Ghosts of Planners Past: GTD and Friends

This is probably going to be the hardest post to write in this series, and so I’ve been postponing it.

I got into Getting Things Done around 2005, when it was really starting to gain momentum with tech workers online. I first heard about it via PvP Online’s creator, Scott Kurtz. Yes, I found a productivity and planning system via one of the first webcomic creators. The internet is funny that way.

Notes from 2011 on doing GTD better

If you have no idea what GTD is, then I suggest starting here. It’s a 15 minute guide to David Allen’s all-encompassing planning and productivity system. If it resonates with you, then the GTD book is pretty good for a book in the productivity genre. Books in this genre tend to be repetitive, padded with anecdotes, and oftentimes poorly written. The GTD book is readable, and while it contains the inevitable productivity guru anecdotes, there aren’t very many of them.

There are a few things to note about GTD that set it apart from other productivity systems, and make knowing about it worthwhile:

  • While it was developed for a paper office based world and appears on the face of it to be very rigid, it is in fact extremely customizable and flexible, and it converts very well to digital planning and to do list systems. Many of the most popular to list applications have their roots in GTD, for good reason.
  • While it was developed for an office setting and busy executives, it easily works well for students, designers and other creatives, developers, teachers, and just about anybody that doesn’t lead a leisure filled life. If you have “stuff to do”, if you feel overwhelmed, then GTD in some form or another could very likely help you.
  • This system spawned dozens and dozens of other systems. You can see the roots of GTD in BuJo (Bullet Journalling), there’s a monster list of GTD implementations, and 43folders (Merlin Mann’s old productivity site) is full of info on various GTD tweaks and variants. This, by the way, is my favourite one.
  • The basics of GTD are worth implementing no matter which system you use, because they just work, and because they will likely fit whichever system you use. They are:
    • Make a list of all the things you have on your mind that you need to do. They need to be actions that you can perform in the real world, and you need to be able to clearly envision what “done” means.
    • Curate that list – make sure that things on it are actually ACTIONS that you can take IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE. Break big tasks into little ones, things that you are able to do it small chunks of time. Make sure there aren’t any hidden dependencies or prerequisites to these tasks. Make sure you know what DONE looks like. Make sure that they are REAL and actually need to be done, and need to be done by YOU. If things on that list take less than 2 minutes to do, just do them. T
    • Go over that list and do the things. If you’re stuck, make sure the thing was properly defined and isn’t a hidden project (i.e. isn’t actually one task but rather 20), something that you can delegate or not do, or something that you can’t start working on now. If you’re balking at doing it open a timer (the famous pomodoro technique enters here).
    • Once a week prune the list. Be ruthless.
    • Don’t schedule anything on your calendar unless it absolutely has to be on your calendar – a doctor’s appointment, a child’s graduation, an exam date, etc.
  • You can get carried away by GTD and become more interested in the organizational part of it (“Productivity Pr0n”) than in actually getting the work done.

The last bullet is what earned GTD a place in this blog post series.

I love GTD. I’ve been using it in various form for almost two decades. I have the book and have read it twice, and I have a good grasp of the major players in the GTD cinematic universe. I know the system well enough to be comfortable to get rid of its mannerisms and streamline it to my own needs. I can see its influences in Jira, in BuJo, in Omnifocus and other to do apps. And it’s very powerful dark side is that it really invites you to tweak and tinker with it. You are tempted to make your system a little bit sleeker, better, more efficient, better suited for your needs, to the point where you suddenly find yourself spending more time and care on the system than the tasks that it is supposed to help you manage. So while GTD taught me how to define and manage my tasks, it also taught me to be constantly aware of how much time I’m spending on my task management systems.

So if you are worried about being carried away by GTD’s siren call to tweak, tweak, tweak, here are some basic ideas from the system that I think are worth taking with you or thinking about no matter what:

  • Our minds aren’t good at keeping track of things. Write them down.
  • Not everything is a real task. It if it isn’t an action that you need take in the world, then it needs to be trashed/delegated/better defined.
  • Tasks that languish in your planner/to do system are either ill defined (see bullet above) or require deliberate action to get out of the way (see pomodoro technique, dashes and timers).
  • Don’t clutter your calendar. It just adds needless stress to your life.
  • The best definition of a task is a physical action, that can be accomplished at a sitting, supports valuable progress towards a recognized and desirable goal, and something that YOU are the most appropriate person to perform.

Ghosts of Planners Past: Filofax

In the early 2010s Filofax was all the rage (much like Plotter is now), and I was swept with the trend. I started by purchasing the Personal Urban, then quickly expanded to Pocket, Personal and A5 Filofaxes of various kinds (Urban, Malden, Classic, Cuban, Graphic, Bond, Finchley and more).

A5 Malden, one of my more well used Filofaxes

What drew me (and others) to them is the infinite customizability and the fact that these were gorgeous, well-made objects made by a brand with a history and good track record. Online communities that shared photos of spreads and setups started to grow around the brand, and unlike Moleskine and Moleskinerie, the company left them to their own devices. Some of them exist to this day (like the delightful Philofaxy). The parallels with today’s boju and Plotter communities are pretty clear.

I invested in this Filofax, creating hand made labels for the tabs, setting it up just right.

The promise of bujo (bullet journalling) and the Plotter are also the promise of the Filofax: build a planner/notebook hybrid system that matches your exact needs like a glove. Filofaxes are a joy to hold in your hand: they are beautiful, tactile objects that feel good and are exquisitely well made.

Look how pretty this red Personal Malden is. You can almost feel the buttery leather through the screen.

They weren’t cheap, but if you waited patiently or were willing to buy second hand you could get some really great deals, and they lasted forever. The refills, much like Plotter ones, were the real expense. Yes, you could buy a specialized hole punch for them and create your own refills, but most people just bought them from Filofax themselves or from Filofax compatible sellers. Which refills you bought depended mostly on the purpose of the Filofax in question, and I had ones that had no planner inserts at all, only lined or blank refills and tabs.

Personal Cuban, which has a rich leather cover that I was so afraid to muss it never left the house.

The olive Personal Urban Filofax below was my first Filofax and my workhorse. I used it heavily from 2011-2013, and it was a heady nostalgia ride to dust it off and open it up again. It is very well made – fabric, pleather and ring mechanism are in perfect condition even after intense use and then years of storage. It is also a relic of a person that I lost when I went through cancer treatments, and I confess that reading over some pages made me want to cry. The things I worried about…

Personal Urban Filofax, my first and most used one.

Do you want to see how much I was into Filofaxes? I even had a page in my Filofax where I planned my Filofax usage:

So much cringe, but I choose to be kind to my old, naive self.

Some of the Filofax inserts were fountain pen friendly, but I didn’t use fountain pens with my Filofaxes at all. I used Pilot Hi-Tech-C Coleto multipens with them, and I spent a good amount of money on their refills (which would either get air bubbles and stop writing, break, or just simply run out much too quickly). I even combined my love for Filofax with my love for the Chronodex system for a while:

Pages in my Filofax that I planned to use for Chronodex entries.

So why did I stop using my Filofaxes completely? The system was well made, full of promise, and could double as a notebook and triple as a wallet, so what went wrong?

It was a combination of things that made me put all my Filofaxes into boxes for storage:

  • The stores in London closed down (first the Neal street one, then the one off Regent street), and it became harder to find Filofax refills in stationery shops in London (they never were available locally).
  • The refills weren’t cheap, and with the price of shipping added and the price of using the pens that worked best with them, it just became prohibitively expensive to use the system, particularly if you had more than one Filofax running.
  • The rings get in the way of writing. It’s a thing with all these systems, and whoever tells you that the rings don’t get in the way isn’t being candid. And no, you won’t be taking the refills out to write on them and then filing them back in, it’s just too inconvenient.
  • Filofaxes are bulky and heavy, particularly when full (and they collapse when they aren’t filled). It’s a hassle to carry them around, even if you are using them as a wallet (they a aren’t great at being wallets).
  • As with other planning systems – finding refills that have the week start on Sunday (because that’s when it starts here) was nearly impossible.

Hints of posts to come.

So why get into ring based systems like Filofax and Plotter? If you want one physical planner system that will function in more than one way at the same time, will allow you to customize it fully to your needs, and can be carried over from one year to the next, then these systems may be worth a try for you. I used my Filofaxes heavily during a very busy time in my life because I was able to set them up for all my needs, and particularly GTD (I’ll post about that system later on in this series).If you can work around the rings and can afford the system and the refills, the Filofax is a very well made object that may be able to help you fulfill your goals. It helped me apartment hunt, work on my degree, kickstart my running, and be a better manager at a busy and difficult time at work. I will forever have a soft spot for my Filofaxes, which is why I’ve never attempted to sell them.

Do I regret my Filofax obsession? No. Do I regret that I stopped using my Filofax planners? Also no. They were exactly what I needed at the time until they weren’t, and I believe that in the end a planning system needs to work for you, and not you for it. Something to remember whenever you are considering making a change in this area.

Ghosts of Planners Past: Daily Planners

It was obvious that I’d discuss daily planners after I addressed weekly planners, right?

This format, in combination with some of the planning tactics that I’ll talk about in later posts, has been the one that I used the most over the years. Daily planners usually have a page per day, oftentimes with hourly notations on the side. Less commonly they have a page for planning and across from it a page for notes. Sometimes the page is divided into sections for various meeting notes, todos, etc. Daily planners tend to be the thickest of planners, unless they split the year somehow, or only cover part of it (academic year planners, for example).

This is a very old Filofax daily planner example that I had laying around. I’ll be posting separately about the Filofax system

I’ve used the daily format the most because it allows for the most room to think and plan in, and the main reason I plan on paper is for the space it allows me to sit with a pen in hand and a blank (lined/squared) page and plan the direction, location and movement of my tasks like a general ordering troops around in the army. Push this one until tomorrow or early next week, this one gets a little marker for lower priority, and this one for higher, etc. The marking methods that I use have changed a bit over the years, but the format that I prefer largely hasn’t. I can oftentimes plan two days on a page, but it makes things feel cramped. I’m giving that format a try now (two days per page), and I’m likely going to revert back to my beloved page per day format soon. Ideas need space to breath, and when tasks get cramped I tend to miss a few of them. They just run on into each other in a condensed wall of text.

Like with weekly planners, daily planners have obvious inherent downsides. They’re thick and heavy. Unless you’re making them yourself (which is what I’ve been doing for years), you’ll be made to feel bad with every day you skip in them. They also don’t allow to easily see the bigger picture: having all the space that the weekly planners lack, they pay for that with the inability of letting you get a feel for your week in a glance. You remain mired in the day to day, and need to purposefully remember to look ahead to see what’s coming tomorrow, the day after, next week.

This is the reason that for years I’ve kept two notebooks that I turned into planners, a daily one (which was much more heavily used) and a weekly one (which I referenced once or twice a week). This combination worked the best for me until I got sick and it crumbled. Perhaps it will work for me again.

Ghosts of Planners Past: Weekly Planners

As part of my struggles with planning, I’ve been reviewing the various planning systems I’ve used over the years and how they have changed. One of the most persistent of these has been the Weekly Planner.

Weekly planners generally take the form of a week on two pages, with the left page used for the actual weekly planner part and the right page used for notes. I’ve used Moleskine pocket weekly planners, I’ve used tiny weekly planners from Word Notebooks for two years (2016 and 2017), and I’ve used a large squared Moleskine notebook that I turned into a weekly planner myself. The format appeals to me, which is why I’ve had some form of a weekly planner with me for well over a decade.

The classic Moleskine weekly spread.

The pluses of the weekly format seem obvious: you can get an overview of your week at a glance without too much clutter. You can easily tell when you can block out time for things, and what is your general availability for the week. You can tell if it’s a “heavy” week or a “light” one and plan your projects accordingly, and you can schedule pre-work and prep for upcoming events. It’s the ultimate planner’s planning format.

The minuses are that you don’t have enough space to plan out the individual days, which usually necessitates a secondary planning system, and that if you live in a country that starts the week on Sunday and not on Monday (like I happen to), your choices in this category are few and hard to come by.

Yet if this format is so compelling, why did I stop keeping a dedicated weekly planner late last year?

The answer is that I wasn’t referencing it enough to justify lugging another notebook around. It was great to get a sense of the week to come as I was planning for it on Friday or Saturday, but once I finished the planning, I would reference it again maybe once or twice a week. That was just not good enough.

My solution for now is to use one of the “Stay on Target” notepads from The Well Appointed Desk‘s Etsy store to create a small weekly plan on one piece of paper that I can see at all times (I keep the pad propped up at my desk). It just has one or two major events for each day tops, and it helps me keep track of my long term goals on a weekly basis (running, blogging, sketching, reading, gym and NTC sessions, meditation sessions, vitamins and fountain pens written dry). Here’s a censored example of next week’s plan:

Like the rest of my planning, it’s messy, not Instagram ready and not festooned with calligraphy, but it’s mine and it’s useful. My handwriting these cold days is beyond appalling, but as I can barely feel my hands even as I laboriously type this out, it’s the best that I can do under the circumstances, and I understand what I’m writing so that’s good enough.

And that is the main takeaway from this entire series (there are a few more posts to come): find what works for you, and don’t create a system that makes you work for it.

How I Use My Notebooks: Daily Planner Update

I last posted about my planner and to do list setup here. To recap, my planning system includes two large Moleskine hard cover squared notebooks, one in which I plan my week, and one in which I use as a daily to do planner. I started using this setup once Covid hit and I started working from home. It worked very well for a year and a half.

Then I got cancer.

I was hospitalized for a month, in which I discovered that I have zero control over my time or how my day will shape out. When I got out I was already on a Chemo regiment. I had to make adjustments to my life, this time because of my personal health, not a global pandemic.

Score (another) one for self-made planners.

My old system was generic enough that it fit into my new lifestyle with very little adjustment. The weekly notebook stayed mostly the same, as you can see below. The main difference is that I manage less stuff there and more using reminders in Fantastical. It’s not that I don’t like paper planners any more, it’s just that Chemo Brain is a possible side effect of my treatment and I don’t want to risk not getting something important done because I forgot to check my weekly planner at the right moment, or I saw something there but didn’t remember it after I’ve seen it.

So why keep the weekly planner at all? Because it helps me see how the week is shaping up, and because it allows me to do a little long term planning, despite everything. All my plans at the moment are in two week batches (dictated by my chemo regiment), and this layout allows me to manage them.

Another addition to this notebook is a few tracker pages, marked by tabs. Some track purchases that I’m waiting for, some track bureaucracies that I need to take care of, others list things that I want to get done eventually but I haven’t decided yet when or how.

As for my daily planner notebook, I just finished one and started another. Here’s the finished notebook:

Moleskine Large Hardcover squared with a Star Wars The Last Jedi decal on the cover.

Here’s the new notebook. I love using these decals to make these notebooks my own:

Moleskine Large Hardcover squared with a Star Wars Chewbacca decal on the cover.

I used to manage every day on a full spread, with personal to dos on one side of the page and professional ones on a another. Since my life is less busy now than it used to be, I’ve downsized my to do to one page per day, with personal and professional mixed in (I work from home). This is a sample of my least busiest day: it’s a chemo day and I wasn’t planning on working after this treatment since it was a long one. Door to door I was in the hospital from 6:40 to 14:00, and completely wiped out after it. I don’t usually list my meals or naps in my notebook, but chemo days are so crazy (in terms of what my brain does on steroids) that I have to write everything down. Things that I didn’t do get a strike in them and are moved forward to another day.

Everybody has different needs from their planner, and those needs oftentimes change unexpectedly, and out of sync with “planner season”. It’s one of the reasons why I find making your own planner, working just a few days or a week or two ahead is the best and most consistent way for me to manage my time. There are some great planning systems out there, but if you’ve struggled with using them, or if your circumstances make you need a very flexible system, I highly recommend picking up a squared or lined notebook and creating your own.

Moleskine Star Wars Pocket Weekly 2020 Planner Review

Every year Moleskine comes up with new designs for its planners, and 2020 was no different. On the one hand, it’s great that every year there’s something fresh, on the other  hand, if you happened to really love one of their previous designs you are going to be disappointed.

I was planning on being disappointed.

For the past three years I’ve been using the Moleskine pocket weekly notebook to get an idea of how my week looks like (I also use Fantastical as my digital calendar/reminders app), and every year I’ve bought the latest limited edition. Last year’s denim edition was so beautiful and popular I had some hope that it would return in some version or other this year.

Battered but beautiful.

So when Moleskine came out with Star Wars themed limited edition planners, I was slightly disappointed, I admit. That disappointment faded away when the new planner arrived.

The design of the cover of this planner is phenomenal. The colour choice, the overlay, the way that it looks like someone stamped or screen printed the design – very ’70s retro, and really well done.

Moleskine’s choice of elastic band colour and the quote on the cover are also great. A red band would have been too much, I think, and the quote is inspirational and makes me smile.

The branding on the back is subtle. It’s a Star Wars planner before it’s a Moleskine planner.

Continuing the retro vibe, the front and back endpapers are excellent (although the stickers do stick out, somewhat ruining the effect.

Sticker page sticks out of the back pocket, because it’s too large.

The sticker page itself is cool, but not really planner themed.

The planner itself is in the usual pocket weekly format, with a ton of pages for your information, monthly and yearly planning calendars, and general information (maps, international holidays, etc). Then the actual planner, which is a week on one page, with a notes page opposite it. The paper is thin, which makes the planner thin and light, but there’s going to be show through with everything, and it’s not fountain pen or rollerball friendly. Gel ink, ballpoint and pencil are what works best with it.

Look at that pretty ribbon bookmark!

There’s not a lot of writing space for each day, but after trying several other formats over the years, this is the one that works for me. It’s just enough to give me a feel for what the week is like, without tempting me to dump everything from my calendar and to-do list on the thing. Only what must go in the planner (appointments, running meets, races, trips, meetings with friends and other events that don’t generally move) gets written down, and so I have a way of seeing exactly how much time I have for various projects during the week. It’s a way for me to make fluid time more concrete and managed.

As usual, there’s a cool B-side to the paper slip around the cover, and this one shows how to make an origami X-Wing.

From previous years’ experience these little notebooks can take a beating, and even though the cover on this planner is white, I expect nothing less from it. If you’re looking for a weekly planner that is lightweight, durable, and well designed, the Moleskine Star Wars 2020 Weekly Planner is worth checking out.

Moleskine Denim 12 Months 2019 Pocket Weekly Planner review

The Moleskine Denim 12 Months 2019 Pocket Weekly Planner arrived today, and it is a beauty.

I’m not a big planner user, but over the past year I’ve used a weekly planner just to get a better idea of how my week looks like and how to plan ahead accordingly. The slim, minimalist setup of the Moleskine Pocket Weekly planners is perfect for this.

Beyond the regular planner editions, Moleskine offers a wide variety of planners in their various limited edition designs (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Peanuts, Le Petit Prince and more), among them in their Denim collection, which is one of my favourites.

The covers are covered in Denim fabric, with jeans-like labels on them. The craft sleeve around the planner turns with a few minutes of work into bookmarks perfectly sized for the planner:

The endpapers are really nicely designed to evoke various denim labels, and the red elastic closure is echoed in the small back pocket:

As usual with Moleskine limited editions, it comes with a little something extra in the back pocket, this time stickers:

As for the internals, it’s the same as other Moleskine weekly planners, with a weekly schedule on the left side of the spread and a ruler page on the right, monthly calendars and information pages at the beginning of the planner, and a few general planning pages.

If you’re looking for a pocket weekly planner that’s beautiful, lightweight and not overly structured, I highly recommend this planner.