Your calendar can be one of the most important tools in your entrepreneurial arsenal. It allows you to best utilize your most important resource -time- most effectively. Used consistently and followed rigorously, a well-managed calendar can mean the difference between finding yourself overwhelmed and finding yourself unbelievably productive.

Good calendar habits save time the way a change jar saves money: incrementally, but in ways that pay off big in the long term. They also allow you as a business person to establish yourself as reliable, as someone who consistently fulfills obligations, meets deadlines and keeps appointments. The ability to manage your calendar speaks directly to your ability to manage your business, and can solidify your overall reputation.

4 Principles of Calendar Management

So what are the best habits? Whether you use Google Calendar, Yahoo, Outlook, or a fine leather-bound datebook, there are a few key principles and practices that always work. Applied consistently, these habits can turn time into your greatest weapon.

Follow your calendar: A calendar is like any piece of equipment; owning it is pointless if it’s not being used. We’re all familiar with the old trope of the exercise bike that’s used once or twice before evolving into an elaborate laundry rack. Calendars are the same. They’re very easy to establish, but they’re meaningless without the follow-through.

A calendar is only as useful as you are willing to abide by what’s in it. It’s a surprisingly common syndrome for new business people to add things to their calendar…and stop there. Keeping a calendar means keeping a calendar, referring to it regularly, and doing whatever it says you should be at a given moment. To do otherwise is leaving time (and money) on the table.

Check your calendar at the end of the day, and again at the beginning: A full calendar needs to be checked in with often to maintain a productive schedule, but the most important times to check it are at the end of the day and the beginning of the day, in that order.

Checking the next day’s schedule, even though you have hours before it starts, allows you to schedule your mindset. It begins the process of mentally preparing for tomorrow, which is key to avoiding the feeling of “calendar overwhelm,” of being swept along by your calendar instead of helped by it. By looking at the end of the day, you allow yourself to face the next day calmly braced for what lies ahead.

By checking again in the morning, you refine that readiness and gear up for specific tasks, right down to deciding what to wear. This habit allows you to do what yoga practitioners call setting your intentions, so that you can move forward with purpose and not just momentum. The difference in stress levels will be noticeable. No matter how busy you are, or how full that calendar is, coming into every task mentally prepared will keep you calm, and therefore productive.

Never commit without consulting: The calendar, that is. When business picks up the pace, more and more introductions are made, the network grows and so do the opportunities. Unfortunately, too many opportunities can create the kind of “catastrophic success” that leaves a business person suddenly unable to meet conflicting obligations.

You are not an airline, so don’t overbook yourself. (Actually, come to think of it, neither should airlines, but that’s another post). Breaking promises, eschewing obligations and disappointing the people in your network are habits that can kill aspirations, so it’s important to avoid scheduling conflicts.

This can be done in one of two ways: either keep your calendar on hand (easy enough in the era of smartphones) and consult it in the moment, or only agree to something pending a calendar check. If you don’t have access to your calendar in the moment, simply say “yes” tentatively, and be sure to follow up.

You run the calendar: Not the other way around. The point of a well-managed calendar is to accelerate your productivity by taking the stress out of the scheduling process, not adding more. While a responsible business person meets the obligations on his calendar, you don’t want your calendar to become a prison.

It’s your calendar. That means allowing yourself to make tweaks, to reschedule, and to create the plans that best maximize your way of doing business. It’s there to organize, not to dictate. The minute your calendar becomes a source of dread, it’s time to exercise your prerogative over it.

Calendar Management Tips

With the four principles in place, a few more specific practices will help maximize the calendar’s effectiveness.

When filling your calendar, start by establishing “must-do” slots for the most vital tasks. This is the time for product production, sales, and other bedrock tasks. Estimate based on experience the amount of time these tasks take, and give them primacy in your calendar. Remember: you can always tweak the time allotment as you develop your scheduling skills.

Also, schedule specific time for the small and incidental-seeming things like checking and responding to emails. As we discussed in our exploration of distraction, emails and social media are important factors in your overall business equation, but they can be deceptively time-consuming. Because of that, it’s important to give them the appropriate consideration in your schedule, so they don’t creep into time set aside for other things.

Even “tasks” that aren’t directly business-related should be scheduled as if they are. Breaks, meals, walks, meditation- these are all things that should happen during the workday. Never letting off the gas is just as counterproductive as never letting off the brake, so use the calendar to incorporate the “me” time that will keep you refreshed enough to run at peak productivity.

Another component that should have its own time on the calendar is general meetings, including the ones with less specific purposes. Simple progress checks, brainstorming sessions, and overall strategy discussions are important, even if their goals are more broad. Even for the solo entrepreneur, time should be set aside to look away from specific tasks and think in the wider scope.

Appointments and Travel

While it may seem odd, it’s also important to include in your calendar certain situations with more than one possible outcome. Specifically, time for individual appointments and time for travel need their own places in the schedule, even though you may not be able to predict exactly how you’ll use them.

Include open slots- even before you schedule with anyone- for individual appointments. It may seem counterintuitive to “book” a few hours each week with no one in particular, but this ensures a reasonable level of availability, and makes it easier to schedule those appointments without creating conflicts. A few hours each week should be marked in your calendar for this purpose.

For even easier appointment booking, you can also use booking software like Calendly and ScheduleOnce. These programs allow you to email links to your online calendar, through which individuals can schedule their own meetings with you based on pre-established availability. All you have to do is see who’s signed up, and prepare accordingly.

It’s also important to factor business travels into your calendar. Time spent on the road and in the sky is still time, and needs to be acknowledged as such. While it’s tempting to assume that you’ll be able to accomplish certain tasks on the go, it’s more wise to consider traveling time as “booked.” If you happen to be able to write that blog or answer those emails in transit, consider it a bonus, but never schedule with the assumption that you will.

Good calendar management is all about habit. Habits have to be purposely created and consistently nurtured over the long term in order to become effective. Experiment with your calendar, sticking to the principles and practices outlined here. Managed carefully, your time will yield great results.