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:
- 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
- Draw one picture a day. (If you’re not an artist, don’t worry: after all, you can only get better.)
- 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.
- Carry around at least one photograph in your planner that is meaningful to you, and you can show people.
- Carry around at least one photograph in your planner that is meaningful to you, and you cannot show other people. (Nothing too incriminating!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.