Photo by Marco Verch
From 2002 to 2007, I used to walk around everywhere with a little spiral notebook in my back pocket and a pencil sticking out of my hair. This was how I managed my schedule, to-do list, and (as a college student) the doodles I made of my professors.
Then the iPhone came out. Suddenly, the slew of apps in my pocket made it possible to do and keep track of much more than my little notebook used to allow me to do. But over the 10 years since, I’ve realized that while I may be doing more things with my time, I’m not always doing the best things with it. I’m often tackling the stuff that seems urgent at the expense of what’s actually important.
So this year, I decided to switch back to a paper planner. Here’s what the transition was like, and what I learned after the first month reacquainting myself with it.
Relearning how to plan with paper
A sales rep from FranklinCovey, one of the last big proponents of paper-based planning, convinced me that I needed to give the company’s planner at least a three-week shot, claiming that it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit. Just to be safe, I committed to trying it for a month.
When the planner I ordered came, I tore it open, ready to ditch my distracting apps and tap into a new zen of analog time-management. But it turned out I’d accidentally ordered loose-leaf planner refills instead of an actual planner — and for the wrong year. These are the kinds of things that apps get you used to not thinking about. So, anxious to get started anyhow, I ordered a new planner and made do with the loose-leaf in the meantime:
The FranklinCovey rep, excited that a reporter would take on such a journey of transformation, sent me instructions for how to use my new planner optimally, along with the following diagram from the late Dr. Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
By using this “Time Matrix” to categorize the types of activities I spend my time on, he told me, “you can put the power back in your hands to become proactive about the things you value most, rather than reactive to the things grabbing your attention.”
Time Matrix aside, I grasped some of the value in going analog right away: Digital to-do list apps give you seemingly unlimited space to make unlimited lists, but paper constrains the number of tasks you can plan on in one go. So the blank box at the beginning of the day forced me to think through the most important things first.
But more important than that, the process that FranklinCovey suggested helped me do this prioritizing a little more rigorously than I’ve been used to. I’m paraphrasing here, but these are the four steps the company proposes:
- List out your things you want to do.
- Assign a letter–A, B, or C–to each: ‘A’ for things that absolutely have to get done in this time period; ‘B’ for things you should do; ‘C’ for things you could do if you get to them.
- Assign a number to each: ‘1’ for the thing you need to do first, ‘2’ for second, and so on.
- Block out time in your schedule to accomplish all of the As, followed by whatever Bs you’re able to get to, and then any remaining Cs you can still fit in.
I quickly realized that the nature of my work–juggling multiple projects at once, with an assistant scheduling calls and meetings for me–made using just a paper calendar pretty much impossible.
So I decided on a hybrid approach, supplementing the FranklinCovey planner with a little bit of digital infrastructure on the side: My Google Calendar could keep track of conference dial-in information and notes for meetings–all the little logistical details that wouldn’t fit in my paper planner. This way I could still use the paper for, well, planning. One upside to this arrangement, I found, was that changing appointments is a lot easier via drag-and-drop than erase-and-pencil-back-in.
Finding a balance
By the end of the first week (still using those loose sheafs of planner paper), I’d already started getting the hang of this hybrid system. I simply blocked off chunks of time when I would do work, and I filled those chunks in with the priorities I’d planned. Every morning I would look at my planner and reassess which to-dos I’d tackle during my work blocks. I started out making my ABC list every day. But when the new, correct planner finally arrived in the mail, I accidentally discovered an even better process.
It turned out to be a weekly planner (again, by mistake), which means you see the whole week at once, rather than one day at a time. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to think about my priorities a whole week in advance (rather than just day by day), which made me schedule out those work blocks a little more intentionally.
By looking a whole week ahead, I could now plan time for activities that fit squarely in that “Important/Not Urgent” category of the Time Matrix without them getting boxed out by “Urgent” tasks. And then I could schedule my calls and meetings–especially the urgent but not important ones – around those. Basically, I’d plan the important stuff first, then leave the empty boxes for whatever’s left. For the rest of the month, this is exactly what I did, and it worked great.The only variable that broke the scientific method of this experiment is the fact that I moved from New York City down to Mexico at the end of week two. But even so, my paper-planner arrangement survived the dislocation. Blame it on the sunshine or blame it on smarter planning – either way, a month after going back to paper, I feel much better about the way I’m spending my time.