Keeping It Personal

How do you make a “trusted system”, the term David Allen uses to denote a planning and organisational system which can be relied upon to contain your events, tasks, projects and thoughts? It’s easy to get carried away in tweaking productivity methodologies, but mind like water is only achieved when such a system is fully implemented and consulted on a day-to-day basis. One of the biggest obstacles for many people, myself included, is how to create a system that is always there, at the ready, and worthy of your trust.

When I was in high school and university, I used to keep journals. Not only did I write rather copiously about all my daily happenings, my far-fetched ideas and my roller-coaster relationships, but I’d also sketch, write lists, insert my favourite new photographs, tape in interesting clippings from newspapers, practise other languages, and so on. For years, I was never without my journal.

After university, I joined the regular work force and started lugging around a day planner instead of a journal. I had every intention of doing everything “by the book” and figuring out how to use all the fancy forms to organise my life and job. I started by entering all my personal and work information into the planner, buying special inserts and folders, and stuffing it with every conceivable type of professional form.

Gradually, though, my enthusiasm began to slip away into apathy. Soon, I rarely carried around the planner. I wrote people’s addresses on stickies and stuck them to the monitor, with the intention of later entering them into my contact sheets. Things to be done, I tried to memorise, believing I could remember them when the time came. Project details degenerated into loose notes jotted on the back of meeting agendas. And my calendar was scattered thoughout my planner, digital PIMs, various stickies, a “motivational” wall calendar, and random scraps of paper (usually crumpled in pockets or lost in manuals).

Obviously, it didn’t take long before I recognised a problem. As Mr. Allen points out, I had no system I could trust. And I had no system I could trust, because I didn’t have a convenient system at hand that felt like an extension of myself and my work habits.

The past dozen years have been a learning experience, trying dozens of different systems in an effort to find one suitable for me. Being a web professional, most of the systems have been web-based or at least digital in some way. But none of them were particularly streamlined for my usage habits, nor were they where I needed, when I needed them. Even lightning-fast Graffiti skills on the Palm tended to seriously cramp my hands after a half-page.

Lately, I’ve finally decided to settle upon a paper-based system, which is what we techies refer to as analog. (This is obviously no surprise to anyone who has poked around this site, as this was the main motivator behind the whole D*I*Y Planner.) Between the Getting Things Done methodology, the forms I designed and the processes I tweaked, my productivity and project planning skills have never been better.

But there was still one missing piece to the puzzle. What would make me carry around the planner, and use it as my “trusted system”? Mind you, once a planner hits critical mass and contains all your pertinent information, you tend to carry it anyway because it becomes essential to your life. The problem is, how can you keep it handy and employ it as a trusted system long enough to get to this stage?

For this, I decided to… uh… “borrow a page” from my journal days: when a planner becomes a personal extension of my life, rather than a simple collection of work-related information, I feel better about carrying it with me wherever I go. It literally becomes a piece of me that I feel somewhat empty without.

Getting to this stage is not very difficult, but it means using a planner in ways that often don’t seem obvious to those people using a daily planner for business reasons. Each night, I curl up with my Day Runner and a smooth-writing Pilot G-2 pen and open it up to the Notes (or “Inbox”) section. I use simple plain or unlined paper, because I don’t want a tightly structured form to restrict my free thinking. And I write. I doodle. I make lists of ideas. I play around with concepts. I note interesting news items that might make good stories some day. I make anagrams. I brainstorm design ideas. I note events that, in several years time, will serve up memories of moments potentially forgotten. I write things that are important to me. I write frivolous things. In short, I make the planner personal. I make it mine.

Going to a cafe? Bring it with you and doodle the likeness of the person behind the counter. Going to be caught in traffic? Scribble down a few ideas about what albums you want to get. Grabbing a bite in a restaurant? Jot down the twenty things you want to do before you die. Watching a little TV? During the commercials, write down the list of places you’d like to go for a vacation. Waiting at the doctor’s office? Note ten things you could do on a daily basis to live a healthier life. And so on.

Some of these items will no doubt become projects and objectives someday, but don’t think about that now. Download your brain, express yourself, and worry about structure later. Not only does this jive with GTD, it forges a strong personal connection with your planner. And that’s a vital part of building trust.

For all those people who haven’t yet got into the spirit of toting a planner, I invite you to do one or more of the following:

  1. Every night, write down a list of ten things. Use the following to get you started:
    • 10 things I want people to say about me at my funeral
    • 10 books I’ve always wanted to read, but didn’t
    • 10 things to do every day to be healthier
    • 10 best films I’ve ever seen
    • 10 things I can do to help my career
    • 10 ideas for a time travel story
    • 10 happiest moments of my life
    • 10 worst moments of my life
    • 10 of my greatest strengths
    • 10 of my greatest weaknesses
    • 10 things I find exciting/sexy/sensual
    • 10 other lists I can write
  2. Draw one picture a day. (If you’re not an artist, don’t worry: after all, you can only get better.)
  3. Keep your planner near the bed. Write down any dream you remember as soon as you wake up. (If you are in a rush, put down some keywords and elaborate when you can.) Analyse it, if you can.
  4. Carry around at least one photograph in your planner that is meaningful to you, and you can show people.
  5. Carry around at least one photograph in your planner that is meaningful to you, and you cannot show other people. (Nothing too incriminating!)
  6. Keep a receipt envelope or folder in your planner, and keep clippings of news or magazine articles that speak to you in some way. Each month, read them and transfer to your filing cabinet.
  7. Keep a tab called Journal in your planner, and keep your personal writings, sketches and ideas there. Clean out every couple of weeks (or 20 pages, whichever comes first) and store the pages in a safe place.
  8. Make personal writing a daily habit. Put aside fifteen distraction-free minutes a day to write in your planner.

If you’ve never felt a bond with your planner before, I suggest building one. Not only will it become your trusted system, a safekeeper of schedules and tasks, but an omnipresent companion which transcends mere productivity and serves as the caretaker of your thoughts, desires and aspirations. You more effort you put into it, the more important a role it plays in your life.

Keep it handy, keep it personal.

15 Replies to “Keeping It Personal”

  1. Yes, I agree. It does not take much of an effort. It is more of an effort when you start. But then it should become a habit, a good one at that, and one you won’t want to get rid of.

  2. I’m interested that you keep your journal with your planner. I keep my journal (a Moleskine, sic) completely separate from my planning system (which is mostly on Palm, but which I’m thinking of making more analog using the marvellous DIY Planner). Perhaps because of this, I have a bond with my journal that I don’t with my planning system. Reading between the lines, it seems that your suggesting that the way to make a bond with your planning system is to include all the personal things that you’d normally put in a journal, and that you need that bond to have a trusted system. Is that correct? Do you think it’s important that they are physically kept in the same location (i.e. in the one binder)?

  3. This is an awesome post – very inspirational. I’ve been meaning to give more thought to journaling and these are just the right ideas to tip the scales towards that effort. Thanks!

  4. Neil, you’ve summed up my point perfectly. And my take on the need for a physical “co-location” of both planning and personal/journal materials really boils down to how one satisfies a psychological need. By infusing your planner with your own personal thoughts, it becomes a more vital extension of your life, and you are more likely to carry it with you. Now, that’s not saying that you can’t tuck a journal into your planner (and there are some planners that have a nice little flap in the back to facilitate this). But ask yourself: what if you were to separate the two? Wouldn’t you be more likely to just take your journal and leave the planner behind? …And so one is back at the beginning, with a system neither vital enough to be carried everywhere, nor trusted enough to be seen as a personal extension.

    Just my take, but I believe that it’s pretty important to either make the personal writings or journal part of your planner, or develop the very disciplined habit of keeping the two together: they should become a yin and yang impossible to separate without losing the essence of the whole. That way, the bond and trust will come naturally.

  5. Stupid, stupid, stupid! if you can’t seperate your business and personal lives, you will be in for trouble. Ask my exwife.

    Why don’t you get a REAL organizer like Outlook and never worry about appointmnts and things every again.

  6. podoule point taken, but I don’t think it’s as much about keeping things separate. it’s about thoughtfulness. one part of your life should in an ideal world support and reflect the other (or so Covey seems to suggest.) take it or leave it.

    btw was that a reference to an ed wood film? (^;

  7. Great idea! I think I’m going to borrow back the Cheryl Richardson book I bought for my mum a few years back. This will be a great way to combine it with my new snazzy DIY planner templates. A good way to kick start a journal, and seek balance.

  8. Thanks for replying back Doug. I think this is a fascinating take on planning. I’m not convinced it would work for me, but you’ve certainly given me more food for thought on the planning/organizing front than I’ve had in long long time! (In fact, probably since I first read GTD). Thanks

  9. podoule noted that it thought it was ‘stupid’ to keep work and personal life separate. I’ll disagree with that bit though.

    When you interweave your professional with your personal life you remove the need for multiple ‘faces’ or personalities. You simply are – there isn’t a work ‘you’ and a home ‘you’ (or a bar ‘you’ along with a gym ‘you’, etc.).

    I’ve done both – rigorously separated who I was at work from my personal life and, as now, integrated them. I’m far happier with both aspects integrated.

    Perhaps that is just me.

  10. Great site. I too used to journal daily and also carried a heavy sketchbook wherever I went. Now I have my Fraklin and I write down everything. There is something magical about putting something in writing….things just start to HAPPEN! The message about incorporating the journal with the planner is particularly inspiring to me, and I sometimes just want to dump out my brain when I am out and about. I do find that I keep to many previous months in my Franklin, rendering it a bit heavy. I am a designer by trade, so today I am going to hole-punch some beautiful Arches watercolor paper and create a sketch section. I’m so happy there are others who are equally obsessed about keeping life organized and our cluttered minds spilled onto paper.

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