Setting Up a Circa System, D*I*Y Planner Style
Look through the forums and comments on this site, and you'll see folks with an all-too-common problem. This problem is not relegated to paper productivity fans, but high-tech gadget users as well -- the chief distinction often being the amount of money spent, and the technical ability required. I'm sure you've suffered from it yourself. You've wandered the aisles at your local office mega-store, browsing the shelves and looking in vain for the perfect solution for your productivity crises or creativity ailments. You're convinced it's there somewhere, probably covered in rich leather, sporting multiple pockets that miraculously organise your clutter, holding sumptuous paper that just inspires you to write all the right things. You don't know what size it is: it might be tiny, it might be large. It might consist of index cards, it might be loose paper on rings, it might be fixed pages in a special journal. It may have forms with all the right prompts, it may be blank and free-form. You've tried multiple products and approaches, and none have stood the test of time, and now all you have is a mass of half-written pages of different sizes and shapes and methods and mappings. Still, you think, it's out there: the perfect solution. The Grail quest continues, and like Galahad, you plod wearily onwards and blindly follow the next vision, taking home the next item on the shelves.
Well, the solution is out there. I can assure you of that much. But it's likely your problem lies not in your gear, but in its fluidity. Is your structure too rigid, to the point of caging you and reducing your freedoms? Or is it too loose, where nothing has a place, and nothing is assured? The key is adopting a system that is as fluid as you need it to be, and no more. The system must be crafted to your needs, but be flexible enough to change as you need it, even on a daily basis. It isn't easy, but I believe it can come from the merging of two core products: a powerful but tightly-constructed set of forms, and gear that's flexible enough to be used in many different circumstances. The former may be the D*I*Y Planner, and the latter may be the Levenger Circa line.
Part one of my Circa review concentrated on a basic description of the Levenger's Circa system as a whole, while the second part jumped into more detail on some specific notebook and folio products. In this article, I'm going to delve into how I've set up a Circa-based D*I*Y Planner. Or perhaps a D*I*Y Planner-based Circa system. Of course, the basic premise can apply to other forms, other gear. Be creative, and you'll find a million combinations that can work for you.
In the last article, I mentioned the various reasons why I decided upon the Levenger Junior Zip Folio for my new planner. In a nutshell, it's slim, well-made, has a zipper (to keep things in, and protect them from the elements), and it can easily take Classic size pages, which to me are a perfect compromise between writing space and portability. The D*I*Y Planner Classic/A5 edition also has the widest variety of forms, several hundred of them for almost every purpose under the sun. Remember that the philosophy of the D*I*Y Planner project is to allow you to create your own system, based on your own individual (and very unique) needs. You shouldn't be tied into using the same dozen forms that commercial companies produce, nor at those outrageous costs.
But the Classic size hasn't always proven the most beneficial under all circumstances. When I'm running around town, or in the woods, I don't want to tote such a large planner. That's when I use a Hipster PDA (created using the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition, naturally). I also use index cards when I'm brainstorming ideas, and want to shuffle around items to decide on the best order and approach. Then there are times I want to create a large mind-map, and letter-size paper is more appropriate. This also applies when I want to print out a larger item, such as that of a town map or a detailed bus schedule. Another one of my notebooks, one that fits well into my guide bag, is actually closer to "personal" or "compact" size (4.25" x 6.75"). What does that leave me? A mess of incompatible paper sizes, of course.
But this is where the beauty of the Circa system comes in (or, if you choose, the Rollabind system). I'm now able to bring all of these pieces of paper into one product, and it actually works quite well. I'll explain more as we go.
So, my basic setup is as follows. I'm using a green Circa Junior Zip Folio as my "shell". It has several inside pockets, including large ones that hold folded letter-size sheets and business cards, and it even has two deeper pockets for index cards (very thoughtful!). It has a pen loop where I carry a fountain pen, currently a Lamy AL-Star Green, and I can clip my green Staedtler mechanical pencil onto the bottom of the back pocket. Into this back pocket slips a regular Junior Circa notebook, kept in place by the custom backing I mentioned in the last article. I'm using black 1" diameter rings, which hold about 150-180 sheets, depending upon the thickness of the paper and covers.
(Yes, green everywhere. I think it's an allergic reaction to Winter.)
Let's delve into the components a little, starting with the forms. I realise that many people prefer to purchase forms rather than make them, and that's fine. For my little experiment, I used a number of Levenger's forms in addition to my own. All of them are fairly well-designed and on quality paper. The basic tabbed monthly calendars are light and airy, and I decided to use them mainly because of the tabs. I don't generally use the additional "Important Notations" and "Monthly To Do" pages, but they may come in handy. My only problem with these is that the plastic coating from the tabs extends down into the writing area, which means... well, that you can't write within that region unless you're using a permanent marker. (I've mentioned this to Levenger, and they're bringing it to the attention of their printer.) A minor quibble, since the unwritable areas are fairly small and thus don't bother me much. Of course, you can easily print and punch D*I*Y Planner calendars, as long as you have a daily page-finder of some type to find your way.
In fact, Levenger has just produced a page-finder, but I haven't seen it yet. Instead, I'm using some Satellite Action Cards (from the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA set). With some careful punching, I create a few cards that easily clip into the notebook at the point of the current calendar, and their tabs extend upward for easy location. I have NA@Work, WF@Work and NA@Home. These are the GTD cards I review many times a day. I keep separate project-oriented sections for items I review less frequently.
I use two sets of five tabs to divide the various sections of my notebook. For these, I've decided on the soft colour tabs, since they're thin, tinted with subtle but rich hues, and Classic-sized. Remember that Levenger is slowly changing from Junior to Classic, so your own printed forms will be slightly longer and thinner than their wider and shorter ones. The differences are negligible enough that I can mix and match the two sizes without any problems. For the tabs, though, you should write a little closer to the tops of the labels, so the wider paper doesn't cover your text. Easy enough.
Now, your tab sections will probably be quite different from mine, but I'll list them anyway. Forms mentioned are from the standard D*I*Y Planner Classic/A5 kits.
- D*I*Y Planner: where I keep Action Quadrants to manage multiple aspects of the site, Potential Quicklists for possible article entries, various mind-maps, template Checklists, lots of notes, and so forth. The site and the kits can get very complicated at times, so this is frequently one of the largest parts of my planner.
- Creativity: Journal forms for notes, Story Boards, Potential Quicklists, Potential Projects, Story Ideas, and a heap of blank pages.
- Sherlock: the section devoted to my Sherlockian pursuits, and incorporating book lists, movie lists, notes, article ideas for my other blog, and so on.
- Home: home-related forms, including Checkbook Register, Financials, Receipt envelope, errand Checklists, Action Quadrants, and so on.
- Business: the main generic section for my real-world job. The obvious forms, including notes, actions, financial ones, receipt envelope, and blank paper for mind-mapping.
- Projects: various work-related projects, consisting mainly of Combined Action forms and the manyDiyP project management forms, along with notes.
- Technical: serial numbers, network configurations, extranet development info, technical support numbers (using Sources forms), and so on.
- Journal: mainly blank paper, since I sketch as well as write. More on this later.
- Contacts: Important Numbers form, many Contact forms, and some Sources forms. The Sources are for "yellow" page information, like Taxis, local restaurants, or suppliers. I also keep eight Circa address cards here. These are 2" high cards that fit into a CircaDex, which is like a small portable Rolodex in a nice little leather Circa-ringed notebook. I move these cards from project to project as needed. For example, I might put a client contact on one of these cards, and move it into the appropriate project tab or area as needed. They clip onto the Circa rings, of course, and so this proves quite easy to do. However, one of the only downsides of the current Circa system is that there are currently no A-Z tabs. I'm told they're coming, but it will take a while. In the meantime, I have a Contacts form for the letters of the alphabet.
- Inbox: this is where I turn when I answer the phone, go to a meeting, or otherwise encounter unstructured information. I write it down, then transfer the pertinent pages or bits to other sections or notebooks.
I mention using multiple notebooks above, and this is definitely a strength of the Circa system. For example, I do a lot of work for one particular organisation, and so I have a tabbed Circa notebook just for them. As I finish off relevant planner pages, I move them to that notebook. I also value my privacy quite a bit, and prefer not to keep all my most intimate thoughts and ideas in my planner. I now keep a Circa journal at home, and as I finish writing pages in my folio, I transfer them into that notebook when I get back to the house. On occasion, I also use a compact Circa notebook for meetings, and I transfer these pages into the folio (or other notebooks) as needed. Since the rings are all equidistant on all Circa products, one can easily move sheets from one to the other, as long as the book is large enough. My folio thus easily takes index cards, CircaDex address cards, business cards, Junior sheets, Classic sheets and compact sheets.
In a similar fashion, I've created "landscape" sheets that fit into the Junior. For a blank sheet (e.g., for mind-mapping), simply fold a letter-size sheet in half, punch one shorter edge, and then chop a half-inch off the other side so it can clip in easily. I have my maps and other large sheets done the same way.
Let's take a quick look at some of the other Circa products that --while optional-- can really enhance a planner.
The Circa forms produced by Levenger are of a limited variety, and fairly basic but functional, which is handy if you don't want to produce your own. The Address pages, Project/Goal Planner, Expenses and Things To Do forms are open and fairly elegant, but they lack a certain consistency of layout when it comes to borders, blocks, shading and fonts. (I'm sure most people will probably never notice this; after designing several hundred such forms, I can't help it.) Once can also pillage the Circa Agenda for plenty of other forms and references, including weekly planning, weather norms, interest rates, and holidays. Once can easily add larger rings to the Agenda and use that as a base for a full-fledged planner. (I personally don't need a weekly calendar -- monthly tabs are fine.) However, let's keep in mind that Levenger hasn't set out (yet) to produce a full-fledged planner line like Franklin-Covey or Day-Timer. They're concentrating on other things, and (by all accounts) are doing a damn fine job on those.
If you have a job requiring gathering business cards (at least long enough to input the information elsewhere), Levenger now produces an interesting variation on business card holder inserts. The Junior size takes 24 cards. "24?" you ask, "how is that possible?" Yes, most card inserts only take eight, and that's putting them back to back. Levenger is using a tiered overlay of pockets, one overlapping another, then overlapping another, and so on. It's a great idea. You can put two cards in each pocket, back to back. While you can only see about an inch of most cards, it's generally enough to find what you need at a glance. Of course, this insert can get rather thick if you're not careful, so transfer your cards or information elsewhere as you get a chance. Or, of course, you can keep all of the cards from a particular organisation in its own insert, then clip it into a notebook with your other pertinent notes and project information.
Levenger has started producing a series of "soft colour pocket dividers", otherwise known as slash pockets. These are made in the same rich hues of the tabs mentioned above, and have a diagonal pockets used to store sheets of various types. These are really well-made. The plastic is thin but strong, and is just the perfect size to hold about eight Classic-size sheets comfortably. But hold on... they come in other sizes, and these also clip onto your Circa rings. So, for example, in my Creativity section, I have an index-card sized slash pocket to hold some of my Hipster PDA plot and character cards. Beautiful! Did you see what I meant when I mentioned that one could have the flexibility to bring all the little relevant bits and pieces together into a holistic system? One small caveat here: the Junior size slash pockets are slightly larger than the standard plastic Junior notebook covers. This isn't an issue at all if you're using it at the back of a folio like I am, but some people may take issue with the odd sizing.
I'm told that there are zip pockets on the way from Levenger, but these "have yet to drop." This will certainly be a welcome addition, as I like a place to keep stamps, paper clips, tab labels, and a few coins. My Ziplock baggie isn't quite so classy as the Levenger gear.
In the back of my planner, behind the slash pockets, I have a Circa Annotator. It's basically a black card with all kinds of Post-It-like flags. It may seem a little costly at first, but a visit to my local supply store tells me that the pricing is on par with buying all the flags in separate kits. If you get a bulk deal on mega-store flags, however, you can always restock the card as needed. Or heck, make your own. (This is DIYPlanner, isn't it?)
Speaking of price, creating a full-fledged planning solution can be costly with the majority of brand-name gear on the market, especially if you flit from one setup to another. My own 3-, 6- and 7-ring planners, along with various components (punches, inserts, binders, forms, and so on) have rarely been inexpensive, and especially if one doesn't pursue the do-it-yourself route. Technically, all that one does have to purchase for a Circa (or Rollabind) system are the cheap rings and the medium-priced punch. With that, one can make covers, binders, forms, inserts, and all the other gear needed, as long as you possess a bit of will-power and some degree of creativity. Of my seven Circa notebooks, only a couple are actually stock from Levenger -- the rest are homemade. Whether you'd rather spend the time, or the money, is a question best answered by your schedule and your pocketbook.
So, I've now spent a full six weeks on my Great Circa Experiment. Was it worth it? Will I continue to use the system? To both, an unequivocal yes. Between the D*I*Y Planner kits, the Circa gear, and a bit of elbow grease, I've achieved my own little Holy Grail: a system that's infinitely extensible in almost every way, and actually lets me use whatever sizes and forms are convenient. I'll be sticking with this for a long time to come.
Next up, the last of my Circa-related articles: a photo gallery of my current gear, and the various mods and setups. Whew.