Generally speaking, on this blog I try to remain ambivalent on exactly which tools I recommend. In most cases, for any given problem, there are bound to be a variety of different tools that solve the problem in different ways. The choice of which one to go with depends largely on what your specific needs are. That's not the case today.
Today I'm going to break that rule and recommend a specific tool, Google Calendar, because I have yet to come across another tool that's as powerful and versatile. Nothing else I've seen comes even close.
What is Google Calendar?
As the name suggests, it's a personal calendar tool provided by Google. At first glance, that's all it seems to be - a calendar not unlike the one you would find in Microsoft Outlook.
|A fresh, clean Google Calendar|
If that's all it is, what's all the fuss about? Why do you need another calendar when you've already got one in Outlook (that's probably synced to your smartphone)? But when we take a slightly longer look, we start to see how powerful Google Calendar really is.
Google Calendar Is Everywhere
Google Calendar lives in the cloud, on Google's servers. Although the best way to interact with it is from the web interface at http://calendar.google.com, Google provides a suite of syncing applications that allow you to bring your Google Calendar into just about any other place you might want to work with it: your smartphone, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, iGoogle, embed it on a website or work with it through third-party services like Tungle.me. Everywhere you go, Google Calendar will follow you. And changes made anywhere else are synced back to the cloud, so all your other devices are updated as quickly as possible.
All of Your Stuff is in Google Calendar
If you're experienced with Microsoft Outlook, you'll be accustomed to the idea of keeping separate calendars. You might have one for your work appointments (that you share with your team) and another for personal stuff (that you wish you could share with your family or friends, but can't because they're not on your company network). Google Calendar takes this to the next level: you can create as many different calendars as you like. You can keep them private, share them with other people or even make them public for the world to see.
For example, I keep my own calendar for all my appointments, personal and professional. I've given full editing rights to my wife, so she can make appointments on my behalf if she wants to - by just adding them to Google Calendar on her end. I've also given a few close friends limited viewing abilities to the calendar, so they can see when I'm available for social outings and whatnot.
In addition to that, I've created a calendar for my Star Trek fan club. I've given viewing access for the calendar to all the club members, and I've nominated certain members who can create and edit events on that calendar too. We've also published that calendar on our website, so visitors can see what we've got planned.
One step further, I've created a calendar for my public appearances - if I'm scheduled to do a talk or attend a public function, I'll copy the event from my personal calendar to the public one, which is published on my personal blog. If people want to know where they can see or meet me, they need only look there.
All of these calendars are overlayed on top of each other in my Google Calendar view, colour-coded so I know which calendar a given event belongs to.
But there's more. In my Google Contacts I've added birthdays and wedding anniversaries to most of my contacts. By enabling the "Contacts birthdays and events" calendar, I can see them all overlayed on my Google Calendar view. Same goes for Google Tasks: if I've assigned a due-date to a task, it appears on that day in my calendar, giving me a daily to-do list.
And expanding beyond the Google-verse, I've added special calendars that display my Facebook and Plancast events, Twitter history, Foursquare check-ins and even my phone calls (clicking those links will take you to places where you can learn to add those things to your Google Calendar too). This I found very useful when I was filling in a weekly time-sheet - if I couldn't remember what I was doing at a given time, I could check back to see where I was and who I had spoken to around that time to help jog my memory.
All of that stuff combined gives me a super-useful, festive-looking calendar with tons of useful information I can glean at a glance. With a little tweaking, your Google Calendar could also look like this:
Other Cool Stuff
Google Calendar has a bunch of cool tools to help you get and stay organised:
Interesting calendars - in addition to being able to create calendars that you can publish, you can also add public calendars other people have published. If you know the address for the calendar you want, you can just click the "Add to Google Calendar" button, otherwise you can browse the "Interesting Calendars" catalogue. The sorts of calendars you're likely to find include public holidays for your country, religious holidays (for you or your team members), sports team fixtures, weather forecasts and, my personal favourite, the Stardate calendar (created by Google's geeks in honour of the 2009 Star Trek movie).
Appointment slots - this tool allows you to book sections of your calendar as being "available", and then publish that availability on a dedicated web page. If you want to share your availability with someone, just send them a link to the page and encourage them to choose a slot that suits them. That appointment then gets added to your calendar (and theirs too, if they also use Google Calendar). It's a lot like the pre-existing service, Tungle.me. Tungle still does a slightly better job of it though, so it might be worth using that until Google Calendar's team catches up on Tungle's functionality.
Colour-coding - not only can you select a different colour for each of your calendars, but you can select a second colour for individual events, allowing you to catagorise them by type or importance.
Labs - Like Gmail, Google Calendar has a bunch of extra fun tools available in the Labs section of the settings. These are new, experimental tools that you can try out before Google makes them part of the official tool. Ones I particularly recommend are "Event Attachments", "Event Flair", "Smart Rescheduler" and "Who's My One-on-one With?".
How Do I Get It?
Google Calendar is a free service (yes, completely free) that comes with every Google account. Just go to the Google Calendar homepage, sign in with your Google username and password, and you're up and away. If you don't already have a Google account, you can sign up for one right there - it's also free. If your organisation uses Google Apps, you'll have a Google Calendar for that account too.
It can look a little confusing at first, but give yourself a chance to play around with what it can do. And don't be afraid to look through the excellent help pages for guidance. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to post them in the comments. I'll do my best to come up with an answer for you.