Calendar or To Do List? Two Task Management Tools Compared


How do you plan and track your daily activities, with a calendar or a to do list? Some productivity gurus claim that putting everything on your calendar ensures that it never gets done, or that you’ll cross off what you don’t get done and just reschedule it for the next day — which defeats the purpose of scheduling. Other gurus claim that putting everything on a list, where items aren’t tied to a time and date, ensures that they never get done, since they lack specific queues to get started or deadlines to finish.

If the choice is mutually exclusive, I think they’re both wrong. Calendars and lists are related, but serve different purposes, not unlike clocks and timers. You can use a clock as a timer, but it’s not the best tool for the job.

Calendar Management Best Practices

By far, calendars are the most popular way to manage tasks. Walk into any office supply store and look at its selection of day planners, and you’ll probably see most pages devoted to calendar entries, and one page per week devoted to tasks. The iPhone has a calendar, but no native to do list application; the same applies to Android phones.

But calendars are clumsy as to do lists. Weekly and monthly paper-based calendars offer limited space for entering multiple items, compelling the user to either leave off many otherwise doable tasks, or describe agendas in general terms that require further thinking to make them actionable.

A well-formed task list gives enough detail to get started immediately rather than just suggest a general course of action, which is usually an outcome disguised as an action: “Get refund” is an outcome; “Call customer service” is an action. Actions descriptions that granular will be greater in number than what can be crammed into a typical calendar blank.

When to Use Calendars

Even an extremely busy person should guard against having a cluttered calendar. I have plenty of things to do, but I strive to keep as much off of my calendar as possible.

The more items you have on your calendar, but more potential your schedule has for getting out of sync. If you’ve scheduled A, B and C in sequential order, then doing B implicitly depends on first completing A, even if there’s no relational dependency between the two tasks. By artificially putting tasks in sequential order, the margin for error for each one getting done directly impacts all subsequent tasks, creating what programmers call cascading errors.

Suppose your first task for the day is “Talk to Mark re product launch,” and your next task is, “Edit monthly report.” But it turns out that Mark’s not at his desk. After a few minutes of walking around the office to see if he’s lingering elsewhere, you go back to your own desk. Since he’s late, you decide to spend the time thinking about exactly what you need to go over when Mark arrives. It feels productive, since you’re still focused on what you “have to” do, but in reality, you being idle.

That’s because your calendar put you in a “Talk to Mark” frame of mind, even though the item wasn’t a scheduled meeting (he wasn’t aware of your intentions). After all, your calendar says you’re supposed to talk to Mark before you can do anything else. But editing your monthly report has no dependency on your discussions with Mark, or lack thereof. If the tasks had been on a list instead, you would have been more inclined to respond to Mark’s absence by looking at your list and asking, “What else can I do?”

So what should go on your calendar?

  1. Appointments (obviously)
  2. Objectively time-dependent or date-dependent events: a package that won’t arrive until Wednesday, a package you have to mail by the end of today, a trade show you’re considering attending (even optional events can be time-bound)
  3. Things you deliberately want to defer until a more appropriate time, such as holding off on buying a shiny new gadget until after you’ve paid your taxes
  4. Blocks of extended time for high-focus activities: writing sessions, batched phone call or email sessions, jogging

Leave tasks that don’t have a time dependency off your calendar. Avoid writing down artificial start times or deadlines for them, for two reasons: (1) to minimize the potential for cascading errors and (2) to plan for unplanned but inevitable interruptions.

Keeping an uncluttered calendar doesn’t mean doing less. Instead of using your calendar to see how much you have to do, you’re now using the whitespace in your calendar to gauge your availability. Availability for what, you ask?

Using Your To Do List

Some people think that not allocating a specific time to a task gives themselves too much rope. I’d suggest the opposite: that they’re wound too tight.

Untimed action lists could be seen as collections of items to do whenever you get around to them, but I look at my lists as collections of items to do as soon as possible (I structure my tasks into context lists, hence the plural references to “lists”). I review my lists the way most people review their watch.

“As soon as possible” doesn’t mean in haste. It means looking at my calendar for the first opening in my schedule, then using that whitespace to go to my lists and look for the highest leverage action I can take in that discretionary time. Discretionary time isn’t idle time. It’s time to review your list to see which task fits best in the window available, then doing it from start to finish, as opposed to scheduling a 12-minute task into a 30-minute slot on your calendar, and then “thinking about” it for the remaining 18 minutes.

Your calendar and list work together. If you’re booked solid with a day full of meetings with no gaps, you don’t have to look at your list, since none of those tasks are time-dependent, and therefore, by definition, can wait. If you only have a couple of appointments that day, you have a window of opportunity to blast through your list. When you reach the whitespace in your calendar, go into “list mode.”


Popular search terms for this article:

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe
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Discussion

  1. jess on the 24th February

    Moleskine do a fantastic planner/journal where in the left page has a full week with enough space to write appointments and the right page has room for a task list and notes. It’s quite retro and analogue using this paper stuff, and it doesn’t beep at you when you need to do stuff but I find it invaluable for not only planning but keeping a record of things.

    • chrisbean on the 14th January

      This is EXACTLY what I use/do.

      I limit the number of calendar items to three action-items per day, and use the right-hand page to list ten things I’d like to accomplish that week, leaving room underneath the weekly to-dos for a shopping list and project-specific notes (office hours, library call-numbers), etc. Any additional tasks get bumped to future weeks unless they are time-sensitive.

      I find that limiting the number of items-per-day insures that I actually accomplish all of them, and that it keeps those items high-priority. I’m also not really cranky about what day I get things done on. Last week, for example, I’d finished all but two daily to-dos before Thursday; this week, I’m behind on one Wednesday item and two Thursday tasks: it will all balance out.

  2. Mahmudur Rahman on the 25th February

    Wow :) Nice article. I usually use special mobile calender software with remainder for scheduling. Calender is real need for business professionals. Thanks for sharing this nice post.

  3. Thomas Craig Consulting on the 25th February

    Nice post, I like to make use of both, financials (invoices/expenses) i prefer to use a calendar system and coding/design I prefer a list based system.

  4. Alex De La Force on the 25th February

    Well written. My vote goes for “To Do List”.

  5. John Kadlec on the 25th February

    Interesting points inside the text.

    Totally agree with your sentence:

    “Your calendar and list work together.”

    - I use for this Remember The Milk + Google Calendar and I am very satisfied with this combination.

    Retweeted.

    Regards,

    John

  6. Wayne Liew on the 25th February

    This blog post definitely helped clear the air for someone like me who frequently falls into time wasting without having a clear idea of how to use the tools at hand.

    I used to have tons of adjacent calendar “events” and find that most of them were undone by the end of the day. By adopting to-do list and using activity blocks in my calendar instead of creating an event for each task, I am now more productive than ever.

  7. Jonathan Levitt on the 25th February

    Hi Andre,

    Great post – Very valuable info.
    I thought I’d tip your hat to Tungle. A great add-on to any calendar…Here’s some info:
    Tungle.me makes scheduling meetings easy–across organizations, calendar systems, and time zones. Tungle.me eliminates costly double bookings, frustrating time zone mishaps, and the endless back and forth emails and phone calls of finding a time to meet. Tungle.me is a free personal scheduling application that syncs with Outlook (with or without Exchange), Google Calendar, Apple iCal, Entourage for Mac and Lotus Notes. Tungle.me does not require meeting invitees or visitors to a user’s Tungle.me page to sign in or register to schedule meetings.

    Tungle.me also supports scheduling meetings on-the-go with Tungle.me for iPhone and Blackberry

  8. Niki on the 26th February

    Totally agree! Calendars and To-Do Lists must be used together.

    For me calendars are where scheduled meetings/trainings are logged, as well as deadlines. While to-do lists are things I need to do for the day but not necessarily as time-sensitive as those in the calendar. However, the stuff on my to-do list will definitely help me meet my calendar deadlines so it should all work out in the end.

    I’m all for working smart!

  9. Mahmoud Tantawy on the 26th February

    Very nice article, thank you :)
    I use the simple To Do list in the iGoogle page
    But i am planning to make a simple web application (actually it will begin as a service for me & my friends in the college), so this article will help me alot

  10. Abhigyan on the 27th February

    Really good article. It really provides a different kind of insight into getting work done. I never thought I had the need to maintain two different planners (calendars, and to-do lists). But now that I’ve read this, I might just change my mind.

  11. Tim on the 28th February

    I agree… so when are the good folk at Google going to give us sync for tasks rather than just Calendar and Mail?

  12. Sonja on the 2nd March

    I’m all for the GTD approach of
    1. Keeping my calendar for appointments only
    2. Dividing task list into contexts (I have lists called ‘interwebs’, ‘calls’ and ‘ikea’, for example.)

    I have the pocket informant app on my iPhone and love it almost as much as life itself

  13. toddfas on the 2nd March

    Interesting that nobody has mentioned using a single tool that provides the ability to view your tasks in either a list view or a calendar view. I always used Outlook this way in the old days but found that I did not toggle my view that much.

    Now I use Smartsheet.com (shameless plug since I work for them) to keep track of my to-do list in a list format (aka sheet view), and I can easily toggle into the Calendar view (or Gantt view) when I want to look at my tasks in that format.

    • Tyra on the 12th January

      I actually am looking this very thing. I’d like to compare a couple of different programs to achieve both the list view and calendar view!

  14. Mitchel Haas on the 2nd March

    Nice article, Andre,

    You raised a good point, and I think whether a person prefers a list or calendar has a lot to do with how the person thinks. There’s so much variance in the way each of us process information that I’d be surprised that one of either of these two options get much more votes than the other.

    I would also be curious to see some stats on who prefers software for their solution, and who prefers good ole paper and pencil.

    For those who prefer software solutions, Worktime Studio offers both a task list and calendar interface. Of course, it isn’t a substitute for those that prefer paper and pencil, but provides a good alternative for those who like using software to organize their life.

    And, just as there are those who prefer calendars or task lists, there’s even a further divide when choosing a software solution for your tasks and scheduling. Maybe that’s why there’s many good choices of software available in this arena, because one size does not fit all.

  15. Lee Katherine on the 2nd March

    I used to just put all my classes, meetings, due dates, and other time-specific events in iCal, but then I would never actually open iCal and look at them, so things still wouldn’t get done. Now I still enter all those events, but I print out a weekly calendar and tape it to my desk. That way everything is there for me to look at, and then I can write in various things I want get done each day. Any random “if I get to it” goals usually go in a list on the weekend days, which are usually blank.

  16. Chris K on the 3rd March

    I built the service FollowUp.cc because of this evolution where my email has somewhat become my to-do list and my calendar in a sense (I call it my email calendar nowadays).

    I can set followup reminder on emails, but also send notes for times I want to get things done and then snooze those for later if I something came up and I can’t get to it.

    It’s nice to always have a clean inbox at the end of the day!

  17. Antonio Pratas on the 3rd March

    Good article. I only used to use Google Calendar for all my needs, but for a few weeks now, I started using Things on the Mac and iPhone, and I’m feeling a lot more productive and organized. I still put appointments and deadlines on the Calendar, but in the GTD app, I can organize it by lists, days, importance, and it’s really easy to see if I can’t do one thing, what shall I do next.

    I highly recommend Things (mac+iphone) and Google Calendar. Awesome mix

  18. Lexi G on the 12th March

    Great article. I believe the best solution is a combination of both a calendar and a to do list, as well. I have tried to do just one or the other and definitely agree with you that they serve different purposes. I’ve finally just started to use both simultaneously and it has made a world of difference! It’s easy for me because everything I need/use is in one place. I use Toodledo for my list and a calendar/scheduler that is on my time tracking software, TSheets (http://tsheets.com). It’s so great to have everything I need for the day/week/month in one place online that I can access from anywhere!

  19. The Simple Machine on the 13th March

    I like the thought on this topic, but I think it seems like over planning! I use calendars for meeting reminders. Have a to-do list for work I need to do!

    I think it is more important to realize the productivity cycle during the 8 hour work day. And work around that! Check out my views on the topic here:

    http://www.thesimplemachine.com/work-productivity-cycle/

  20. Mischa Colley on the 25th April

    Nice article. I had been useing iCal for all my appointments and to do list items but have just switched to a combination of iCal and Things. Things is a fantastic to do list and you can sync it with the to do list feature in iCal. Both work great on the iPhone also.

  21. Lulu on the 17th March

    Since our organisation started using Dooster.net we have been getting through so much more. You can’t procrastinate things on the todo list any more, or you just don’t want to somehow. We’re really pleased with it and I’d recommend.

  22. Megan Wiebe on the 27th March

    I use a calendar to plan my week but I find that I’m big into writing things down physically versus simply typing tasks into an online calendar. I know it’s old-school but somehow I always revert back to this system! I know it’s not the most “green” way to keep organized, so I am trying to switch my calendars to a digital version.

    I have tried using Google Calendar but I find it’s ugly! I don’t think tasks are the easiest thing to enter there, so I find I don’t end up using it as much as I could be.

  23. Sandy on the 16th May

    I keep a calendar dangling on the wall in my office just to be sure. It’s just so I can see the dates before the computer’s turned on. We haven’t had a power cut yet but you never know. You can’t compare a calendar to task management software. They are different things. The latter is total and sophisticated collaboration and it works like a dream. We use http://www.dooster.net. You can’t compare calendars with these solutions like http://www.dooster.net

  24. Karl on the 7th October

    Nice article, but I definitely still trying to figure out whats the best way to use both the calendar and the to-do-list. Will try the events to calendar and the daily tasks to the to-do-list, and follow the rules :)

  25. akpadhi on the 22nd November

    I for one have been switching between to-do list and calendar software tools, been with Google for the most part. I have longed for a single input interface that could present my to-do list in any form- task view, on calendar, activity listing, priority listing, agenda view etc. etc. For me the best alternative is to have a simple interface so as to not confuse or drag the data capture part by having too many fields to go through. Once done, the output should be presented in whatever form a person wants to view. I see improvements are happening in this direction.

    To ease my effort, I have got into the habit of putting hashtags on my task. This helps in categorizing/prioritizing/searching.

    Good write up. Thanks.

  26. Zaid Zawaideh on the 11th January

    Just stumbled onto your article. Great write-up, very good analysis.

    When starting Sandglaz, this was a key point we wanted to address. We created Sandglaz Infinity to combine the best of todo lists and calendars. It allows you to plan ahead in flexible milestones and embraces that our time estimation abilities are mediocre at best.

  27. Gigue on the 5th July

    This is a very well-written article; thanks! My own personal vote goes for to-do lists. I’m very much like you, and check the lists the same way some people check their watch. Every time I organize personal deadlines on a calendar, I get over-burdened by my goals and am subject to what other bloggers sometimes refer to as “over-goaling.”

    With a to-do list, my daily tasks are clear and defined, and in the end I become more productive. This is the result of long experience and experimentation. I think you’re absolutely right in your initial critique: a calendar filled to the brim with tasks is bound to fail for the simple reason that it masks outcomes as actions.

    Thanks for writing!

  28. Santel on the 16th July

    Yes, I just start a small blog to confess my time management failure. I just thought that whatever I need to do I add them to To-do list. But the list started to have more and more items and I don’t have enough courage and time to look at it daily.

    I start to break To-do list items into events and record them in my calendar, then delete the item from my To-do list.

    Now I can breath more easily with a short list of things that I need to take action or schedule them into my calendar.

  29. Stefan on the 13th August

    Great discussion. Task-management and ToDos plus Calendar is such a complex thing since it is the real life with all its variations that defies standardization.

    For the iPhone App we developed, I chose one particular problem: How to keep track of the phone-calls you plan to make? This touches on many of the comments.

    So, we decided to develop the following
    - one App (= dedicated place) to manage your To Do List for phone-calls
    - call the people directly from the list (either if you have some free time or when you scheduled a call)
    - write the phone-calls to your calendar (= to your iPhone and Outlook) if you wish

    Try out Caller-App from the AppStore.

    Would be great to hear your comments.

  30. znavo on the 10th September

    hey guys what about Firetask?
    Its biggest advantage is the calendar section.
    I am now working with things on iPhone, iPad and mac, but since I discovered firetask I am seriously considering to make a move to even though I know it will not be cheap.

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