It will surprise no-one to know that I was an early adopter of electronic calendars, starting with a Casio Digital Diary in the early 1990s, followed by a Psion 5mx in 1997. But making the switch from a Filofax to a grayscale PDA did mean giving up one thing I didn’t get back until years later: color-coded calendars.

Many people use color-coding to distinguish work and social events, as well as things like family calendars. But I also use them to help me maintain a balanced life …

There are probably few people in the world who haven’t had a time in their lives when they seem to do nothing but work. Going freelance, or starting a business, is a classic example. With no steady income stream, it’s easy to feel that you can’t turn down any work offered to you. There was one point in my life when I was working really crazy hours for that reason.

Family, socialising, fun activities, hobbies and personal development can all lose out.

But it’s not just work that can be all-consuming. Anything from a new baby to a new home can be something that takes over your life. There are no easy solutions to any of these issues, but there’s an old business saying that ‘what gets measured, gets managed.’

In other words, the first step to making something happen is to pay attention to it. And that’s where color-coded calendars can help.

Why have color-coded calendars?

Color-coded projects allow you to see at a glance how much time you are investing in the various aspects of your life. Are you devoting enough time to your work, your partner, your kids, your health, your passion projects … ? If each element has its own color, it’s easy to flick through your calendar to see how the balance maps out.

For example, here are my colors:

So alongside work, admin and a watching brief on Steph’s calendars, I’m effectively monitoring six categories:

  • Joint activities with my partner
  • Social/fun events (other than with Steph)
  • Work on our home
  • Fiction writing
  • Video
  • Personal development

I chose these categories because each represents something I prioritize in my life, and want to ensure that I’m paying sufficient attention to it.

For example, when life is busy some couples find that they can go from week to week hardly seeing each other. If you each have your own events, and own circles of friends alongside joint ones, it can be easy to find that you have limited time together.

Some couples have ‘date nights’ – one evening a week that is reserved purely for the two of them to be together. We haven’t found we need that, but a quick scan of my calendar allows me to see how much deep red is there, and take action if it seems a little light.

The same applies to fiction writing. When you write for a living in the day, passion projects can get neglected, so I have a color for that so I can see how much time I’m devoting to writing fiction.

Video is another thing I’m focusing on at present, looking to develop my skills both for work projects and fun ones, so I want to ensure I’m investing enough time in that.

Personal development is something that can easily get neglected, whether it’s going to the gym, reading books designed to broaden your horizons or learning a new skill. So that has its own color too.

And just as I want to ensure I’m doing lots of stuff with my partner, I also want to make sure I have time for fun stuff on my own or with my own circles of friends, so I have a color for that.

How to create color-coded calendars

Apple’s Calendar app doesn’t support color-coding directly: you can’t have a single calendar and then decide which color each event should be. So if you only use a single personal calendar, the first step is to create additional ones, to which you’ll assign events.

You’ll want one calendar for each of the life categories you want to monitor. Although this might sound like a hassle, it only takes a little work to create, and is then very quick and easy to use.

You can create calendars on your Mac or on an iOS device, whichever you find more convenient.

On your Mac:

  • Open the Calendar app
  • Click the Calendars button, top-left
  • Two-finger tap below the calendars and choose New Calendar (or Option-CMD-N)
  • Name your calendar
  • Two-finger tap it and assign a color to it

On an iOS device:

  • Tap the Calendars button, bottom-center
  • Tap Add Calendar at the bottom
  • Choose a name and a color

Repeat for each category you want to monitor.

How to assign existing events to a calendar

The next task is to move existing events from their existing calendar to their new one. Although this is a bit tedious, it doesn’t take as long as you think. If you have repeating events, it can be quicker to delete the event, create it as a new one (see below), assign it to the correct calendar and then set the recurring pattern again.

On a Mac:

  • Two-finger tap the event
  • Select Calendar, then the calendar you want to move it to

On an iOS device:

  • Tap the event
  • Tap the existing calendar and select the new one

How to assign a new event to a calendar

On a Mac:

  • Create the event as usual
  • Select the calendar from the drop-down, top-right

On an iOS device:

  • Create the event as usual
  • Scroll down to Calendar
  • Tap the default calendar and select the one you want

Monitoring your life balance

Once you have everything setup, monitoring your life balance is very easy – especially on a Mac. In week view, you can see at a glance how the colors balance out. For example, in the dummy version at the top of this piece, you can see that there are plenty of joint events, a bit of work on a passion project, not many solo fun events, no video work, not much personal development and lunchtimes are a bit work-heavy.

After a while, it becomes almost automatic, and it’ll jump out at you if any color is missing from a week, or less prominent than it ought to be. But until then, make it a habit to actively scan for the color balance.

Could you see yourself doing this? Or do you do something like it already? Please share your experiences in the comments – likewise if you use color-coded calendars in other creative ways.

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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