Using a paper planner in 2018

An old planner, in those innocent days before smartphones have nearly wiped them out.

A strange thing is happening for a lot of us productivity geeks: we are nostalgic and pining for a paper-based planner while quickly adapting to having our phone and smart watches ping us to tell us where to be and when.

All the while we know that extra steps are counter-productive to efficient organization. Yet the allure is still there.

Typically you’ll find you already have to-do systems around you. Your inbox, calendar, and more than likely an app. Siri or Google Assistant are useful for adding miscellaneous tasks and setting location-based reminders.

Given this, a paper planner should be added to your routine once you realize you are likely adding extra steps and you are comfortable with the time this will take.

 The wrong way to pair paper & digital planners

For a while I tried using a basic dot grid Baron Confidant notebook as my paper planner. I wrote in all my tasks and priority events/appointments that day. I previewed my e-mail inbox to gather tasks from there and get a sense of what were my priorities.

It was a total waste of time.

There is no point in copying down events from your Outlook calendar when they’re already there and one-third are likely to change. E-mail should never set your priorities for the day, and when they do, it’s easy to click the priority button than write it down. Finally, seeing tasks from e-mail and then writing it down duplicates work and causes mental fatigue. Like the Getting Things Done rule says, if it’s two minutes or less, just do it right away and get it over with. No use adding it to a planner.

In first attempting to use a paper planner, I wasted valuable minutes trying to outline my entire day in a planner when I could have been acting on those quick hits or getting started on the important work that was due that day. Luckily I found a compromise that worked and my Confidant planner because much more useful.

 My “right” way of using a paper planner

I use Baron Fig’s 2018 planner to write my work priorities, not collect every task.

I quickly became tired of fighting the digital systems that were already there and working just fine. E-mail, unfortunately, is my top to-do list. OneNote is familiar because I use it for work and grad school and since most meetings (also unfortunately) are run from a laptop, the app is there and I type faster than I write.

So I shifted and found success in using my planner more for mindset than checklist. Now I write down my top 3 goals for the following day at the end of every work day. These are the 3 tasks that, no matter what, I am determined and need to complete. I find this helps me schedule my day accordingly and push myself to not let my e-mail take over those gaps between interviews, meetings and events. (Side benefit: I look at e-mail less, which is objectively a great thing.) Doing this at the end of the day works great for me because my focus and concentration tends to be best in the mornings and so I do actual work rather than writing about the work I should be doing. I also find therapeutic value to it: by writing down my goals, it’s not floating in my brain as an unresolved to-do. The act of writing it down lets me know I’m committed to it and so I spend less idle time in the evenings coming back to work.

My paper planner also becomes my place to record my long-term habits and see streaks in my habits so I (hopefully) continue hitting my goals. In the monthly view, I draw simple icons to represent going to the gym, closing all the activity rings on my Apple Watch, and reading for 20 minutes. At the end of every month I then tally up and divide by number of days in the month.

So what planner do i use?

As I mentioned before, I used the Baron Fig Confidant notebook as my to-do list. I love the dot grid layout and having less of a formatted layout made it versatile. However, this year I decided to get a formal planner so I could record my habits without having to write out a calendar space. I love Baron Fig’s 2018 planner because it’s well-designed, minimalist, and the format gets out of the way. I’m interested by the recent trends in planners to prompt people to reflect as well as plan — such as the Best Self Co.’s planner — but ultimately I don’t foresee myself wanting that daily prompt and a planner should not add any stress or fatigue.