Hard and Soft Landscapes: Calendar vs. Reminders

Those of you who are familiar with Backpack know that it already had a feature called “Reminders” that let you set alarms that you receive via SMS and/or Email for various things. Now that Backpack has a calendar, I bet many of you are wondering what the usefulness of the reminders are outside of the calendar. Lets take a look at what types of things should go on the calendar and what sorts of things reminders are good for that should not go on the calendar (which is crucial).

Use the Calendar only for calendar items. David Allen often refers to the calendar and calendar based data as “The Hard Landscape”. He even goes on to say, on page 41 of Getting Things Done, “The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all”. In other words, one should be highly selective about what goes on the calendar.

Why is this? Well, your calendar is filled with little contracts between you and yourself or you and someone else. If you schedule a meeting with someone, or lunch, or a vacation, or a daily workout, you have made a “contract” to be there at a certain date and/or time. Don’t show up and you essentially breach that contract – especially if another party is involved. You should really treat these items with that high level of importance.

So what should go on the calendar?

  • Time-Specific Actions (Appointments) – Things happening at a specific date and time that you must attend (i.e. 3.7.2008 @ 12:00PM: Meet with Bob re: Strategy for Project X).
  • Day-Specific Actions (Events) – Things happening on a specific day but not a specific time (i.e. 8.14.2008: Buffy’s Brithday).
  • Day-Specific Information – This is information you may need to know on a specific date and, sometimes, may be tied to appointments or events mentioned above (i.e. directions to location of that meeting with Bob, notes for that project meeting, etc.)

These are all “hard landscape” items. Things that are happening at a specific time or are needed for specific appointments and events.

But there are some more “soft landscape” things that you might want to use the reminders for and should not disrupt the “sacred territory” of the calendar.

Reminders are meant for exactly that, just a quick little alarm to remind you of something. That is the reason that, by default, the reminder times are nebulous and not exact (i.e. “Later Today”, “In a couple of days” etc.). These include, things you need to get done later in the day like “Pick up milk on the way home” or in advance of an event but not by a specific time like “Make dinner reservations for birthday dinner” or maybe just a little nudge like “Don’t forget to pack your charger”. Sometimes, some action items that are time sensitive may benefit from a little timely kick in the pants.

Here is another possible use for the Reminders feature in Backpack – Future Options. In Getting Things Done, David Allen states, starting on page 171, that this category of items can exist on the calendar as well. I would argue that the Reminders feature is better suited to these sorts of items and more protective of the “hard landscape”.

Future Options are:

  • Triggers for activating projects – If you have a project that you don’t really need to think about now but that you should revisit at a time sensitive date in the future (i.e. product launches, yearly reviews, what Buffy wants for her Birthday, etc.). Make a reminder for them and then put them on your project list when it pops up.
  • Events you might want to participate in – Time sensitive events like conferences, seminars, etc. that you may want to wait to make a decision about until they are closer to the date (i.e. GTD Roadmap Seminar coming to town next month, “Bon Jovi Tickets go on sale today“). Set a reminder for it and if you purchase those tickets or book that conference it will then (and only then) become part of your hard landscape.
  • Decision Catalysts – There are decisions that are significant and may need to made by a certain time but you are not, for whatever reason, ready to make them yet. Things like hiring a new employee or changing a job or career. Place a reminder to bring focus back to that choice and review it for action at a time where you are more prepared.

In other words, the Reminders feature allows one to be a little more creative with the sorts of things that are time related but flexible. Use it that way and guard the hard edges of the calendar with everything you’ve got.

Backpack Calendar. The Hard Landscape (That’s so easy to use!)

As I suspected it might, Backpack Calendar has become my full time calendar. I just don’t know how the guys at 37 Signals continue to do it but they have certainly done it again. How is it that they manage to do everything right and make it seem so effortless. It replaces Now Up-to-date and Contact which I have been using for well over 10 Years now. I even used to work for Now Software and was a member of the development team. Now Software is full of great people who are committed to great software. All of this is to say that Now Up-to-Date remains in my heart and is still, hands down, the best non web based calendar client I have ever used on any platform (Although “Dates” on the Newton MessagePad is a close second).

Let me count the ways they just plain get it with the Calendar:

The Hard Landscape (6 Weeks) – The default view in the calendar is “Next Six Weeks”. While I never would have thought of this on my own, it seems to be exactly the right timeframe I need to see what GTDers call “The hard landscape”. I can see what events are coming up in the maximum timeframe most things are planned for. The current week is always on top with the current day highlighted in yellow. Events for the current day are listed in a right hand sidebar – right above the “Event Box” where you add events. Everything just seems to fit where I would have expected them to be.

Time Display – Times are not displayed on the actual calendar view itself. Times are displayed for the days events displayed on the right hand sidebar. Why? First, it reduces clutter and for a calendar to be effective it should be free from clutter. Secondly, it keeps you focused on the only times that matter and are displayed – the ones happening today. If you want to see what time an event is on any other day without switching to that day, simply hover over the event with your mouse and a yellow tool-tip will pop up with the time. Brilliant.

Navigating and Input – I love the idea that you can use one box for both entering events and navigating the calendar. Want to see what you have going on in January? Just enter “January” or the three letter abbreviation “Jan” and you are taken to that month. Type in “1 March 2008” or “March 1, 2008“ and you are taken there. Want to enter an event on March 27th. Simply enter “March 27 Mom’s Birthday” or “Mar 27 Mom’s Birthday” or “3/27 Mom’s Birthday”. It is easy and natural.

SMS and E-mail – Alarms for events are sent via SMS and/or to the e-mail address of your choosing 30 minutes before the event. I wish you could set your own “ahead time”. I am betting that feature is coming in the future because it exists for Backpack’s existing “Reminders” feature (which is different from the calendar and should be separate but I will cover that in a future post). That being said, 30 minutes seems like a good compromise for now.

iCal Support – Any shared calendar using the iCal standard can be added as a calendar to the Backpack Calendar. That means a myriad of possibilities. More than just subscribing to a US Holiday calendar or your favorite reality TV show schedule, that also means you can subscribe to other calendars out there like 30 Boxes and Google Calendar. Therefore, if you want to share calendars with someone on another service, that is available to you. Of course, you can also share any of your calendars which means as well that they can be subscribed to in iCal if you are on a Mac for offline viewing (Yes, that means that I am, to a small extent, using iCal as my client app – Global warming has no effect on Hell).

WWDC: Mail.app gets some Org-fu

Apple made a number of big announcements at thier World Wide Developers Conference today. In case you missed them or are not familiar with what I am even talking about, there is plenty of good coverage elsewhere. I will not retread those well covered tracks because, while fast new computers, shinny new features and jabs at the fine folks in Redmond are fun, what really has me excited is the upcoming tranformation of Mail.app into a true productivity application. Looks like they have been drinking the GTD kool-aid in Cupertino.

The next version of Mac OS X, code named Leopard, will feature a greatly enhanced version of Mail that will also have to-do’s and notes integrated. What is even more is that the to-do fuction will actually be a system wide service so that any item, be it an e-mail, note, document, etc. will be able to be made into an actionable to-do.

This is huge. What Apple seems to understand is that the future is not only about how we access information, it is more about how we process it. It is about how we take all of these various bits we have incoming from all directions and make them actionable. Allowing me to take any item and make it actionable – built right in and as part of the OS would be a godsend. Especially if that means any appplication will be able to take advantage of that. That seems to be the direction Apple is going.

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