Whether you’re using your Mac or iOS device to organize your work/life, or the good old pen & paper method: you’ll almost inevitably run into the issue what to put on your calendar vs. your to-do list.

You don’t want to clutter your calendar with all these tasks that really only have a soft due date (something that can be moved if necessary), and you don’t want to check multiple places to know what is urgent and needs to be done right away. And especially if you’re using apps for this task, it’s easy to put too many items into your system or (even worse) duplicate them for the sake of convenience.

Here’s a handy guide what you should put where and what tool is good for which tasks. Your mileage might vary, but it should give you a baseline that can be adapted to your own needs.

But please do not overcomplicate your system just for the sake of being “well organized”! At the end of the day, you’re trying to get work done as effortless and fast as you can. You’re trying to get it done so you can focus on the fun parts of life. Like your kids or hobbies.

So, try to keep it simple! Set it up once and don’t fiddle with it unless the time you invest will pay off in the short-term. Otherwise you’ll spend hours working on your system and not get anything done at all (trust me, I’ve been there…).

Your calendar

Example Calendar

So, what’s the task of a calendar? What is it good for?

A calendar is good for dividing up portions of your day. To allot a particular period of time at a particular day (or weekday in case of a recurring event) for a particular purpose.

Things like:

  • A doctor’s appointment
  • Picking up your kids from school
  • Meeting a client for lunch
  • The deadline for the new book you’re writing (the latest time it has to be submitted to the publisher)

Occasionally, you can also use your calendar to block out a period of time to focus on a time-sensitive task. For example if the deadline of your book is approaching and you definitively need to spend 2 hours this afternoon to finish its cover.
Personally, I tend not to do that, but if you’re running the risk of booking another appointment during this time-frame if you didn’t put this on your calendar (or if you aren’t the only one who’s in control of your calendar, e.g. you have a secretary) you should definitively do it.

Overall, only items that have a fixed and immovable date should ever(!) go in your calendar. Don’t put events with “somewhere around” or “I wish to” dates in there. Even if you think, you’d like to work on task X next monday between 10 and 11am, don’t put it in there! If it doesn’t have to be done during exactly that timeframe (e.g. because that’s the only time your co-worker is in the office) things will happen and you will move it anyway. Your kid will get sick or your client will call with a super-urgent task and you’ll deal with that instead.
So why bother putting it there in the first place?
That’s what a task manager or to-do list is for.

Your to-do list/task manager

Omnifocus 2 with tasks

A to-do list, some also call it a task list, is basically the opposite of a calendar. That doesn’t mean that the items on this list aren’t as important as the events on your calendar. They just don’t have a specific, fixed date when you need to deal with them. Nevertheless, they need to be dealt with. That’s why it’s a “to-do” list and not a “maybe-do” or “if-I-ever-have-time-for-it” list.

That’s actually the first thing to keep in mind. Don’t clutter up your to-do list with tasks that you want to do someday in the (probably distant) future. Find another place for those ideas, e.g. a notebook or file, and keep them there. Maybe review them every now and then in case something might have changed, but keep them separate. Only put tasks on the to-do list that actually need to be done in the semi-immediate future (in the next 1-2 months?).

Things like:

  • Sending your accountant the receipts for the apps you bought
  • Sending a client the portfolio for a house he/she was interested in
  • Ordering some more ring binders on Amazon
  • Cleaning out your closet to make space for the winter clothes

Sometimes, a project (a group of multiple tasks) or a particular task will have a due date. Now that you know the difference between a Calendar and a to-do list: Where would you put that date?
If you’re thinking in the calendar, you’re spot on. You can put it in the task’s/project’s description if you like, but that’s just as a reminder. But it absolutely has to go in your calendar.

There are apps, that will let you add tasks with a due date (like Apple’s Reminder app), but I’d suggest to keep it simple and clean: fixed dates in the calendar, tasks on your to-do list.

That way, you only need to consult your calendar if you need to know whether you have time for an appointment on a particular day. And you only need to check your to-do list when you have a few hours time and want to get some work done.

Easy, isn’t it?

Apps

I won’t go into detail, there will be entire articles about that in the future, but I wanted to address one last question: Which apps am I suggesting for calendar and task management?

That depends a little bit on your requirements and how much you’ll be using either one.

Apple's Reminders app with tasks

If you’re just dealing with a few items, you can simply use Apple’s Calendar and Reminders apps. They work well enough and ship with both your Mac and/or iOS device(s).

Omnifocus and Busycal or Fantastical are three wonderful apps for people who need to manage a bigger amount of tasks/events. They aren’t free, but they will help you stay organized and you’ll earn back the money you spent in no time.

What are some common pitfalls you’ve dealt with regarding calendars and to-do lists? We’d love to hear your story, so please leave a comment below or send us a message.