Analog or Digital: How to find a productivity system that works for you (Part 2)

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Google Calendar + Weekly To-Do tracking sheet

Of all the day planners that I’ve tried to use, the resounding gong in my head while using them was “this doesn’t make sense with my brain!” I don’t think in bi-column pictures of my week, nor do I think in little squares of a month. Every single day planner that I’ve found even to this day (I haven’t seen them all) doesn’t make sense with my brain. What I described yesterday, however, does (pictured below).

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See the separate quadrants for different project/areas

Do what makes the most sense for you

If it doesn’t really make sense to you then you probably aren’t going to use it. If you brain works well with digital things, do that. If you need to write stuff down like my friend Amanda said in the comments, do that. If you love Moleskines, but look at their agendas and think “this isn’t going to work” don’t bother spending the money. Similarly, if you’re using something and thinking “I’ll try a new agenda next year, I just bought this one” you should just chuck it right now and find something that will actually work. The $20 it might cost for a new one will be worth it when you actually start properly managing your ever-increasing pile of tasks for the next 11.5 months. So go peruse Chapters/Indigo or check out this list I’ve made at Etsy of a bunch of “not your normal” agenda/day planners.

You probably wont find one thing that will have everything you need

I used to hate this. I wanted my Magic App that did everything. Even the GTD system is a productivity system, but not a calendar. It will help you get things done but not know when your appointments are. If you rarely have appointments, then that’s fine. If you decide to go all paper, you’ll likely only find something that does scheduling or you’ll have to look into ActionMethod paper goods and use a separate calendar to track your few appointments. Or you can find DIY stuff online to help you make your own GTD system if that’s what you want (like the hipster PDA, the offline time management software book, the DIY Planner and SuperFocus).

What will I use for scheduling? What will I use to help me Get Things Done?

These are your next questions. Connected with that is the analog/digital question. By now I imagine you probably have a good idea of what you want. In case you’re not sure, here are some pros and cons.

Pros of digital:

  • If you have different devices, your stuff can be synced with all of them and your info is always there
  • You have one less thing to remember to bring
  • Great if you travel a lot or don’t work primarily from an office or a static location.
  • The threat of losing your Most Trusted Work Partner doesn’t exist (it’s in The Blessed Cloud!)

Cons of digital:

  • You may not feel very comfortable using your smart phone or device.
  • If it will take you a lot longer to enter anything because you feel you’re slow on your device
  • You love the feeling of writing things down/ stroking the thing off your list doesn’t feel the same as checking a box digitally

Let’s get digital

I’ve already shared some examples of paper goods you can use. You can also make your own like I did. Here are some digital tools that you can consider:

Google Apps

If you’re a Gmail user, you likely already know about this. I use Google Apps every day in my personal life and at work since my work uses Google apps for our corporate email. We share documents, calendars, use Google Hangouts, make forms, budget finances etc ALL. THE. TIME. using Google. I used the Google Wedding Planning templates to plan my wedding when my then fiancé lived in Quebec City. Here are more ways you can use Google.

iCal/Outlook Calendar

You can sync a google calendar to your iCal or Outlook, or just use your iCal/Outlook on your devices. Simple enough, though I personally have finally accepted the fact I hate iCal and don’t use it at all (I use Agenda App on my iPhone/iPad with my Google Cal synced and use the browser to access GCal when I want to)


I asked my brother who blogs about productivity and other tech stuff at Hack/Make to comment on OmniFocus, which I know is popular with tech geeks. He says it’s a power-user tool, which is why I don’t use it. It kind of scares me. He explains further, “It takes a decent amount of understanding both GTD and the app, but once you’re Intermediate to Advanced, you can do A LOT with the app.” If you’re just beginning, start with something less complex or you might get frustrated with the app before you get the system to work for you.


Evernote is good for a lot of things. By simply making a new Notebook in Evernote you can store your to-do lists and other productivity stuff, ready to be accessed anywhere. Evernote has a Productivity Embassador that gives some instructions and tips on using Evernote this way. You can also checkout the Evernote message board for more ideas/info.

iOS/OSX Reminder App (Use the alerts!)

If you’re looking for a simple To-Do app, this is about as simple as it gets. It’s already on your Mac if you have the most recent operating system and already on your iOS5 device. You can have multiple lists and that’s about as complex as it gets. I use this because I desperately cannot remember things on time, so if I need a reminder, this is my go-to.


My friend Ian who is a Financial Planner left a comment yesterday saying “I’ve found Asana works really well as a project organizer. I GTD with asana way better than I did with Evernote. Of course Evernote is still my go to for all my reference material. The greatest part about asana is you can share workspaces with other people, ie. family workspace with spouse, ministry workspace with ministry partners. It takes a bit of searching to get it working well for GTD but overall the mobility and ease of use won me over. Check it out at

Have you tried any of these methods? How much success did you find? Were there things that weren’t quite right with them? What do you need to change with your current system? Leave a comment here with your thoughts.

How to make a productivity system that works for you (Part 1)

Source: See-Ming Lee

When I started working after I graduated from university, I quickly realized that I had no sweet clue how to keep track of my schedule and responsibilities. I knew it was the thing that would make me sink or swim on the job. I started by learning about productivity and trying things out. I tried to-do lists, tried filling things into my daytimer, I tried different kinds of day-timers. I tried all-digital and all analog. Over the course of a few years I had figured a few things out. I read parts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and found one thing to be shockingly true: open loops (ideas/thoughts floating around in your head) take up mental space/energy. Closed loops (writing things down in an inbox) freed up my brain for other things. Getting the systems to work for me has been an ongoing process.

So are you, like I was a few years ago, a complete noob at organizing your life? Have you figured some things out and not others? I still feel like both. Here are some things that I’ve come to understand about myself.

  1. I like writing things down.
  2. I like accessing them anywhere.
  3. I need to be able to think in Projects or Areas of responsibility (because it helps me manage my time).
  4. No matter how hard I try, doing everything digital doesn’t actually work for me, despite being a technophile and desperately wanting to be all-digital.
  5. Productivity stuff really helps but it’s still easy to let the processes run away from me.
  6. I haven’t found anything that’s 100% natural, and that’s probably natural.

The best combination I’ve come up with so far is:

  • Google Calendar where I keep my appointments (work and personal on the same one, my husband shares his calendar with me so I know when he’ll be home for supper etc.) and slot in times to work on things that are priorities/how I want to spend my time.
  • A list of projects/areas of responsibilities with ongoing To-Do lists associated.


Digital Calendar

I can’t seem to manage without the digital Calendar. I need reminders to be sent to my phone to start working on the next activity, or to leave to go to a meeting. I value the ability to be able to invite people to meetings or them schedule meetings with me and that seamlessly integrates into my calendar with little effort (I use Google invites or Doodle). I find it valuable to take 30-45 minutes to schedule my week at the beginning of the week to make sure priorities stay priorities and reduces decision fatigue because I need to decide “what’s next?” less. Some of these things can be done with an analog (paper) agenda. I personally like digital because I can move things around without it making my agenda page ugly.

Is a calendar right for you?

It’s surprising how much time we can waste. Having everything written in my calendar either before or after I do it helps me manage myself. Did I spend 15 minutes joking around with my coworkers? Did I only take 30 minutes to do the thing I had scheduled an hour to do? Did the metro break down and my meeting at UQAM get pushed back? Are these things patterns? I turns out I like to evaluate enough that this information is helpful to me. Plus, I just like to feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day and a calendar full of pink helps me see what I accomplished. If you agree you like those things, then you should try out using a calendar. If you’re not sure, give it a whirl for a few weeks and decide whether it’s helpful or not — NOT whether it’s easy or not.

To-do list of Project/Areas of responsibilities

Something I took away from Getting Things Done is the idea of Projects and Areas. In my job I can work from various different places on various different things. Tasks range from Administrative things (emails, phone calls, reimbursements) related to one project or another. Projects can be as simple as running an event or retreat or as complex as a month-long overseas trip involving smaller projects inside of it. When I can divide my brain into Université de Montréal responsibilities or UQAM responsibilities, or this staff or this website I can think through the next steps easier. When I plan my day out, I have a better idea of what I need to take along with me depending on where I’m working and what I need to do. This is less relevant for people who work at the same office every day. I don’t.

I’m still figuring out which is best for me on this one: digital or analog. Last year I found a system that worked pretty well that was on paper. I grew a bit tired of how I always had to carry this bulky thing along with me and was helpless if I forgot it. In September I tried out a new digital version of what worked last year (read about it here). It worked pretty well, but it required more work to maintain than I was used to in my paper version. I’m going to take some time to evaluate which is better for me in the long-run.

What about you?

As you start to figure out what does and does not work for you think about these things:

  • Do you need something portable? How portable?
  • Do you like striking things off a list?
  • Are you obsessed with digital things? (This doesn’t mean it works for you, I can testify to that!)
  • What has worked for you in the past?
  • Do you work with long-term projects or short term projects?
  • Do you work in different locations?

I’d love to hear your thoughts since I’m still learning about what works best for me. Leave a comment here and let me know what you swear by and what you’ll never try again!

EDIT: Check out Part 2: Analog/Digital and Part 3: What method? as well.
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