The Epic Battle: Calendar Versus To-Do List

Feb 25, 2015

I’ve been grappling with this issue for quite some time. In the battle between your Calendar and your To-Do list, who wins?

Gurus like David Allen usually land in the “list camp,” whereas folks from the “calendar camp,” like Stephen Covey, tell you to start with your Big Rocks. I’ve been torn for awhile now myself, but I’m beginning to land on my own point of view.

I think it is better to err SLIGHTLY on the side of the Calendar. Why, do you ask, after 37 years of considering this issue, am I falling a teeny, tiny bit over to the calendar camp?

1. Consideration of time available: Time is our most limited (and most precious) resource. We have to start with the never-changing constraint of the 168 hours we have in any given week. If you make a To-Do list that exists independently from your Calendar and does not align with the actual time you have available, you are setting yourself up to fail. If I agree to do something for someone without first consulting my Calendar, I may end up overcommitting.

2. Consideration of time and place: By putting To-Do’s directly into your Calendar, you can consider your physical location, needed materials, and energy level. For example, if I just keep a list of phone calls in Outlook Tasks, I’m less likely to make them than if I make a “call block” in my Calendar and list the To-Do’s directly in the appointment. Note how Molly, a leader in an anti-poverty nonprofit, plans out her train time in advance. She is carefully considering her energy level and cognitive capabilities on an Amtrak ride!

3. Consideration of backward planning: By plotting To-Do’s directly into your (digital) Calendar, you can work backward from big deadlines and events to lessen the scramble. For example, if you have a deadline like “Turn in final budget to board” looming in May, you can plot in Calendar appointments between now and then to help you meet this goal, like “Meet with operations team to produce draft of budget,” and a work block to “Prepare budget testimony for board.”

But, but, BUT, I am not going to be so bold as to suggest ALL To-Do’s go straight to your Calendar when you receive them. There is a time and place for To-Do lists. Here are the rules I apply:

Put it on your To-Do List if…

  • You are not quite sure of the exact date you want it to happen. Sure, sure, sure, “what doesn’t get dated, doesn’t get done,” BUT if you give something an arbitrary deadline in your calendar, you know what happens, right? SNOOZE, DISMISS, DELETE. It’s gone.
  • It will take you under 15 – 30 minutes to complete. For most leaders with busy meeting schedules, I treat 30 minutes or greater as the threshold for when something should go directly into the Calendar. Tasks that take more than 30 minutes are usually harder to “squeeze” into a week.
  • You need to think about To-Do’s grouped by project or category. Sometimes our brains need to just dump items into a list, like when we brainstorm all the steps needed to complete the budget process. But after that, we may need to plot them into a Calendar to ensure they get done.

So, there you have it. A slight bias toward your Calendar, but there is still a need for an old-fashioned To-Do list.

What about you? Where do you fall?

Next up, how to make your To-Do list better speak to your Calendar!