The Paper Planner Inbox

Part of the problem with working with any productivity or organisational system is in figuring out how to shape the dozens (if not hundreds) of bits of information barraging you daily into something more manageable. This, of course, leads to fundamental precepts of the Getting Things Done system: keep your inbox empty, your data slotted into the best places to act upon, and your level of trust in the system high enough to defeat the twin stresses of uncertainty and information overload.

Whether you're working with Outlook/Entourage, a PDA, a web-based system, or another digital tool, or using one of the numerous paper-based planning kits (like the D*I*Y Planner), the primary challenge is often in the streamlined capture and movement of your task-related materials. Whatever you use, the most important things to remember are:

  • Keep your data capture system handy for whenever you need it. Either carry your entire system --for example, your planner or your PDA-- or have a "satellite" capture tool, like a Hipster PDA.
  • Make sure you can enter your data fast. If you can't type or write quickly enough, you'll never capture the requisite information. (It took me months to write fast enough with Palm Graffiti for decent memos, but I also needed some practice with real handwriting again before I could write quickly with a pen.)
  • Don't let your captured data stagnate or build up. Channel it at least once a day.

All well and good, and David Allen and numerous other productivity gurus usually advocate these same common-sense productivity tips. But every organisational system has inherently different ways to capture your information and move it into the right place. This is key to distinguishing those systems that work from those that are painful to implement, and your personal situation will very much amplify each one's strengths and weaknesses. For example, for the first time in nearly 20 years, a goodly portion of my time is actually spent away from a computer (mainly by choice), and thus fantastic and free web-based systems like GTDTiddlyWiki and Next Action are not suitable for my daily tasks. (Yes, I could print items onto paper for on-the-go, but that's a complication I don't actually need, as much as my inner geek is tempted.)

I've seen a number of people writing about how to use digital inboxes of various types, and of course Allen describes a tray-based inbox with each item on a separate piece of paper. (Recycling ahoy!) My post today, however, concerns a few simple GTD-centric tips for using a paper planner -based inbox, such as what you'd use in a Day Runner, Day-Timer, Filofax, or a homebrew kit using the classic size D*I*Y Planner. As usual, I'm speaking from personal experience; your situation and tools may require a modified approach.

  1. I'd advise setting up a planner section as a "special place" designated with its own tab called @Inbox. This should be easily accessible, not half-hidden or located between hard-to-reach tabs. I'd also advise putting this near the centre of the planner, not far from an @Actions tab (where you can keep your Next Actions, Waiting For and Agenda items). Why the centre? Well, the @Inbox and the @Actions sections are going to have a lot of paper both inserted and taken away; it's far easier to do this when the opening of the rings is close by. I also put a red dot on the tab for these two sections to stress the immediacy of the material. (In my system, green is for projects, yellow for incubating someday/maybe thoughts, and blue for reference materials.)
  2. Fill this @Inbox with regular old note or blank paper. No fancy forms, no expensive linen grade, no parchment, nothing special. This should be filled with cheap, recyclable paper. How many pages? That depends on your daily deluge. Start off with 10-15 pages, and then up that number if you find you're constantly running out. Remember, try to avoid bulk, or you won't be inclined to carry your planner.
  3. Now for the practical part. Let's say the phone rings, or you bump into your project manager in the hallway, or your boss walks into your office and wants to discuss something. Open immediately to your @Inbox and flip to a page with adequate writing space (which should be near the beginning, if you're following the advice below).
  4. If it's obvious that the information to be captured should go directly into another section (e.g., your co-worker says, "Here's that guy's contact info," or your boss says, "The project deadline is August 14th"), then fine: jump to that tab in your planner and write the details there.
  5. If it isn't clear what information you're about to receive --and this will be the case most of the time-- simply start writing in your @Inbox. Start by writing the date and time, and the person (or team) involved. Don't be concerned with spelling, margins, grammar, or anything else: these are rough notes, and you have nothing to worry about except collecting important details. Make everything a bullet point, but be sure to capture all pertinent data. Names, dates, objectives, specifications, opinions, and so forth should all be written down in as succinct a way as possible.
  6. When your conversation is finished, quickly review your notes. Now that the call or meeting is over, you have some perspective on the value of the information and its correct place. Move addresses into your Contacts tab, project notes into the relevant project tab, deadlines and appointments into your calendar, call summaries into a project Contact Log, and so forth. (If you're following GTD, most of this should be fairly evident: use the D*I*Y Planner GTD reference diagram --or the chart in the book, of course-- if you need to jog your memory.) Some of your notes will no doubt need to be rewritten for clarity, and some items can be entered directly into the appropriate forms, such as the Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe, Project Details or Agenda ones. If you don't have time to immediately transfer the notes, at least ensure that they are clear and that you haven't forgotten anything.
  7. Use your @Inbox for anything else coming at you quickly, such as a brainstorming session, the minutes of an ongoing committee meeting, or some interesting tidbits on a television or radio programme. Obviously, you may not need to use it for email, business memos and reports --these can be read, noted and filed appropriately and directly in the relevant sections of your planner or file cabinet-- but for those items leaving you no time to digest contents or muse upon a course of action, jump straight into your @Inbox, whip out your pen, and start writing.
  8. If you're the type of person who receives important papers and scraps all day long, you need a place to keep these safe and ready to process. Many better planners have an inside pocket of some type (my Day Runner has an accordian pocket) that you can consider part of your @Inbox. If you don't have one, you can purchase a set of durable cardboard pockets that clip into the rings of your planner from any larger office supply store for about $7. Don't forget to review this pocket along with your @Inbox tab.
  9. Don't let your @Inbox grow. This is a cardinal sin. Whenever you have a breather, at an absolute minimum of once per day, review this section and transfer all your information into the appropriate tabs and forms. If this occasion doen't present itself, make it happen: take your planner to a quiet place, or close the door and turn off the phones, or bring your planner to a solo lunch, or put aside a little time after (or before) work. When you've emptied the @Inbox, grab a little reward (a coffee, perhaps, or an apple) and then get on with your day.

Yes, it's all common sense, but many people (myself included) find that keeping to this procedure is the most problematic part of staying organised. The trick is in dancing the capture and empty two-step. Having an easily-accessible and designated section within your planner, as well as following a daily purging ritual, will help limber up those joints and keep you moving forward.

For more information, the D*I*Y Planner Handbook (included with the download) has a number of other tips for setting up and using tabs and forms. And remember, whatever you do, keep your system as simple as possible: complexity is not your friend.

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