Left to Right: Productivity Planner, Bullet Journal (Leuchtturm 1917), Hobonichi Techo

Left to Right: Productivity Planner, Bullet Journal (Leuchtturm 1917), Hobonichi Techo

Planner Problems (2016 Edition)

Choosing (and sticking with) a planner has always been an issue for me. Over the past few years, I've tried countless electronic tools (OmniFocus, 2Do, Things, Workflowy, Trello and Any.Do are some of my favorites) and various paper planners (Productivity Planner, Passion Planner, Bullet Journal, Hobonichi Techo...).

Here's what I've learned — hopefully there's a nugget or two here that can apply to you:

  • Paper beats pixels. There's something awesome about writing down a task on paper and then crossing it out when it's done. And if you don't get it done, you have to make the effort to rewrite it when you plan out the next day — which makes you pause and consider if it's worth moving, or if you should just do it now, delegate it or delete it. This alone makes paper worth it. (If you like paper and pens, check out JetPens.)
  • It's important to use the right tool. Do you need a to do list / task manager, or a calendar? As one article put it, a task manager "shows you the tasks you need to complete in a way that is actionable" while a calendar "shows you all the time sensitive things that you absolutely must do at a specific time." Or do you need something that lets you plan out a month or six months or a year at a time?
  • Some people put their to do items on their calendar. By assigning a time to every task, you're forced to think about how long it's really going to take. As you see your calendar fill up, you can see how much time you have left in your schedule. This is a really effective way to be realistic about what you can do in a day.
  • Do you work by the day, or by the week? I've found that week-at-a-glance planners / calendars distract me. I work better when I just have one page (day) to look at.  
  • It's so important to say no. As Derek Sivers said, it's either hell yeah or no. (Read his book. Seriously.) Saying no frees you up — physically and mentally. You don't need to spend so much time managing all of your stuff if you don't have as much stuff to do. As Jason Fried said, "Techniques and hacks are all about managing what happens when you say yes to too many things. All the techniques and hacks in the world never add up to the power of no. Having fewer things to do is the best way to get things done."
  • Knowing what type of person you are — a manager or a maker — will change the way you view your time. From Paul Graham's article: "The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour... But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started." If you're trying to do maker's work on a manager's schedule, you will fail. 

Quick reviews - electronic planners

  • OmniFocus - really steep learning curve, but worth it if you want to micromanage your tasks
  • 2Do - friendlier interface, nice tab functionality
  • Any.DO - really easy to use - what a simple to do app should be
  • Workflowy - awesome outliner tool - very useful for doing website architecture or any outlining
  • Trello - excellent app if you think visually (or have a process for your tasks - first you have to write, then edit, then make revisions, then publish, etc.)

Quick reviews - paper planners

  • Productivity Planner - makes you focus on your one most important task each day - I felt very fulfilled using this because I (almost) always got something big done each day - but it's not the most flexible system
  • Passion planner - forces you to think about your long-term goals and plan a way to reach them - well done if you're into that - plus it has a nice week at a glance view
  • Bullet journal - loved that I could combine my to-do list and notebook in one; hated that I didn't have dated pages (so I could write down something due next Thursday on that day's page) - this system was too flexible for me
  • Hobonichi Techo - what I'm currently using - I love that it's small (easy to carry, and forces me not to write too much on a page, which keeps me from overcommitting); love that it's one page per day, so I can focus (and write down what's due next Thursday); I got the cover because it has some ribbon bookmarks which are handy for keeping your place, but honestly I like the look of it better without the cover - need to see if the cover is worth it for protecting the pages; finally, while everyone raves about the special paper (which is amazingly thin and doesn't bleed very much), beware that because the paper isn't very absorbent (hence little bleed-through) your ink tends to smear; you're best with pens that don't put down a lot of ink, or even a pencil

Other things you may be interested in if you've read this far

  • Neuyear calendars - look at the year by the week, not the month
  • To do list pad - this looks awesome, and I secretly hope someone buys it for me so I can try it out
  • Planner Pad - if you have a hard time taking all your to-do items and organizing them, this may be for you

Finally - an argument for change

If you have a system that works for you, great. Don't change. If you keep the same system for five years, fantastic — you're a better person than I am. Here's my deal — I like to change whatever planner I use at least once or twice a year. Why? Partly because I get bored and like to try the shiny new thing I've read about on some productivity blog. But also because it forces me to clear everything out of my old system, decide what's really important (and what I'm really never going to do), and then start fresh. So don't beat yourself up if you end up changing systems on a regular basis. It's not a bad thing.

OK - one more thing

This Tom Bihn backpack is amazing. I held off buying it for years because A) who wears a backpack? and B) you could buy at least three North Face backpacks for the same price. But I've had it for a month or so now and it's one of the best-designed things I've ever owned. You can fit tons of stuff inside (even more in the 25L version) and it still looks great - not overstuffed. I truly look forward to using it every day. If you're in the market for a backpack, I highly recommend it.