A calendar can only be drawn next to a freshly made macchiato

Drawing the Calendar

Tips for mapping your life

Sometime in the fall of last year I began to draw my calendar.

My weeks were packed with a series of interlocking jobs and I couldn’t keep them straight. Tiny calendars on my computer weren’t cutting it. I needed something tangible — I needed a calendar-as-artifact.

The drawn calendar is not for minutiae, but for overview, for the ability to both understand the rhythm of coming weeks at a glance, and for the pleasure of ticking off time.[1]

There are three ingredients to the drawn calendar:

  1. An off-white unruled notebook [2]
  2. A 0.5mm Copic MULTILINER SP Waterproof black pen
  3. C2 (light Cool Grey), C3 (medium Cool Grey), and R27 (Cadmium red) Copic Sketch Markers

With black, two shades of grey (you really only need one, but two is extra luxurious), and red, you can sketch out pretty much anything in the world, mock up almost any user interface, and — as it turns out — make a pretty gorgeous calendar.

As for drawing the lines? I eyeballed it in the beginning, but now use the edge of whatever paperback or postcard I have handy.

And so I drew my weeks. Admittedly, a strange thing to do. Why not just buy a calendar notebook? Well, at first because I was in the middle of Myanmar and I couldn’t buy one. But more importantly, because the act of drawing itself becomes a meditation, and slowing down to feel the shape of days and weeks to come carries an inherent value not found in the already-made.

My recipe — R27 highlighted black ink to block off major events: plane rides, job timeframes, deadlines. C2 to shade in the days as they pass. C3 for coloring headers or month markers. And black ink to sketch in — sometimes literally, with tiny drawings — meetings or momentous events.

My drawn calendar system evolved as I used it. The first iteration focused on work with only the thinnest mapping of my life rhythm. But I liked using the calendar so much that I added additional boxes within each day-box, and after 10 months of drawing calendars, I’ve landed on the following system.

Three tiny boxes for tracking what’s important …

Each day-box has three additional boxes. They record:

  1. Have I written for at least two hours today? If yes, the top left box gets filled in C3 medium grey. If no, it gets an X.
  2. Have I exercised? This can be weights at the gym, yoga, a run, hiking — whatever. Something intentional and healthy. If so, the thing I did gets written in the top middle box and highlighted R27 red. If not, I draw a black line through the box.
  3. Did I drink alcohol? If I didn’t drink, the bottom right box gets filled with pure black. If I did, I record the number of drinks and write what I drank next to it.

I find that recording these simple pieces of information has a powerful additive effect on motivation.

If I’ve drawn four black no-drinking boxes in a row, it’s a lot easier to say no (or yes, depending on the occasion) to a drink the next night. And if you’re only having — and recording — a few drinks a month, each one takes on a deeper significance and you remember precisely with whom you drank, what you talked about, and why you had that drink. It makes those slow glasses of whiskey all the more delicious.

Similarly, when I’m on a good writing streak, it’s easier to feel that streak if it’s drawn out, made less abstract. And in being able to feel it, I find I’m more inspired to keep it going. Conversely, if I know I’m not going to be able to write for a week (because of travel or other jobs), I’ll preemtively X out the boxes, essentially giving myself permission to not stress about missing goals.

With exercise I find the mapping both motivates me to do more and also makes me more deliberate about how often I do it. The more I exercised, the more I realize the importance of recovery. And so, I can look at this drawn calendar and see — unambiguously by the tiny rhythms of red across the tops of weeks — if the tired I feel on a given day is from too much exercise, or if I’m just being a wimp.

If I keep the writing up, the exercise regular, and the drinking down, I find I can handle even the most grueling of schedules. The only other variable I keep an eye on is family time. No matter how nutty things get, I always block in a lazy weekend with the godsons or parents, or long hike with dear friends.

I only have one big design tip: When drawing your calendar, make horizontal lines solid, but make vertical lines dotted. That simple shift in design lightens the visual weight of a drawn calendar, and, in my opinion, makes for a much more beautiful page. If both your horizonal and vertical lines are solid, the drawn calendar becomes less like a calendar and more like a spreadsheet, ponderous, with the core unit of the week less defined.

A full page

The most satisfying part of the drawn calendar is the more you use it, the more you fill it in, the more beautiful it becomes. By the end of a month (or the end of a page; my pages now hold nine weeks) you have an artifact, making clear rhythms of life in ways that I’ve found no other calendar to do. It’s pretty — sometimes even gorgeous — and it allows you to have a slightly more intimate relationship with the passing of time.

But most of all, the making of the drawn calendar becomes an act of reflection in and of itself. And if nothing else, can help you keep straight the chaos of a life that may sometimes feel like it’s bursting at the seams.


[1]: For the minutiae of each day, I keep to-do lists on separate pages. They have no logic, and are written and rewritten and by the end of a week are a spaghetti of chicken scratch, black marks, and arrows.

[2]: I’m currently using Inkaren Memo Pads. If you’re in Tokyo you can buy them at Papier Labo between Kitasando Station & Harajuku Station