Why Excel beats iCal for to-dos on the Mac

My friend Matt is my compatriot in geekery. He may be responsible for helping me get my first job in tech journalism in the late '90s; thanks to him and his 386 Linux box, I could at least fake my way through a discussion of that upstart OS was when I interviewed for a position at the IDG division that then published LinuxWorld.com. In the early '00s he joined me in the world of Macs and we've bonded over it ever since.

Of course, like a lot of male friendships of this type, there is a hint of rivalry there. Last month when he was visiting my house, he was in my home office and spotted my weekly to-do list on my monitor. "Hey," he said, "you keep your to-do list in an Excel spreadsheet?"

There was a hint of disapproval in his voice.

It's true, I do. While I generally keep track of long-term deadlines in iCal's calendar view, every Sunday night or Monday morning I make a list of all my discrete tasks for the upcoming week in trusty old runningtodos.xls. I've been doing this for as long as I can remember; I knew in theory that iCal had to-do list functionality, but I had never bothered with it, for reasons I can't now remember. But Matt's arch observation seemed a challenge to my Macness. Shouldn't I switch over to iCal? Wouldn't it be Macier, and thus better? I pledged to do it the next week.

A week later, I switched back.

Here are the steps for creating a new to-do item in iCal:

  1. Double-click in the to-do list (or select New To-Do from the File menu, or press command-K).
  2. Type the name of your task.
  3. Move the mouse over the name and double-click it. A window will pop up with more details
  4. Click the check box for "due date," then move the mouse a bit to the right, click the due date, and change it to the date you want.
  5. Use the drop-down menu to choose a calendar.
  6. Click done to dismiss the pop-up window.

If that seems like a lot, that's because it is. And a lot of the moving between fields has to happen via the mouse. I'm not a fanatic about always using the keyboard, but when you have to switch between the mouse and the keyboard a lot, it slows things up dramatically.

By contrast, I can move back and forth among the fields in my Excel to-do list with the tab key. And there are only three bits of information (the item, the date it's due, and some optional notes) so there's less for me to worry about. (Yes, I suppose I don't have to add a calendar to my iCal to do items, but to leave them colored with an arbitrary calendar setting seems wrong, and there isn't any way to set them to no calendar at all.) It's true that iCal sorts itself by date on the fly, whereas I have to highlight my whole spreadsheet and tell Excel to sort it; but really, I only have to do that two or three times a week, tops.

In a larger sense, I feel guilty about using Excel as a to-do list because that's not What It's For. A spreadsheet is for crunching numbers. To-dos should be in a personal information management system.

But as it happens, spreadsheets have another, unintended feature: they're really good at arranging information in a grid pattern. And lots of us like information in a grid pattern. So, yeah, I use my expensive software program as a glorified table formatter. But it works for me. And it takes me fewer than six steps to create a to-do item. So I think I'm going to stick with it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go zap the row in runningtodos.xls that reads "Friday Inside The Cult."

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