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How To Use A Calendar and To Do List With Each Other

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Calendar
A lot of people use their calendar as their daily to-do list. Most of us learned it ad-hoc that we put the things we need to do on our calendar, but we think that’s a bad approach to planning. We want to show you how to use your calendar more efficiently together with your to do list. Each has its own functions and responsibilities, but they can work great in harmony once you know how.

The first time I ever started using a calendar was when I went to middle school and it was mandatory for each student to have a planner. We would write down when tests were taking place and when had to complete our homework (I know, this middle school was awesome). This is a popular approach even today for professionals, because you can plan ahead what your week will look like.

However, there are some disadvantages to this approach. For example, what if you want to book a vacation but you don’t know exactly when. Where would you put this then?

Calendar management 101

Let’s first go over how to use a calendar. You can use a wall calendar or software, it doesn’t really matter. The functionality is the same, but we find that using software calendar will give more flexibility and is more efficient. Especially when you use it together with a to-do list, as you will read later.

Now what should go in your calendar? In our opinion, you should only put the following on your calendar:

  • Appointments (dentist, classes, dinner with friends, meetings, etc).
  • Deadlines (handing in report, filing taxes, etc).
  • Events (pay day, birthdays, holidays, package arrival, etc).
  • Time sensitive errands (buying something before store closing time).
  • Focus time (when you set time aside to work on something important and no one can disturb you).

You should consider your calendar holy ground. Nothing goes on your calendar unless it’s a must and time sensitive. That is why we advise you to put appointments there (obviously) and deadlines because they are both items that occur at a specific day and time, where something has to happen.

Do not put things on there that have random or arbitrary deadlines. This will fill up your calendar unnecessarily. For example, you want book a vacation to Maui, but you have no clue yet when you want to do it so you just put it on Tuesday at 7pm. Try to avoid calendar items like this. Instead, put those items in your to do list and then plan when you can do them.

Again, your calendar is holy. Only put in the important and time sensitive items. Now we’ll quickly go over on how to use a to do list or task manager.

Task management 101

A lot of people aren’t used to using to do lists or a task manager. If you are complete new to to do lists and task management, I highly suggest to read our introductory guide to task management and to do lists.

In short, and for the purpose of this article, I want you to view your tasks on your to do list as things you need to do that have no strict deadline. In other words, your tasks have no specific date or time attached.

Nowadays we have so many things on our plate that there is no way we can do them all. Especially things that we cannot do within the next week(s) or month(s) but we still need to do the at some point. Where do you keep this information? That’s right, on your to do list.

The key to managing your to do list is that you have to review it at least once a week. That’s when you go over your to do list, and see which tasks need attention, which can be deleted, and which tasks can be added to projects. Maintaining your to do list is very important because you will use this information for planning your days and weeks ahead. Again, if this is all new to you I highly advice you to read our simple guide to task management and to do lists.

Calendar + To Do List

Now that we have covered how to use a calendar and to do list, it’s time to show you how powerful they can be together. The starting point of planning is knowing what commitments you have already. Once you know that, that’s when you can see which tasks on your to do lists can taken care of on which days. When you’re planning and you notice that on a Tuesday you have a lot of meetings and appointments, then you know planning a lot of tasks on Tuesday is a bad idea. Whereas if you notice that on a Wednesday you don’t have a lot of items on your calendar, you could schedule that you work on specific tasks that day.

Calendar planning workflow

Calendar planning workflow

This is how using a to do list and calendar together can be very powerful. You can plan how much you want to get done on specific days.

Make sure you review every week your to do list and calendar. Start looking first on your calendar how busy you are and supplement days with tasks that you have on your to do lists.

Getting started with the right tools

Using a calendar and to do list together is a great idea but it takes a little bit of practice. Doing this syncing between calendar and to do list on paper can be very tedious with a wall calendar. That’s why we recommend you use software as your solution.

There are many calendars and to do lists / task managers that can mash together really well. We tend to be a bit biased because we love Omnifocus (OS X) and iCal (built in OS X) so with that endorsement out of the way, here are some other recommendations.

Calendars

Google Calendar (web)
Microsoft Outlook (Windows)
BusyCal (OS X)

To do lists / task managers

Remember the Milk (web)
Microsoft Outlook (Windows)
Things (OS X)

To get your feet wet on the Mac, you should try out Things in harmony with iCal. Ben Stewart wrote a great piece on how to use Things together with iCal.

Things and iCal.

For beginners on a Mac, we recommend using Things with iCal.

For Windows users, Microsoft Outlook is the most popular option. It has a built in to do list manager and calendar. Plus it handles all your email too so these options can all work great together. The learning curve is pretty simple and Microsoft has a simple training course for managing Outlook with email, calendar, and to do list.

Microsoft Outlook

Microsoft Outlook has a built in calendar and to do list. Great for people who also use it as their primary email client.

In case you want to manage your email better, check out our simple guide to managing email. Regardless of which operating system or mail client you use, the article also explains how to use email, to do lists, and calendars together (it includes a screencast too).

In case you don’t want to tie yourself to an operating system, there are great web based solutions too. Google Calendar is one of the best online calendar applications out there. It’s really good. For task managers, Remember the milk is the most popular. What if I told you that these two also work great together? Yes, it is true! That means you can access your to do list and calendar from any computer or device, as long as you have an internet connection. Sign up for RTM and it will show you how you can sync it with your Google Calendar. Update: As Bojan mentioned in the comments below, Google Tasks is a simple but effective task manager that integrates with Google Calendar. For anyone who wants a very simple to-do list manager, Google Tasks is a great option.

Remember the Milk and Google Calendar

For a web based solution, Remember the Milk and Google Calendar is a great one.

Now I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this lethal combination before, but for the advanced readers on Macs you should try Omnifocus and iCal together. They work really well together, especially when you put certain contexts on your iCal calendar. A better approach is if you have your iCal calendar synced with MobileMe so you can access and manage your calendar anywhere.

Omnifocus and iCal

If you want to reach Asian Efficiency level, you need to have Omnifocus and iCal.

Yours truly uses Omnifocus and BusyCal (iCal on steroids) together Google Calendar. I love the interface and features of Busycal over iCal’s. It’s similar, simpler, and faster. Plus it can sync with Google Calendar which I use a lot in combination with other Google services. How I use this is worthy of another article.

Next Actions

  1. Pick a calendar and task manager software combination.
  2. Set aside 30 minutes and fill up your calendar with appointments, deadlines, and events.
  3. Sync up your task manager and calendar.

(Image courtesy of erix! under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Bojan Djordjevic May 21, 2011 at 3:22PM

 What’s the purpose of Remember the milk, when you have Google tasks. No matter that they are simple, they are perfectly integrating with Google Calendar. Just my 2 cents.

Reply

AE Thanh May 22, 2011 at 11:20AM

 I agree that Google Tasks is a great resource. It’s very simple and easy to use. And like you mentioned it works great with Google Calendar. I’ll add it to the article too. Thanks for the tip!

Reply

Marcos Alexandre Wekcer January 18, 2012 at 12:12PM

You forgot goodtodo.com

Reply

Patrick June 30, 2012 at 4:16AM

“How I use this is worthy of another article.” -> I’d love to hear more about how you use OmniFocus together with BusyCal. I’ve been thinking of setting up a similar system myself and I’d appreciate hearing about your experiences.

Reply

Thanh Pham June 30, 2012 at 5:55AM

Hey Patrick I can tell you it’s been a great experience so far. I don’t use the calendar/Omnifocus integration that much but when I do it’s working well. The article idea has been added to our list and we’ll try to publish it soon.

Reply

Dallon Christensen January 13, 2013 at 10:05PM

Is there a benefit to NOT having an automatic import to your calendar? As I’ve thought through this, you want to be VERY sure your calendar stays sacred. If you have some sort of import, you can lose that last moment of “does this really need to be on my calendar?”. I can see the benefit of removing a step, but this may be a time where having that extra bit of friction could be important.

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Jenny April 28, 2013 at 6:02PM

An alternative may be to import the individual events you select… Check out Teamup Calendar when a stand-alone shared calendar for group collaboration makes sense, e.g. team absence/holiday planning. You can import only the items important to you to your personal calendar (Outlook, Google, iCal etc.) without cluttering it with everyone else’s vacation dates.

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ben stewart July 1, 2012 at 11:04AM

I just noticed this link to my site. Thanks for linking to that article. I am honestly a little embarrassed at how old the article is.

This is an excellent topic to write about. As I began taking on more responsibility in my work life (and life in general) I had to learn how to properly use my calendar for events and my task list for tasks. Now I work in a team and so I have added a new layer to each: collaboration.

While iCal and Google Calendar both have tasks functionality built-in neither is elegant to me. Ideally I want to be able to easily access and manage my calendar and tasks on my Mac, iPhone, and the web. Google Calendar with BusyCal and a few nice iPhone apps handles the calendar part for me. However, tasks are a different story altogether.

Right now my favorite collaborative tasks manager is Flow (http://getflow.com) although Do (http://do.com), Orchestra (http://orchestra.com), and Doit.im (http://doit.im) are also worth looking at. If collaboration is not necessary I am a fan of Remember the Milk Pro, The Hit List, or Things.

Reply

Thanh Pham July 2, 2012 at 5:37AM

Hey Ben thanks for stopping by and sharing all these nuggets!

Reply

daniel williams July 19, 2012 at 8:36PM

Great article – have you ever tried Nozbe http://www.nozbe.com/ great program!

Reply

Thanh Pham July 20, 2012 at 5:25AM

Hi Daniel, never tried it but I know Michael Sliwinski knows his stuff. I’ll check it out soon.

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Joao August 8, 2012 at 12:15PM

Hi Thanh , could you please help me on iPad Omnifocus and iCal. Is that possible to see in iCal a to do planned in Omnifocus ?
Could you tell me how?
And if get the to do in iCal can sync via iCloud ?
Many thanks and best regards.

Reply

Thanh Pham August 9, 2012 at 2:23PM

Hi Joao,

Via iCloud doesn’t work at the moment (due to OmniFocus not supporting it) but you can see OF tasks on iCal. The other way around is not possible – showing iCal to do’s in OmniFocus.

But you can see items of Omnifocus in iCal. Go to Settings of Omnifocus and in the iCal tab you can sync contexts. However, this stopped working in Mountain Lion.

Reply

Simon August 15, 2012 at 1:38PM

You mentioned the calendar being holy, but it seems almost a little bloated, at least to what I’m used to. I usually only put Appointments, Events and Day specific information (as an all day event) on my calendar. Having the deadline there does give you a nice overview of deadlines, but so does forecast in omnifocus. Having the deadline on the calendar actually feels a bit weird since it may not require any action whatsoever from the user, as whatever had a deadline might’ve been completed days ago.

I tried focus time for my university studies, but I really suck at keeping them. As such I dislike putting it on my calendar, but it’s really a question of discipline.

Great article, it’s a great in depth setup of calendar + todo!

Reply

Taiwo March 14, 2013 at 1:50PM

Great artcile Thanh! Can I sync OmniFocus with google calendar/tasks without needing BusyCal? Thanks.

Reply

Aaron Lynn April 26, 2013 at 5:25AM

Think of it as using-in-tandem rather than syncing. The task structure in Google Calendar isn’t complex enough to handle the structure in OmniFocus.

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Susan November 6, 2013 at 6:19AM

I’ve used Outlook for years and my company just migrated to Google. I miss certain functions of the task list in outlook.

1) I can create recurring tasks.
2) Incomplete tasks always stay visible, highlighted in red.

It seems that I can either have #1 on the calendar or #2 (not highlighted) on the task list. Is there a way to get both features? I’d prefer them on a task list rather than calendar for all of the reasons listed in the article.

Thanks,

Susan

Reply

JJ February 8, 2014 at 3:25PM

If you want to reach areal Asian Efficiency level, you’ve got omnifocus (osx & iOS), Fantastical 2 (iPhone) and Calendars 5 (iPad)

Reply

scott March 4, 2014 at 5:25PM

is there a way to add events to tasks if I have previously added the event to my calendar?

Reply

Aaron Lynn March 5, 2014 at 11:52PM

Tasks in your calendar or in OmniFocus?
Aaron Lynn recently posted…The Productivity Blueprint Is Now Available

Reply

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