open slots for me to fill with meaningful work.”

2. Create an estimate of how long it will take to complete each task

A lot of things we need to get done are not necessarily tasks, Deziel says — they are things that “require many other tasks” to be completed. For example, if you have to adjust your retirement savings, you need to dedicate specific times on your calendar for each step required to do it.

“By keeping your calendar this way, it forces you to think critically about what the actual action items are necessary to accomplish something you might have on your list, and then breaking that down into a realistic estimate,” Deziel says.

“Once you start chunking it up into more actionable tasks,” she says, “it becomes easier to anticipate how long things will take and to therefore efficiently slot them into the space on your calendar.”

3. Use all your in-between time

After you’ve filled your calendar, you will be able to see when your in-between time is, says the consultant. Dedicate that time to getting specific tasks done.

“If you aren’t using a zero-based calendar and you say, ‘Well, I’ve only got 30 minutes before my next call,’ you’ve probably got to spend 10 minutes of that figuring out what you should do for the remaining 20,” says Deziel.

But if you already allotted that time on your calendar, you can determine ahead of time how you will use it, she explains.

“By having a clear understanding of how long tasks will actually take — filling every blank spot on your calendar — you can stop wasting those little gaps of time because you’ve pre-planned what’s going to happen in each of those slots,” she says.

4. Protect your personal time

Make sure you use your calendar to dedicate time for your personal life, says Deziel.

“If you don’t block off the time you want to be home for dinner or at your kid’s softball game or watching your favorite show when it comes on live, or even bedtime — you want to get to bed by a certain time — it’s very easy for things to leak over and to then be beyond their slotted time,” she says.

When you dedicate time on your calendar for your personal life, you see your personal time as important, she explains.

“It kind of allows you to make a commitment to yourself that you are going to make time or whatever those things are,” she says.

It gives you a more realistic idea of your time

Deziel says the zero-based calendar has given her more awareness of how much time she has in her day to get things done.

“I think it’s allowed me to be more realistic about how long it will take me to complete things and when I can have things done, which is definitely helpful because the more honest you can be about that stuff with yourself as well as others, the better you can plan that time,” Deziel says.

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