It pains me to announce that my grand experiment with using electronic time management systems has officially come to an end (sort of). You see, for the past several years, I’ve been using a variety of tech tools to help organize my life and work—appointments, tasks, projects and more. But now, I’m back to paper (sort of).
Don’t worry: I’ll explain what I mean by “sort of” in a bit. In fact, I’m going to give you a complete overview of my brand new time management system. I’m calling this a “reboot” since it’s really an opportunity to start over fresh (which I just love).
But before I get into all that, I want to share what I learned about the pros and cons of electronic time management systems since this is one of the most common questions I receive regarding organization. Hopefully I can help at least a few of my dear readers avoid the struggles I’ve encountered for years now.
Warning: This article is quite long and detailed. It’s intended for those who really love this kind of stuff (like me). If you’re not interested in the pros and cons but you DO want to know more about my newly rebooted organizational system, skip to the last section labeled My New “Hybrid” System.
Safety in the cloud
I moved to electronic systems after I lost my paper planner on an airplane in 2010. It was an absolute nightmare to recreate my appointments and to-do list from memory, and I didn’t do a very good job as you might imagine. That’s when I said, “There’s got to be a better way!” And voila, my electronic adventure began.
It’s absolutely true that electronic systems provide an extra element of safety. Even if you lose your computer (TOTAL NIGHTMARE!), you can still access your online accounts from your iPad, your smartphone, and other computers. And anything stored on your hard drive can be retrieved from backup files (I use Carbonite for those who are interested).
So this is one pro with a pretty powerful benefit. When it comes to paper organizational methods, there’s always a risk of loss. It’s rare that I lose things, but when it’s something this important, it’s pretty devastating. So the safety offered from electronic systems is hard to overlook.
Always at your fingertips
In theory, electronic tools are always in your pocket or just a click away—whether on your phone, tablet, or laptop. This means you should be able to quickly and easily capture information no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Unfortunately, even for a tech-savvy person like me, this proved to be far less simple than I initially imagined. To access online systems, you have to (duh!) have Internet access. Sadly, that’s not always possible. And even when it is, the wonderful world wide web isn’t always as fast as you’d like it to be when you just want to jot down a quick note.
Plus, I experienced a variety of syncing issues between my devices. Things I had input on my phone wouldn’t show up on my computer and vice versa. I’d spend hours troubleshooting, and with many of these problems, I never found solutions.
Some online task and project management systems are more up to speed on this kind of thing and have apps for your phone to make capturing information easy even when you’re offline. They then sync up with the online system when you have Internet access again. Others are installed directly on your computer as software and are ONLY available from that one device.
I’m sure there are many great systems that work seamlessly together, sync immediately and perfectly every time, and have tons of tools to integrate with multiple devices. My point in sharing this with you is to simply illustrate the importance of doing your research ahead of time. Know which devices you’re going to use, how you like to use them, and what you’re going to use them for and make sure the time management tech tools you select are designed to play nicely.
Electronic time management tools come in all shapes and sizes, from super simple to massively complex. Most offer a variety of features you can use or not use as you see fit. What that means is that you have the ability to create a specific, customized and sophisticated system for yourself. Depending on the tool you choose, you can use color codes, set priority levels, track progress, establish deadlines and even ask your system to remind you (via text or email or pop-up usually) of appointments or to-do items or anything else you so desire. If you’re willing to invest the time and go through the process of really defining your system, the right technology can provide almost any organizational feature you can dream of.
For me, one of the biggest frustrations with electronic systems is that jotting down a quick note on a tech tool will never be as fast as grabbing a piece of paper and writing. Even if it’s just a click or two away, it still requires a different kind of thinking. If I’m in the zone working on something (as I am now, in a Word document) and I’m suddenly reminded of a task I need to add to my to-do list, I’d have to click out of my current application, click into my task management system, determine the right place to log this item, perhaps complete some other unnecessary parameters (like due date, etc.) and then click back over to my Word document. Compare that to my new system—a running paper list in my planner (more on that later). I can grab a pen, jot my to-do item down, and keep going with my current task.
To circumvent this problem in the past (when I was using electronic tools), I collected post-it notes throughout the day and then went into my task management system at the end of the day to log all the items at once. While this worked for a while, it really just added an extra step and extra clutter. Plus, too often I got distracted and ended up with piles of post-it notes that hadn’t been entered.
Learning a new system
Any electronic system is going to have a learning curve. It takes time to train yourself on something new, no matter how simple or “intuitive” it may be. Plus, you have to learn how to make the system work for your needs. Some of the features won’t apply to you while others will sound good in theory but in practice you’ll find them to be overkill. So you need a good 30 days of use to figure it out and really get in a flow with it. Only at that point will you be able to determine for certain if it’s something that really suits your needs or whether you should try a different system (at which point, you start all over). I went through this at least four or five times in the span of just a few years. I tried Omnifocus, Basecamp, Remember the Milk, Google Tasks, Evernote, and even a good old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet.
Talk about wasting time to manage time!!
I don’t know about you, but I get a little sick of technology. Sometimes, I just want to disconnect. It’s so easy to say, “I’m just gonna jump into my calendar really quick and update a few things,” and the next thing you know, you’re watching cat videos on YouTube.
Personally, I like paper. I like colorful pens. I like pretty organizers and stickers and notepads. Online systems just don’t have the same visual appeal. For me, I’m motivated to use something when I like looking at it. And no system will work if you don’t use it. In my opinion, even the electronic systems that are really well designed don’t compare to a pretty, well-organized paper planner. (For those who are interested, I think Basecamp is the best visually speaking, though still a distant second to paper).
Sometimes it’s TOO much
Look, my needs (and the needs of most people) are pretty basic. I need a place to put my appointments so I don’t miss them and a place to capture and track things I have to do. All the other stuff is gravy on top, but not really necessary. If I stay reasonably on top of things (by utilizing a few of the tools listed below), I don’t need all that other mumbo jumbo offered in electronic systems. In reality, those systems just inspire procrastination—they give me more opportunities to fiddle around with my organizational systems rather than actually get things done. The key to a good system for me is simplicity, and electronic tools are always more complicated than paper.
My New “Hybrid” System
So here’s where I’ve landed on all this: I’m now using a hybrid model that is mainly paper with a few electronic elements thrown in for good measure. To make this easy, I’ll just outline the key characteristics of my new system as simply as possible below:
I’m using a paper planner again (hooray!). It’s a Franklin Covey binder with the following elements:
- Month-at-a-glance calendar sheets (on 2 pages). This is where I mark travel and other significant events throughout the month. I don’t bother with daily appointments here.
- 2-page-per-day sheets. This is where I put appointments and to-do items for each day. This is also where I track my various daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly “trackable” activities, which I mark with colorful smiley face stickers when they’re done (totally motivating even though it feels like I’m a first grader). These items are currently:
- Working out
- Completing my morning routine
- Completing my weekly review
- Career Academy maintenance
- Various other private personal and professional activities
Why I love the paper planner approach:
Everything is in one place. If there’s ever an opportunity to jot something down on a post-it, I can stick it to a page inside the book and know it’s safe. I have plenty of space for notes each day. The colors are fun, the pages are pretty and it’s so, so nice to just flip from page to page (even when I’m away far away from my computer and other tech devices) and see what’s going on and coming up (as well as what’s passed if I’m interested).
I also use a separate paper notebook for project notes. I consider a project anything that has multiple to-do items. Basically, it’s something that I wouldn’t put on my daily to-do list because it’s too big to complete all at once. These items have to be broken up into pieces and then those pieces can be distributed onto appropriate daily lists. This separate notebook is where I brainstorm and organize and ensure that these projects aren’t forgotten. I’ve created specific project goals for the next 6 months as well as the next year to help keep this focused. Anything that’s not a part of those goals gets put at the very back of this notebook for safekeeping and future reference.
The morning routine and weekly review mentioned in the “trackable activities” above are two critical elements that make this system work. These are the times when I get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on and what’s coming up so I know I’m staying on top of everything. This is when tasks and priorities are established, shifted, etc. If something wasn’t completed yesterday, I highlight it, and transfer it to today’s list (or somewhere else). If something new has come up, I add it to the appropriate list on the appropriate day. A variety of things take place during the morning routine and weekly review process (I have a checklist for each to make sure I don’t forget anything). If you want to hear more about this, leave a comment and I’ll make a note to write a blog post on it in the future.
Because I’ve had the experience of losing my paper planner in the past, I’m not taking any chances. I use Google Calendar as a back up for all my important dates, travel, appointments, etc. Yes, it’s an extra step but it’s fast and the peace of mind it offers is invaluable. Plus, if something is absolutely critically important and I’m afraid of forgetting it, I can add an email reminder. (I try not to do this too often as I got a little obsessed with it in the past and found the emails stacking up quickly, which defeats the purpose.)
Electronic Contact Info
I use Gmail and my phone for managing contact information including email addresses, phone numbers and physical/mailing addresses. I also have a Word document that includes emergency contact information (i.e., parents, travel companies, credit card companies, etc.) in case I ever lose my phone, computer and/or wallet. I keep a copy of this in my online Dropbox and a physical printed copy in my planner.
So that’s my new system. You can see that I haven’t completely abandoned technology, but I certainly am not looking for it to be the end-all-be-all solution. Paper helps me simplify. In my opinion, it just feels easier and more natural for daily task and appointment management.
I keep my planner open on my desk throughout the day and keep it with me as much as possible when I’m away from my desk. Like anything, you have to really use it to make it work.
I encourage you to take a look at your own organizational systems and see if they need a reboot. I didn’t do it until I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Now that I’ve got this new system in place, I feel better and I’m getting more done. Don’t wait until you’ve reached a breaking point. Start today and enjoy the benefits now.
Photo Credit: Heudu (Flickr)