Four Planner Hacks for Paper-Based Productivity
Ever since learning about Douglas Johnston's D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition, I've really enjoyed my paper-based productivity implementation (what a mouthful). However, switching to a planner has caused some problems (finding incomplete to-do items, handling recurring tasks, etc.) To make my system work, I've adopted a few hacks that I'd like to share, along with some related issues that I'm still struggling with. Finally, for interested parties, I've included a description of how I've set up my planner.
Planner Hack 1: Highlight Completed To-Do Items
When coaching one of my first clients, she used her HI-LITER in a way that completely astonished me: When going through her to-do list she highlighted completed items, which I felt was counterintuitive - I had never gotten into highlighting books, etc., but I expected her to mark those that needed to stand out, i.e., items that hadn't been checked off yet. However, I tried to be open (managing my shock) and found out that she highlights completed items to make the incompletes stand out. After looking at her list, I realized she was really onto something. So, I gave it a shot, and I'll never turn back. Below are closeups of before and after pictures of planner pages demonstrating the results.
The first page is from my pre-highlighter phase, and as you can see, it takes some visual scanning to pick out the item that is still open. (And it's much harder to pick them out when looking at the entire page, which contains dozens of lines.) The second image shows a similar page with completed items highlighted, and you'll notice that the two remaining ones really stand out. Sweet! Using the highlighter also provides the satisfaction of really nailing completed items, essentially giving you the chance to bathe in the glow of a "win" twice - once when checking them off, and a second time when highlighting them. Hey - I'll take any wins I can get!
Planner Hack 2: Use check circles, not boxes
Using Allen's technique involves creating many to-do items that you regularly cross off. When I first adopted his system, I did a little analysis of the kinds of paper forms I need (many provided by Doug - thanks!) and I realized that, while I could use the various to-do forms out there, all I really needed was ruled pages - I could draw my own damn check boxes. (And no, I didn't learn this in kindergarten, so don't ask.) However, the time to draw those little squares starts adding up, so - brace yourself - I started drawing circles instead. And they work great! Below is a closeup of one of my planner pages demonstrating circles in a variety of states - unchecked, checked, X-ed out, and crossed out.
Ahh - the flexibility of the lowly circle...
Planner Hack 3: Use interval + check circle for recurring tasks
Well, there are lots of reasons that paper is great, but one big problem I have is that it's difficult to manage calendar tasks that repeat regularly. You know, things like emptying the cat litter every two months. (Come to think of it, I haven't seen her in a while...) Yes, our electronic brethren can simply let the computer do the work, but we have the priviledge of doing it the old-fashioned way - systematically, and one at a time. (This naturally applies to anyone using a paper calendar system, not just the D*I*Y templates.) To help with this, I have been experimenting with annotating recurring items with a time interval and check circle. Given the intervals we typically use (days, weeks, months, and years) - my code is something like "1w O" (one week), "2d O" (two days), etc, where the "O" represents a check circle. The following image shows an example.
Notice the second item from the top on Tuesday. It reads "O $mar 2W O", which has two circles indicating two things: 1) The portion on the left ("O $mar") means a bill is due that day, and that I need to write a check; and 2) the portion on the right ("2W O") means this item needs to be repeated two weeks hence. (You'll notice that I'm playing with also underlining the interval to make it stand out.)
So how are these used? Well, the circle on the right indicates that it's a repeating item, so an unchecked one reminds me to a) carry it ahead the proper interval, and b) check it off after doing so. Specifically, in this case I'd do the following: Noticing the circle on the left, I'd pay the bill and check off the circle. I'd also notice the circle on the right, copy the item two weeks in the future (including the repeating portion because this task is on-going), and check off that circle as well.
To make this hack work I've had to form the habit of scanning all entries on each day to ensure there are no unchecked circles. I've found this system works pretty well, although frequent copying is admittedly tedious.
Planner Hack 4: Use interval + check circle + arrows for information ticklers
Allen's methodology proscribes specific uses for calendars, which include writing day-specific information. For me these usually take the form of events that have either happened some time interval in the past, or are going to happen in the future. Examples include "three months since oil change" or "one week until design due." To ensure I see these and add the appropriate actions to my lists, I've adopted a variation of hack 3: To the time interval and check circle I add a past/future marker - an arrow pointing leftward for the past, and one righward for the future. The image below shows an example.
(By convention I place ticklers at the top of each day, where there's typically a blank area with no hours. Naturally, you can place them wherever you like.) Here the item reads "<–1m: myra G. checkin", which tells me that it's been one month since talking to myra, and that I may want to add an action to contact her. (And yes, I forgot to add the check circle - I'm glad you spotted that.) Here's another example, one that shows a future ticker:
In this case it reads "O 2w>b.on tape", which means I have some library books on tape due in two weeks.
Note that the arrows are a recent experiment; I added them because I was concerned I'd have trouble differentiating between past and future information. So far it's working well, but I might go back to not using them at all.
Because no tool is absolutely perfect, there remain a few problems that I haven't addressed yet: First, I don't have a clean way to represent events that span multiple days. The solutions I've tried include 1) using a separate "month at a glance"-style calendar (but this means possible duplication, and two places to check), 2) writing the event at the top of each day (tedious to write), and 3) writing the event at the top of the page. Currently I use 2) if it's a one- or two-day event, and 3) if longer. I'm very open to hearing about other solutions you've discovered.
The second issue is that of synchronizing my calendar with that of others (esp. my spouse's). This is another example of something that digital versions easily enable, and which we analogues must handle via a trustworthy system. In my case I've added "sync calendars" to my weekly review checklist, which means once a week I write my items on my wife's calendar, and vice versa. I see no other solutions; do you?
The final concern regards hack 4: The vertical format calendar pages I use (found here) don't leave much horizontal space for writing. This means I either have to write even smaller (a possibility that's limited by physics), or use an additional precious line. This is something a custom D*I*Y* template could address.
Like any tool, a paper-based planner has strengths and weaknesses. Whether we use D*I*Y* Planner templates, buy third-party ones, or a combination of the two, as users of paper we have to work with the media's limitations (while hopefully enjoying its pleasures). However, I agree with others who have noticed productivity improvements from working with paper-based systems. Testimonials like "my [to-dos] seem more do-able when they are handwritten" and "I am able to plan better and am certainly more creative by putting pen to paper" show us that the tangible benefits can extend beyond the purely tactile.
It's my hope that these modest hacks will help you use yours a little more smoothly. I'm sure there are many others out there - please share your favorite ones in the new forum for Planning Hacks.
Appendix - Notes from putting my kit together
For the curious (of which diyplanner.com seems to attract more than its fair share), this section describes some thoughts from how I've set up my planner. Note that the above hacks should apply to anyone using the same types of pages, be they D*I*Y Planner templates, or off-the-shelf ones such as from Day-Timer, Day Runner, or your local equivalent. (Note that some of the terminology below comes from David Allen's Getting Things Done - AKA GTD - which I use to keep my life sane, and to give me a framework for deciding how to use the planner.)
In my case, I've learned from experimentation with the Hipster PDA Edition (thanks, Doug!) that my needs are pretty simple; all I really need are:
- calendar pages,
- divider tabs (which Doug refers to here),
- ruled note pages for Next Actions, Waiting-Fors, etc. (using my patented "check circles" - see below), and
- a clear vinyl zip pouch and/or storage pockets (for Post-It notes, business cards, etc.)
GTD Coach-in-training Tools
As a budding GTD coach-in-training, I naturally had to shrink and punch copies of Doug's GTD Quick Reference Sheet, along with the GTD processing and workflow and advanced workflow diagrams. (There's no telling when some hapless bystander might be ripe for a quick introduction.) To get it the right size I used a procedure much like Doug's here, under "Shrinking Project/Reference Materials". As an additional aid, I've also shamelessly used the Quick Reference Sheet on the back of my business cards.
As I've written elsewhere, I started with a standard Day-Timer planner (one of their less expensive Portable Size binders - 3 3/4" x 6 3/4"), and added pages from other sources, including Day Runner's vertical calendar format. This is an approach similar to Martin Kretzschmar's Planner, with the adaptations recommended in David Allen's tips on using a paper organizer.
|Click book to purchase|
|Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity|
author: David Allen
ASIN or ISBN-10: 0142000280