The Efficient Mac User

Managing Tasks with iCal's To-Do Feature

- 2006.03.23 - Tip Jar

Last time I focused on the event management aspects of iCal; this week I'll look at the task management features and tools that I use with iCal.

When it comes down to it, a to-do list (or task list) needs very few features to work. A basic task list will have a title, a due date, room for notes, and a way to mark it as "completed". Setting a task's priority, setting an alarm, or designating a particular category or calendar are helpful - and for many, necessary - additions. Anything beyond that and it becomes more than a task list.

iCal has all of these, and their implementation falls somewhere between fair and great, depending on how you set up your iCal window.

By default, both the task list and the Information Drawer (or window) are hidden, which makes tracking your pending tasks a bit more tedious. You could use a widget or a menu-style task list viewer (see below), but if you're trying to streamline the iCal window itself, it becomes a tradeoff between screen space and efficiency.

As I mentioned in my last column, I keep iCal as big as I can with the Information Drawer always open. I also keep the task list active all the time in every calendar view.

Without this setup, creation of a new task causes a flurry of action: the task list is invoked and the Information Drawer slides open (or the window pops up if you have Information detached). Once you've entered your task item, both the drawer and the list remain in place, so you have to hide them both manually. (Note: There are keystroke combinations for both actions, so this is not really a big deal.)

If, however, you've set up iCal for a minimal screen footprint, this approach results in a big change in your iCal window. I'd call that implementation fair.

With my window setup, however, task implementation jumps up to great as far as I'm concerned. When I create a new task (which can be done by way of the File menu, but I always use the cmd-K keystroke), I can start typing the task item right away. A tab or hard return finishes the creation of a new task, which then remains selected for additional tweaks via the drawer.

Items in the task list can be sorted by a number of criteria, which are selectable from the menu at the top of the list. You can also adjust a few preferences from here (or from the Preference pane), such as the option of hiding tasks that are outside of the calendar view - an option I love - and showing or hiding completed items.

The Preference pane offers additional options of determining the number of days after completion before hiding a task and the number of days before a completed task is deleted.

Some readers may want - or need - a more robust task management system than this. Generally, I consider anything that goes beyond the basic list, a la iCal's task list, more a project management system than task management. (In my next column, I'll look at managing projects using iCal and other software.)

Two Alternatives

There are, however, a few exceptions.

To-Do X is a very impressive solution for folks who need just a bit more than what iCal offers. It has expanded categorization and prioritization options, and it drops an icon in the menu bar for fast access. To-Do X also offers iCal support, with data import from iCal's existing task management function.

Another alternative is Life Balance, which uses a comprehensive view of the tasks in your list to give perspective on how much (or how little) balance there actually is. Life Balance contains some features that lean it toward the project management category, but not quite enough to put it firmly there. However, Life Balance is not iCal-compatible; it's a stand-alone application.

iCal Add-ons

There are several tools that I find offer a good complement or supplement to iCal's task management - and several others that I don't use but feel are worth mentioning.

DoBeDo

Since I end up using iCal's built-in to-do list function, I don't find the need to use an external one. I do, however, find that a little bit of extra access is helpful. The most common way I accomplish this is through a Dashboard widget called DoBeDo. This allows me to view my tasks and check them off without invoking iCal directly. This is particularly helpful if I have iCal minimized. This full-featured widget allows you to select viewing options, determine which calendar(s) to view in the widget, and a few other options (including the curious "printer selector" option - why this made it onto a widget is beyond me).

A couple of tips about this widget: There are button-like tools scattered all over the front of it. At the bottom, you'll find page number, also indicating how many pages of to-do items you have. A small icon (a leaf?) in the corner flips to the next page - or back if you're not on page one. Also, clicking directly on the title at the top - for example, "All" if you've chosen to view all calendars - will bring up a list of your calendars. From this list you may choose to view only one or go back to "All". Handy stuff.

By the way, I've tried all of the other available to-do widgets that claim to work with iCal, and DoBeDo is the only one that actually delivers on this consistently. Others report similar findings; it seems that it's either fairly difficult to develop a good iCal to-do widget or not something that many have bothered with.

High Priority

Another helpful tool I've used is High Priority. Actually a Preference pane, this utility puts an icon in your menu bar that provides a basic pulldown list of your to-do items. It also allows you to create a new to-do item from the pulldown menu, something that can make for fast entry if you need to make a quick note.

The settings options in the preference pane are surprisingly robust: You'll find a lot more options than you might think would be available for something this simple. In addition to the basic display choices, a number of options allow suppression of certain information: choose how long before completed items are hidden, for example, or to hide subscribed calendars.

Though I've had High Priority installed for several months, I've never really adapted to using it. One reason is that a lot of the options in the pref-pane don't seem to "take", which makes me frustrated with it. Mainly, though, I think I just don't prefer this interface.

MenuCalendarClock

Another menu bar option is MenuCalendarClock. This application brings all of your iCal event data into a pulldown menu, but it doesn't include tasks. For those who like menus, this can be a good way to get a quick glimpse of your upcoming events. Dashboard users might find it redundant, as I did.

iClock

Lately I've been playing with iClock to see if I like it better than High Priority. One thing I like from the start: It converts the clock into a full-functioning information menu. (It actually replaces the clock with its own version, which is more customizable with display options than the default Apple clock.) iClock includes a menu for task items, similar to High Priority's.

I like iClock for a number of the features that it contains, and I'll mention it more in future articles, but I just don't use the menu bar enough to benefit from keeping the task menu option enabled.

Improving iCal

There are a few features I'd like to see in iCal. I'd love to have tabbing after typing the task item to carry me to the next information in the Information Drawer rather than simply create the task. And I'd appreciate a more customizable way of sorting tasks without it being totally manual - how about a "smart sort" based on Spotlight?

Finally, I'd like a way to set the default calendar for a new task (or new event, for that matter) to be created in; it seems like I'm always in the wrong calendar when I create new items in iCal.

For day-to-day task management, I find that iCal suits all of my needs. For larger projects, I supplement iCal with other applications, but I find that these are more ad-hoc than a regular, run-my-life kind of operating mode.

Still, I do enough to have a system for that, too - I'll talk about it in my next column, as well as some other "plays well with others" iCal features. LEM

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