Productivity software

Stay on Top of Your To-Do List (and Never Pay a Parking Ticket)

Your life is busy, and you have got enough on your plate without needing to remember to move your car every week, pay oddly timed bills, or show up for one-time weekend appointments. Luckily, a finely tuned calendaring system can help.

Take a service like Google Calendar. With the right setup (which we'll detail below), you can access it from any Web browser, plug it into your favorite desktop calendar, and manage it from your phone so you can quickly add any item to your schedule no matter where you are.

Of course, scheduling is just one half of the picture. Remembering your appointments is the other. And that's the best part of this system: You'll receive alerts reminding you of all your scheduled events, no matter where you are or what you're doing.

The Setup

In this article, we detail a three-tiered approach to managing your schedule from the Web, from your desktop, and from your phone, so you'll have a bulletproof system for keeping on top of your schedule. The glue that holds this system together is Google's free calendaring application, Google Calendar. If you don't already have a Google account, you'll need to sign up for one before you can use Google Calendar.

First, let's take a minute to get familiar with Google Calendar and some of its handier features.

Use Quick Add to Translate Your To-Do List

Quickly add any event to Google Calendar, using plain language.
No matter how streamlined a calendar is, you won't want to add events through the normal steps, which require you to give your event a title, hunt for the right date and time, and set up notifications to remind you of the event.

Rather than go through this time-consuming process every time, do yourself a favor and get comfortable using GCal's Quick Add feature. Type any plain-language appointment-related text--such as "Pick up dry cleaning from A1 at 1pm next Tuesday"--into this box, and Google Calendar will translate that notation into an event on your calendar, with the proper date and time.

Next, to ensure that you don't forget, you could manually edit the event and set a custom notification to remind you when the event is approaching. But suppose that you're prone to forgetfulness--or just have too many things going on every day--and you want to have some type of default reminder set up for every event of your calendar.

Go to Google Calendar; click Settings, Calendar Settings, Calendars; find the calendar you want to adjust default notifications for; and click Notifications. Once there, you can set up one or more default reminders for any new event that you subsequently add to your calendar.

Set up default notifications so you always receive a reminder before an event.
For most events on my calendar, I like to get a reminder a day ahead of time, just to make certain that an appointment is on my radar; then I like to receive another reminder an hour before the scheduled event time.

Likewise, you can set up your own defaults to suit your preferences. Bear in mind that you can override the defaults if you prefer a different sort of notification (you may want more advanced warning to make sure you move your car in time, for example) or if you decide that you don't want any reminder at all.

Use Calendar in Your Other Google Apps

Google Calendar integrates with Gmail to help you quickly create new events based on an e-mail message.
If you're an avid user of Gmail, Google's e-mail program, Google Calendar can save you even more time. Gmail automatically recognizes when the text of an e-mail suggests an event or appointment and provides you with a Quick Add link that you can click to automatically populate a new Google Calendar event with may of the event's details--the what, where, and when--already filled out.

Google Tasks integrates your to-do list directly with Google Calendar.
Similarly, if you're a fan of Google's relatively new to-do list, Google Tasks, you'll appreciateTasks recently added integration with Google Calendar. Now, when you set a due date on a to-do item in Tasks, it will automatically show up as an event in Google Calendar. (If you don't see your Tasks in Gmail already, make sure that you've clicked the Tasks calendar under the My Calendars sidebar.)

Remember Recurring Events

Whether it be a birthday, monthly rent payments, bimonthly bills, quarterly taxes, or even meet-ups on the third Tuesday of every month, Google Calendar can help you quickly and easily create recurring-event notifications so you'll never forget another repeat appointment.

To set up a recurring event in GCal, either add a note

about the recurring activity to your quick-add text (e.g., "Move car every Tuesday at 8am") or click the Create Event button in Google Calendar and set your recurring schedule in the Repeats section.

Stay Synced With Outlook

Google Calendar by itself is fine and dandy if you're comfortable living your life in your browser, but if you prefer to keep your data local and accessible when you're offline, you can take advantage of most of the great things Google Calendar has to offer without giving up your desktop calendar.

If you use Microsoft Outlook, just download Google Calendar Sync. Enter your Google Calendar username and password, and it will take care of syncing your calendar data back and forth between Google Calendar and Outlook.

Google Calendar Sync integrates Outlook with Google Calendar in perfect, bidirectional harmony.
The nice thing about syncing your calendar between Google Calendar and Outlook is that you get the best of both worlds. If you're away from your main PC, you can access your calendar from any Web browser, on any computer through Google Calendar; if you're on your main computer, you can stick to scheduling with the Outlook you know and love, whether you have an active Internet connection or not.

Connect Your Calendar to Your Cell Phone

Since you're not always sitting in front of a computer, being able to access your calendar only when you're at a computer isn't all that useful. Imagine that you parked your car in the morning, but you have to move it by 5 p.m. to make way for street cleaning or you'll get a ticket. It's easy to forget to add an item like "Move my car by 5pm" to your calendar if you have to wait until you get to a computer to add it. The solution to this problem: Hook your phone into your calendar.

There are several ways to do this, whether you own a cutting-edge smartphone or a bare-bones (but functional) "dumb" phone. Let's start with the smartphones and work our way down.

Sync With Smartphones

If you use an Android phone, this is a no-brainer. Android works seamlessly with Google Calendar (both are Google products, after all); you merely log in to your Google account on your Android device, and it will automatically set up your phone's calendar to sync with GCal. Any events you add from your phone will automatically sync with Google Calendar wirelessly.

If you have an iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia S60, or Windows Mobile phone, syncing your phone's calendar with GCal is similarly easy when you use the free Google Mobile Sync tool for your particular phone. Head over to the Google Sync page and follow the setup instructions for your device.

Check Your Calendar and Add Events Via SMS

Don't have a fancy smartphone? No problem. You can still receive event notifications, check your calendar, and even add events to your calendar from any phone that supports SMS messages.

Set up Google Calendar on your normal cell phone.
First, head into your Google Calendar settings and associate your cellphone with Google Calendar. (To do so, select Settings, Calendar Settings, Mobile Setup, and follow Google's instructions for validating your phone.) Once you've validated your phone number, Google Calendar can send you event notifications via e-mail or SMS.

You can even add an SMS reminder as one of your default notification methods, in which case you'll always receive notifications for upcoming events, regardless of where you are, as long as you have your phone on hand.

Now for the really cool part: After you've associated your cell phone's number with your Google Calendar account, you can check your itinerary and create new events by sending text messages to Google Calendar's GVENT (48368) number. Want today's schedule? Just text "day" to GVENT.

Even better: You can create new events by texting GVENT, and it supports the same plain-language input that GCal's Quick Add button does. So if you text GVENT "Move my car at 4:30pm," GCal will translate that into a new event on your calendar. For complete details on GVENT commands, check out this Google Calendar help page.

Conclusion

The system described above isn't the only calendaring method possible under the silicon sun, but Google Calendar is the best free way to create a fast-syncing schedule minder that you can access from virtually anywhere. And with all your reminders correctly set up, you'll never forget to move your car or pay a bill again.

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