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Our Favorite Productivity Tools: Calendars

Jan06
This is the second in a series focusing our favorite productivity tools. Last time out, Kevin Purdy discussed his preferred note-taking apps and devices. Next week, we'll talk about cloud-based services.

In the realm of etiquette, the only thing worse than being late to an appointment is admitting that you had no idea the appointment was happening.

Software makers have tried for decades to solve two problems: to tell you exactly when it’s time to get ready for your next thing, and to make sure you don’t forget about that next thing. And your perfect app or ecosystem might be out there, but chances are you won’t know it right away. Like good leather or denim, a calendar/reminder system takes some working in to reveal its comfort.

I’ve switched calendars and devices quite a bit in the smartphone age, and I’ve lived in many of them for a few weeks at a time (so you didn’t have to while you were out, you know, actually living life). Here are my recommendations.

Sync Google Calendar and get Google Now

I know Google products don’t hit the mark for everyone. Microsoft Exchange has many features that Google Calendar lacks. And some people really like talking to Siri about things they just remembered they have to do. But here’s the thing: Google Now is really convenient, and Google’s web-based products are a smart and easy backup system.

When you sync up with Google Calendar (on a mobile device or from your desktop), you always have a webpage where you can check your schedule, add appointments, and see where a meeting has been moved. Devices go haywire, servers at work go down, but Google has warehouse after warehouse of servers with your duplicated schedule ready to serve up. All you need is a browser that you can point at the internet.

The combo bonus comes when you then install the Google Search app for iPhone or Android and connect it with the same Google account to which you synced your calendar. Now Google (technically “Google Now”) will start checking the traffic and distance you need to travel to your appointment, and remind you with a notification when it’s time to leave.

Like Siri, you can tell Google Now to “Remind me at 4 p.m. to pick up flour on the way home.” Like Siri, you can also tell Google Now to remind you of that flour specifically when you get near the grocery store. But unlike Siri, Google can also scan your Gmail account and recent Google searches to keep track of upcoming concerts, airline tickets, packages shipping to you, and even sports teams you seem to be following. In short, Google Now does everything from one app, sometimes without your needing to ask, that you would usually have to use a few different apps to track.

The good calendar apps

Google is great at data tracking, but me and many of my nitpicking friends agree that the calendar itself could use a layout change. On Android devices, the widget takes up quite a bit of space and sticks out from more modern-looking apps. On iPhone, there is no actual Google Calendar app, so most people use Apple’s own Calendar app, which has its own issues. As one friend put it just before switching: “How hard is it to just show me what I have coming up when I open my calendar?”

To that end, here are a few alternatives you might try out. Most should automatically pick up all the calendars you sync to your device, but always check the settings to see exactly which appointments an app is pulling in.

iPhone/iPad

Fantastical2: Enter your events in common language (“Coffee with Tim Friday at 4″) and Fantastical adds the proper event to your calendar. Even if you enter the event manually, the interface transitions and views will make you glad you sprung for a new calendar. ($4)

Calendars 5: Remember my friend who just wanted the quick view of what’s happening? That’s where Calendars 5 excels. It also has built-in task management and SMS reminders.

Agenda Calendar 4: A minimalist and stylish view of your calendar, with a smart way to switch between month-week-day-agenda views, simply by swiping left and right.

Android

Business Calendar: There’s only one view, and it’s fantastic: you tap or zoom in on a few days or a stretch of time to see what’s going on, then swipe to get the kind of view you want: grid, agenda list, and so on. You can try the free version of Business Calendar to see what that looks like.

Cal: From the makers of the Any.do task manager comes a calendar with a really good widget for your home screen, a beautiful card-like view of events, and very nice Google Maps and Facebook integration.

aCalendar: If you’re the type who wants to customize your way to the nitty-gritty and perfect view of your events, aCalendar is your toolkit.

One last calendar tweak

I’ve mentioned this before in posts on must-have business apps and retrofitting old technology, so I might be starting to sound like a broken record. But be sure to check out IFTTT, or If-This-Then-That.

Since you took my advice earlier to synchronize with Google Calendar, you can activate the Google Calendar channel in IFTTT and do things like log your completed goals and to-dos to your calendar, set up automatic haircut reminders, add tomorrow’s snow forecast to your calendar, and generally upgrade your calendar with any features it might be missing.

Heck, you could even add events to your calendar by calling them in. Consider that next time you’re calling a client to tell them you’re late because you thought the meeting was at 2:15 p.m., not 2 p.m.

(If you’re looking for an easier way to take notes, head over and check out our favorite note-taking tools!)