Calendar vs. To-Do List - Which System is Better For You?

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Reid Hiatt
Reid Hiatt
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Every once in a while, you might have a moment where one of life’s unanswered questions pops into your head uninvited. What do my dreams mean? If you’re born deaf, what language do you think in? Will time travel ever be possible? And of course, the mother of all questions:

Calendar? or to-do list?

Now, hopefully this isn’t actually a question that keeps you up at night; but it is one worth looking into. Especially when you consider that all of us all the time are constantly trying to find ways to improve our productivity.

Proponents of to-do lists claim that putting things on a calendar makes it too easy to reschedule unfinished tasks for another time or day. Proponents of calendars claim that putting all your tasks on a single list without associated times or dates means nothing gets done, since they lack designated start times or deadlines.

This type of disagreement is expected of any two tools that are similar while being entirely different. Let’s see if we can’t ease that troubled mind of yours by taking a closer look at what each solution does best.

The Calendar

Calendars aren’t what they used to be. 20 years ago, your calendar sat on your desk offering very limited space to write down anything that needed doing or remembering. Now, your calendar goes with you wherever you go, fitting nicely in your pocket and offering endless space to jot down tasks, appointments, meetings, and birthdays. Oh, and it vibrates or rings anytime one of those events gets close, just in case you forget (which we both know never happens…)

Pros of using a calendar:

Calendars should be your go-to tools if you struggle with time management. Having a space to visualize how much time is in a day and drop in your tasks, meetings, and appointments accordingly is a great way to make sure everything that needs doing gets done.

Likewise, assigning start and end times to your daily work items makes it easier on your brain to focus on each task. Knowing when a specific job needs to be finished gives your mind a goal to work towards and lessens the temptation of procrastination.

Finally, calendars keep your days and weeks organized. Recurring meetings and appointments are easy to schedule around, regular reminders keep you on task and on time, and collaborative features make finding time to meet with someone as easy as clicking “Send Invite”.

Cons to using a calendar:

The most obvious con to using a calendar is how easy it is for that calendar to get too busy. Clutter is something calendar users should guard against at all costs, and the more items on your calendar, the greater the potential for slipping.

Similarly, unanticipated interruptions to your day can mean failing to accomplish a calendar item on time, throwing your entire schedule into disarray.

Poor time blocking is also something calendar users need to be wary of. For example, if you’re scheduling time for something like “Talk to Kristin about product backlog”, you might block off 30 minutes of your day for a five minute conversation, leaving you with 25 minutes of unscheduled time to fill.

The To-Do List

Whether or not you’re a believer in to-do lists, you’ve most likely found yourself making on at some point. That’s because listing things that need doing as a way of reminding ourselves to do them feels natural. To-do lists are perhaps the simplest of productivity tools that have survived the test of tie for one reason: they work.

Pros of using a to-do list:

One of the biggest pros of a list approach is the flexibility of choosing which tasks to work on based on priority or how much time you have available. If, for example, a meeting ends early and you have 15 minutes to spare, you can find something on your list that can be done in that time without worrying about messing up the rest of your schedule and without sitting around twiddling thumbs.

To-do lists also allow for prioritization and organization by distinct categories. Keeping a list lets you move urgent jobs up the chain without feeling like you’re procrastinating or putting off other, less important items.

Cons to using a to-do list:

To-do lists don’t do well when scheduling things like client meetings or doctor’s appointments for the simple reason that it’s hard to visualize time sensitive commitments when they’re surrounded by non-time sensitive ones. You’re better off putting those in your calendar.

Likewise, the list approach loses its simplicity when it comes to recurring events like daily standups or weekly team planning sessions. Writing recurring events over and over on your to-do list feels redundant and unnecessary, neither of which are conducive feelings to productivity.

The Hybrid Approach

For some, calendars are the only way they accomplish anything throughout the day. For others, without checking items off a to-do list, they lose the feeling of accomplishment and, subsequently, their motivation.

For most, employing a hybrid system of both a calendar and to-do list works best. They list all their activities and then make the decision to schedule some while keeping others off the calendar. Thus eliminating the danger of clutter and unscheduled down time.

When using the hybrid approach, it’s important to only schedule items that are urgent or time sensitive. For the rest of your tasks, use your to-do list. This way, you get a snapshot of your day, your recurring events, critical jobs, and scheduled appointments, while keeping a backlog of tasks you can use to fill the remainder of your day.

Using both a calendar and to-do list will keep you organized and on task without losing sleep at night. Unless of course you’re awake wondering whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Not much I can do for you there.


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