Four Planner Hacks for Paper-Based Productivity

While Matthew Cornell has been a NASA shuttle engineer, a research programmer specialising in artificial intelligence at the UMass Knowledge Discovery Lab, and an enthusiastic personal productivity coach aiming to change people's lives, no doubt history will record his greatest distinction as the person who left the very first comment on the very first post of this site. -DJ

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.

Unresolved Issues

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 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.)

Page Types

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,
  • contacts/addresses,
  • 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.)
The big realization for me was that the ruled notes pages, combined with check circles, covered most of my list-making needs.

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.

Integrated Planner

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.

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Recurring tasks with paper

First off, great article! This is exactly the type of thing I want to bring to us. Excellent work.

I handle recurring tasks with my tickler. Each recurring task (stuff I do regularly as a sysadmin, meetings, everything) has a Project Details sheet on which I write the recurrence interval. This page gets stuck in my tickler in the next occurrance's folder. When I pull the upcoming week's folders during my Weekly Review, they get copied onto the hard calendar, and the recurring task's Project form gets moved to the proper day (which gets dumped into my inbox that morning, to act as yet another reminder, and it's more satisfying to file the sheet than check off a box on a form).

This keeps my calendar free of the "noise" of keeping track of recurrance intervals and stuff, and also there's a real "instance" of the task (the sheet that moves through my tickler) instead of just some ink on a calendar.

That said, my tickler's simple enough to handle this stuff without breaking. I don't have the amount of hard or recurring tasks to warrant a 43 folder tickler. I have 18 folders in my (work only) tickler:

  • (12) Jan - Dec, in the back
  • (1) Next Week, in a hanging folder that doubles as a divider between the months and...
  • (5) Mon - Fri, in the front.

So, tasks that occur every week get written down on the calendar during a WR and put into Next Week, along with normal tasks that come in that are either not due until next week, or for which processing can be put off until the WR.

Tasks that occur longer than a week apart are put into the monthly folders. The current (and next, if we're in a month-spanning week) monthly folder is also processed during my Weekly Review.

Monthly (or longer) tasks are placed into the next month's folder after processing.

After a few months of this process, it seems to be working well. I don't have a real good idea on tasks that need to occur at softer intervals (the dreaded "Once In A While" tasks). So far, I've just been making them have hard occurrances, and deciding during Review if it's been long enough or not. It's a constant work in progress, to be sure.

great ideas re: tickler

Thanks for the positive feedback, and the great tickler ideas, Eric. Lots of good stuff for me to try.


P.S. Additional thanks for the D*I*Y work!

Possible solution to "Dreaded 'Once In A While' tasks"

I use a project page titled Soft Dates that lists the dreaded once-in-a-while tasks. This page is read once a week during the weekly review. If any of the projects need to be done in the next week, they are added to my Next Actions list. Then the Soft Dates project page is put back in the Next Week tickler file. This is a newer idea for me, and so far it is working well. Let me know if you have any ideas for improvement.

One and Two Day Event

What I tend to do for these things is one of two things if the even is an all day event I put it on the first line and then add diagonal hash marks across the date box to show that I am not available that day. The other trick that I use for spanning days is to write the event on the first line of the first day and then draw a line across the first line of each consecutive day that the event is happening. The downside to this is that you will lose the first line in your daily time but I find that is an acceptable concession.

Multiple Days

I put the title on the first day then draw a line down the planner, through the other dates. I do this in the margin, or even over the date boxes and on to the following week.

How well this works depends a bit on how your planner is formatted.

Narrow vertical days

I had the same problem you have with narrow vertical strips for days on a two-page week, using FranklinCovey pages. When Doug asked for template ideas for D*I*Y version 3.0, I got into a conversation about two-day weekly planning spreads.

What I ended up doing was modifying the blank "Important Numbers" template from the original template pack. That template had four areas to a page, with no labels or anything else -- I slapped a new "Weekly Planning" label at the top of the page, and now I have eight nice rectangular "days" each week.

I use the "classic" size, and I soon started printing them 2-up and using them as fold-out sheets to wrap around the "Notes" pages I use for pretty much all my capture and note-taking.

-- flexiblefine

8-box 2-page weeks

flexibilefine, have you seen the new calendar package with the 8-box 2-page calendar spread (pp. 12-13 in the Classic version)? Is that the sort of thing you're looking for, or is there something different you have in mind?


Those would work fine

Doug, those would work just fine for my purposes. I just have a bunch of my other version printed up, so I haven't looked closely at the calendar package.

Since that discussion back in August, my planner habits have drifted anyway. I printed a bunch of those home-brewed 2-up fold-out pages, but I see that I haven't been using them as much as I used to. The original plan was to write a daily list of things I planned to do -- but I find I'm writing those in my "Notes" pages each day now, and not using the fold-out "Weekly" pages consistently.

As I write this, it's after 5:00pm (my time) on Wednesday, and I have a grand total of four words written on my "Weekly Planning" page for this week (aside from day labels). I'm clearly not planning on those pages.


Circles vs boxes vs ....

Great article! And while I'm impressed with the circles, of course, and they are time-saving over squares, have you considered that you could save even more time by not putting a box, circle, triangle, or any other shape there? Simply checking off an item (or highlighting it) when it's done signifies completion, and nothing there beside it signifies that it isn't done. I think we get into a mindset that our handwritten lists have to look like preprinted forms, but there's really no need for the checkbox or check-circle.

As the first person commented, I also use a tickler file for the interval tasks -- only hard dates go on my calendar, which gives me more room in those tiny spots.

And no, there's no substitute for husband-wife calendar synch-ups, but that's a good way to get together to discuss the week, too. :)

circles etc

I started using a dash in the left 'margin' when taking notes to stay organized but speedy. So now I've been doing the same in my d*i*y planner's to do list. The dash, then item on the list, and this format accents each major task, especially if it has multiple steps underneath. It is so much faster than boxes or circles but still gives me the spot I want to put a check or x or ? in, or leaves room for date if needed to push ahead.

Thank you for the 'Highliter through done tasks' idea! That is so much more completed-task-satisfying!

circles and filled in circles

In meetings I have a hardback book in which I make notes.

I use hollow circles for action points (two columns - them and me).

After the meeting as stuff gets transferred to projects, waiting for or next action lists I fill in the circle.

This is also used where we have shift logs and faxed reports to head office - we highlight that something needs to be done. When done it is filled in - That way we can see at a glance any outstanding actions when reviewing the weeks shift logs.

RE: Circles

I love the circle idea! I'm too much of a perfectionist though, to try and draw circles free-handed! So I took a piece of cardboard, and used a hole-punch to make a handy little stencil! Once you've got the hole punched in the cardboard, you can trim it down to size, and even make another hole so you can attach it with a ribbon if you'd like! :)

@ Hack 2

Why other with checkboxes / circles at all? I keep a space in front of my list of items, and just put a check before them when done. Just as easy ;)

One reason I can think of... if your to-do items take up more than one line. This would help draw the eye to the beginning of each to-do.

As an aside, I frequently tend to use large-ish underlines for my todos, as it's even quicker than a circle. ;-)