May 19, 2016

Todos without time zones in Apple Reminders

(If you just want to know how to make items in Reminders keep the same clock time between time zones, feel free to skip to the fix.)

I’m on a trip with my Dad. On the first night away from home, I noticed that some recurring reminders on my phone weren’t pinging me at the right times. The time when the notifications appeared matched New York time, and we were somewhere else. The times displayed in the Reminders app were also shifted to show the local equivalents of the times I set back home.

Honestly, it’s fun to pop open Reminders alongside Date & Time Preferences on your computer, repeatedly click around the map, and watch all of the times in the Reminders app change to keep up.

For most of my reminders, though, I want “10 P.M.” to mean “10 P.M. local time, wherever I am”.

The Calendar app on macOS and iOS lets you associate a time zone with an event. On macOS, you’re allowed to choose floating instead of a time zone, which means “this clock time, regardless of my current time zone”. The Reminders app doesn’t have time zone settings, but it understands time zones (and floating times) perfectly.

Technical background

The Calendar and Reminders apps’ time zone support (and the term “floating”) comes from a specification called iCalendar, which defines a set of capabilities and a file format (.ics) which calendaring programs should use if they want to work with existing calendaring programs.

The basic structure of a .ics file is a series of nested sections bordered by lines that start with BEGIN: and END:. One from Reminders will probably contain these sections:

  1. VCALENDAR: The whole file.
  2. VTIMEZONE: A description of each time zone referenced in the file, in case the recipient’s device doesn’t know about it.
  3. VTODO: The reminder, including when it was created and whether it’s been checked off.
  4. VALARM: How you want to be notified about the reminder. Nested inside VTODO.

I’ll jump ahead to the fix now — if you want to discover other .ics file tweaks you can read RFC-5545 which describes it completely.

The fix

First, on a computer (I haven’t found a way to perform this change on iOS, but it will sync to iOS devices), drag the reminders which you want to make time zone-free out of Reminders and into a Finder window (or your Desktop). You can select more than one, if you like.

Important: make a copy of this file. If anything goes wrong, you can drag the copy to Reminders in the Dock to get your original reminders back.

Open the file in TextEdit (or another plain text editor — for non-programmers, TextEdit is probably best).

You’ll need to change three lines in the file. If you exported multiple todos, change them for each todo (there will be a separate VTODO section for each).

Find the line that begins with DTSTART and looks like your reminder’s time. There may be other DTSTART lines near the top of the file — if they’re between BEGIN:VTIMEZONE and END:VTIMEZONE, then they’re part of a description of the existing time zone, and they’ll generally be dates in the past — you can ignore them. The line to change should look somewhat like this:


Erase everything from the semicolon up to (but not including) the colon to make the line looks like this:


Repeat the same change for the line beginning with DUE. For example, you’d change this:


To this:


Finally, find the line beginning with TRIGGER:


This represents the time that you’ll actually receive a notification about the item. This line has its own rules — it’s required by the spec to either be an absolute time in UTC (indicated by the Z at the end of the time — “zulu” is slang for UTC) or relative to DTSTART in a format you’ll see below.

Change the TRIGGER line to this:


If you’re in an adventurous mood, you can play with this value to set when you’ll be reminded. For example, a value of PT-1H will remind you one hour before the time on the reminder, and PT10S will remind you ten seconds after.

Make these three changes per reminder and save the file.

Back in Reminders app, delete all of the items you just modified. This is critical: on my machine, if I don’t delete them, they keep their old time zones.

Open the modified .ics file with Reminders, either by dragging the file onto its Dock icon or by right clicking and using Open With…).

Finally (whew!), when Reminders asks, select the list you want the modified todo(s) to live in (normally the same list you exported them from), and click OK.

If everything went well, your modified reminders should look the same! If you use iCloud or another hosted calendar, they’ll sync to your other devices. An easy way to test is to change your computer or phone’s time zone: if the reminder’s time stays the same, it worked! You can make a fresh, un-tweaked reminder in the same list and compare how they behave when you switch time zones.

I wrote this all down while traveling and a little tired, so feel free to email me if you run into any trouble.