Please help me tame my planner...

Howdy all,

I have a new project for my project list. I didn't realize it was a project until today. It's been bothering me for a couple weeks now.

I've been trying out GTD for the last couple months and have been using my planner a LOT. My paper planner is out of control. First, here's my system, in a nutshell:

I currently use Outlook for my contacts and calendaring. This is pretty much required by work. I'm trying to use Onenote for projects, but I do too much of my thinking on paper. But more on that later.

Each day, I print out a pocketmod-like daily quick reference. The front has my contact info and a calendar of the current month with the current day highlighted. The back is my daily schedule captured from Outlook. If there is room, I include the next day's schedule, too. Page 1 has a quick contacts list of 11 contact. There are three blank "inbox" pages, and the last two are @Anywhere next actions and @errands next actions.

I carry a Hipster satellite inbox. It has 4 blank index cards, 4 lined index card, 2 grid index cards, each section seperated by a colored index card. The last one has 3 3x5 post-its stuck to it. This is mostly used when I'm away from work. It gets heavy use during the week end.

Then there is my primary planner. It's a classic-sized Franklin Covey planner. This is out of control and I don't know how to tame it. It contains:

  • Cover page with contact information
  • GTD section: 3 reference sheets (these probably could be removed, but I like to look at them occasionally.)
  • Finances section: 2 pages- list of debts and a checkbook register. This is one area of my life I'm trying to manage, so has to stay.
  • Key Information section: 2 pages w/ personal profile and emergency numbers.
  • Next Actions section: 1 page each for @office network, @computer, @work desk, @house, @phone, 1 double sided page with @anywhere on the front and @errands on the back
  • Project section: Here's where I think it's out of control.
    • Master list

    • Small projects list (currently 3 pages containing 7 projects that are 3-4 well defined steps. Each of these will take me about 1 day to complete. This list hovers around 5 projects at a time and goes between 3-6 pages.)
    • Five tabbed sections for major work related projects (four in use) These projects have multiple pages. The largest is 10 pages, the smallest is 4.
    • One page per mid-sized project (61 pages!) Most are personal projects, 18 are work related. Most of the work related ones require a lot of back and forth with others. In the past 2 months, only a couple personal projects and less than a dozen work projects have left this area. Most of these projects are likely to take 3-4 months of real time (even if the effort time is closer to 80-160 hours.) I'd guess that 5 of the work related projects will be removed by the end of January and I'm hoping that 10 of the personal projects will be done by the end of January.
  • Calendar Section- up to two weeks worth with each day having a two page spread. This is a print out from Outlook and the right side is strictly notes for the day.
  • Contacts Section: 3 pages of business contacts and one blank page for when people give me contact information, this hasn't been used yet, I usually use my pocketmod.
  • Contact Log Section: I have 12 people/companies that I track the contact I have with them. This contains 6 sheets in use with one blank sheet in the back
  • Waiting section: 1 page
  • Someday/Maybe section: 3 pages
  • Shopping list/Want list section: 2 pages
  • Agenda section: 3 1 page per meeting sections, 2 quadrant agenda pages (I don't like these, they'll soon be 1 page per agenda)
  • Inbox: 7 blank pages, 1 slash folder
  • 1 slash folder with these blank templates: 1 Actions page, 1 project page, 1 checklist, 3 lined pages, 3 graph pages
  • 1 business card holder page. This is an "inbox" for business cards I get while out and about. (when I travel to Asia, I increase this to 5 and usually fill them.)

Each night, I process my pocketmod to ensure everything captured there is updated in the primary planner. I then print out a new pocketmod. One pocketmod, with some index cards, generally gets me through a week end. I've started using the backs too. I've started feeling better about using three sheets per week instead of 6 for this.

I tried to remove some of the projects, but they are honest to goodness active projects. Each one of them has a next action on my NA list. I did remove the project pages for the someday projects. They are now in the 1st of the month folder. I'll review them monthly to see if they should be "activated" or not. I don't think those projects need to be reviewed more frequently.

I'm considering moving the computer projects to OneNote, but I'm waiting for Office 2007. I'm worried that I'll start missing them in my weekly review, though. It makes me nervous, I guess, is what I'm saying.

So, can anyone help me with suggestions? Maybe some good questions that I need to ask myself? I can't seem to reduce that project list without completing them... and it will be months before enough get completed to make a difference.


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First question: Why do you think this stuff is out of control? What is the symptom set that leads you to this conclusion?

One place for everything is really best if you're worried that multiple sources will cause you to miss them in your review. Having said that, it isn't necessary to put them all on the same list. Do you have contexts for your projects too?

Here's another question--do you use a tickler? That is, the 43 folders concept? Example: a project is waiting for someone else to take action, but they're on vacation til the 15th. Do you file the task on the 15th or 16th as a reminder to follow up, or do you keep it on your waiting section?

Do you honestly work on all of these projects every day, or could you move some of them into a reminder for, say, two days from now so you don't have to look at them all the time? Do you only review the projects weekly, or do you review each project each time you complete one of your NAs, so you can determine what the next action is?

Is it necessary to review every project each week, or are some of them OK being reviewed less often even if they're active?

In your project section, are you keeping a full 'project plan' for each of the larger items, or is it just a placeholder list?

I don't have as many projects as you, not by a long shot. But I have about six or seven significant projects going at any given moment for work. I do not use GTD for my setup. I prefer Julie Morgenstern's Time Management from the Inside Out method. So in my 'projects' section, I just have a list of all the projects that I'm currently working on (for work, personal life is much simpler). I have one card for each project in addition to this list, which I actually file in my 43 folders. The card for the project contains the next few actions.

So the project card moves around in my tickler/planner based on when things are going to happen. So if the next action is 'meet with so-and-so' then the card gets filed on the day of the meeting. If the next action is 'draft a document' then it gets filed on the day I intend to set aside a block of time to do this task--maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, whenever I think I'll have that block of time. So I don't have a 'weekly review' per se. Every time I finish one task, I look at the next task and decide when it is going to happen, whether that's today or some future date. Then the card gets put back in the planner where I can forget about it until it's time to do that next task.

Every morning I plan my day. I get out the cards from the tickler, check my meetings and my email to make sure nothing new has sprung up. Then I look at how much there is to do and how much day I have to do it in. If there's too much stuff, then some of it immediately gets filed on another day, like tomorrow or next week. The rest stays on today's schedule and I map it out. So email comes first in the morning, then day planning, then working the plan.

Twice a week I have a team review with my boss and my teammates. I review the project list from the project tab and can rattle off what's happening right now. I can look at the next couple of days in my tickler/planner and say what's coming up. Once a month I have a one-on-one with my boss and we go over the list in more detail if needed.

I make my project cards a different color than the rest of the cards. This helps me spot them in the tickler, which is a clear 4x6 photo album (I use 3x5 cards for my to-dos). Ordinary off-the cuff to do items go on white, personal stuff like chores and travel go on purple, meetings and appointments go on fluorescent yellow, and projects get green, orange, and pink depending on the type of project. Because I use a photo album with pockets, it's easy to move a project card from one day to another. This is not as easy with a paper planner unless you use pagefinders for this purpose.

Covey's got a pack of pagefinders they'll sell you for this kind of purpose. It's the progressive task list pagefinder, a cardstock pagefinder with the same grid you find on the 2-page per day format. If you write the name of the project at the tippy top of the pagefinder, you'll be able to find your next action for each project quickly regardless of when you've scheduled it. You could use highlighters to color code them, too. You could make your own from cardstock if you were so inclined. I think there's an 'action' pagefinder insert on this site somewhere, but you could make a full cardstock pagefinder just by cutting it big, holepunching it, then clipping the holes so they snap in without opening the rings.

I suppose if I had more projects, I'd need to set aside a block of time to look at them all and make sure they were covered. My life is fairly simple at the moment, so the combination of "what do I do and when am I going to do it" is the right way for me. It allows me to push off thinking about stuff that's already scheduled for future until the future arrives. So I'm not constantly going over a list of actions like "draft something, Oh, OK, that's going to happen next Tuesday" and "meet with so-and-so, oh, well, that's not til a week from Friday". I don't bother going over those actions because I've already decided when they're going to happen and it isn't now.

I still need a master list of projects so I can go over status with my boss on a frequent basis. I have a personal list too, but it's mostly on hold for the winter at the moment, so they're on the someday list instead of the project list. :)

Another point: I have two projects right now that are 'on hold' from management. The project card for these are in the 'project' list right there with the list of projects. When they come off hold, they'll move from there into the tickler/planner.

Anyway, it's not entirely clear from your message what you've decided is the problem with your list. Having a big list is OK. If you really have to do all that stuff, then you really have to keep track of it. The mechanics of keeping track of it, then, is the bit to tackle. That's going to be highly personal. Do you need to have *all* your project info in your project tab, or can you stuff most of it in a desk file and just keep the names of the projects behind the project tab? What is it really that's making you uncomfortable with your system?


Busting at the seams

Well, I want to thank you for the response. While posting my response, I think I figured out what I need to do. I'll leave the original response below. But here's what I realized that I need to do.

Most of the project pages need to be filed. Not in the tickler, in actual project files. I took some folders in my "reuse" pile and made them so they can hold five planner pages staggered. I then put five labels on the folder listing the five projects. The project list and all my work projects stay in the binder. The rest will be put in the folders and kept in the laptop case. Those will be my portable files. When I do my weekly review, if I don't have a NA for a given project, I'll pull it out of the file and determine the next action. What I need is a portable filing system. These all don't need to be my planner as long as they are on the master list. I don't need those when I'm in meetings at work. I just need them handy when I'm thinking.

Again, thanks. I just needed be forced into really clarifying the problem. I have faith this will work. And I think that in a few months, my life will be managable enough that I won't need the extra storage for active projects.

Here is my original response, for posterity:
I thought I had it all spelled out and I see I left out the symptom that's been bothering me. My planner is busting at the seams. It doesn't all fit in the binder like it needs to. I can't really carry it with me unless I remove sections (which I do when I go to meetings).

My projects fall into work and personal. But that is the only granularity in terms of "contexts". My day to day "doing" stuff is in my next action list. Those are the things I track based on context. The project section describes the project (including why I want to do it), has notes on the project, the ToDo list and generally contains the results of the actions. I finish an action, I check if the project has a next action ready to go or not.

I do use a tickler. I don't put my project information in the tickler. If I'm waiting on a person to respond, I either put a note in the tickler file or on my calendar. It just kind of depends.

As for how often I review them... They each get reviewed weekly. The work projects get checked every time I complete a NA to see if there is another action that can be done. The personal projects don't get quite that much attention.

I'm sure that some of the projects can be reviewed less often, but having them in my tickler file made me uncomfortable for most of them. They lasted there for two days and I was constantly digging them out because I found that I finished a NA that I wasn't expecting to do that day and I wanted to put some information on the project. I did leave a handful of pages there- they were "re-negotiated" to be someday projects. Part of the problem is that my tickler is at work. Most of the projects that I have on tap are personal projects that I focus on at home but can sometimes work on during the day- at lunch or during breaks.

As for my project section: All but four of the projects fit easily on a single sheet. The objective, notes and next actions and "need to be done"s. The other four are full blown projects with notes and subprojects. Those need to stay that way. They get heavy use and I'm comfortable with them there.

I guess my problem boils down to:
I have a ton of personal projects that I don't want to lose track of. I have them on the master list, but most of them have had some thought put into them that I need to refer to. Each of the NAs are being tracked appropriately. There are way too many project pages to keep them all in my binder comfortably. I don't know where/how to store them.

I could set up a home based tickler file, but I don't have any confidence that it would work for me. I want everything with me when I do my weekly review (at the office) and I like having everything with me when I'm "doing." That way I can easily check off what I complete and see if there is a NA.

I let my life fill up with too many project that are important. I'm finally getting a handle on them, but now that I which loops are open, I'm having trouble managing them. I honestly expect that in 3-6 months, the number of projects will be more managable. I have three holiday related projects and several others that should complete by February. It's the short term that I'm worried about.

If these were work project it would be easier. I could just file project pages away in files and refer to them during my weekly reviews or when I'm working on an action for that project...



Glad you worked out a plan! I frequently figure out the answer to a question while I'm busy writing the question or a response. Something about the writing process and explaining forces you to re-examine the issue in another way, and I often see things differently when I do that.

Like I said before, the mechanical part of the planner is a very personal thing, and everyone does things a little differently. Having an adjunct to your planner for the 'more information' you need sounds like a good plan.


Files are the Key

I used to be a "carry everything around with me in a planner" person until I read GTD. Setting up a trustworthy filing system has been the single most important change to my overall organizing system. I would classify it as my "core".

With a core I trust, I can play around with the various methods of capture, i.e. hipster, classic, legal pad, etc., because I know everything will eventually make it into its proper file. It works for me, anyway.