Friday, July 11, 2008

A rambling history of planning

RollabindI've used a variety of planning systems over the years, ever since the company I was working for got into talks with the Franklin Quest people (now Franklin Covey.) We were a tiny spinoff company from an established printing firm, and after flailing around for a year or so, we somewhat accidentally fell into web development, making some of the earliest commercial web sites (ask me about meeting Fabio.) Franklin was one of those sites, and my future wife and another co-worker got shipped out to Utah for a meet-and-greet and to become One With The Planner People. Soon after they returned, we were all treated to one of the planning seminars and given our choice of planners.

Now, I've never actually been indoctrinated into a cult before, but this sure felt like it. I'm a pretty type-A kinda guy, so the thought of having a System for capturing your day, your to-dos, all the loose bits of information swirling around in your life was oh-so-very appealing. So much so that I went for the "Monarch" size, the full 8.5"x11" magilla, with leather cover, desk stand, fancy punch, snazzy ruler page marker... the works. It was Big. It was Black. It smelled Great. I wrote down everything in that monster, including plans for the wedding and honeymoon. Oh, and it went on the honeymoon, too. Yes indeedy, it was The Answer. Sort of. What it was was Heavy. And Bulky. And Awkward To Use. My new bride had the good sense to go with a half-page size, which didn't require a regimen of bicep curls. Buyers remorse had settled in with a fury. Then came the Newton.

Sleek. Black. Digital. Full of coolness and elegance and intelligence... most of the time. I lusted for one being a long-time Apple junkie, but was well-behaved and Did Not Buy. The Franklin looked more like a boat anchor and less like the One True Path. I opted to trade down a size on the planner as a nod to my need for portability. I even got the one made from recycled soda bottles, so I was feeling very green indeed, before being such a thing was cool, at least in the Midwest. Flash forward a few months: a new job opening in California, and me fully disgruntled at the old one. My new bride had quit some weeks before, and I'm thinking should I do it? Can I do it? it was time for a clean break. I did it. Ditched the barely-used planner along with about a third of our mutual belongings as we prepared for our Grand Adventure West.

No time to think or plan in the new job, at least not at first. Working in San Francisco during the height of the dot-com boom, who had time to plan? Everything's emailed anyhow, just get it done, chugga chugga chugga. Ooh! Palm Pilots! Gotta get one of those. And then the upgrade. And a keyboard. Ooh, and the new model! Even better. The most used feature of all: the beeping alarm warning me that I have a meeting to be at in 10 minutes. Developed mad graffiti skillz and was inseparable from the little digital brain for a few years. Oh sure, it ate batteries, and yes, firmware upgrades were a nightmare -- don't unplug it halfway through or it's ruined! And lo, a son was born.

Suddenly the commute seemed offensive, taking me away from my family. Time became the enemy, up at 5:30, on the train by 7:00, in the door by 8:00, and then reverse it all at 5:00. "He walked today" was the impetus for change. A few re-organizations later, and I worked out a telecommuting deal, home in the extra room with the laptop and DSL, my toddler son coming in to share his goldfish crackers. Meetings became a non-issue as I was out of sight, so far more important became the Work Log, my own system for keeping myself honest and focused by jotting down what projects I had worked on. Just an old spiral notebook from college and a Bic. The Pilot's batteries died and I never noticed.

A few more reorganizations later, and I'm back on the commute again, showing up with New Responsibilities. Managing staff! Preparing presentations! Arranging weekly meetings! It was all so complicated... perhaps it was time to dig out the old Palm again, fire it up, take it to meetings... hrm... still kind of clunky... and slow... and battery-gobbling... um, maybe not. On a lunch-break walk one day, I stumbled across the San Francisco Franklin Covey store. Maybe just a quick peek inside... what harm can it do?

Sigh. Back in the cult.

And that's where I was in spring of 2004, with my shiny new "Pocket" size planner (kangaroo pockets, maybe.) Diligently filling out the daily to-do list and its A/B/C priorities. Buying the annual refills and archiving the previous year's. A good little soldier, I.

Now flash forward to spring 2007, me with credit card in hand on the Franklin web site, trying to find the cheapest refill possible. I had just dug out my old Shaeffer fine-nibbed fountain pen, and was trying it out on my planner. Horrible, horrible bleed through. Luckily, I had my share of empty pages to test the pen on. And then something finally clicked: I've spent over $120 in four years to buy paper I barely use. What am I doing? Vast swaths of the planner went totally unused, except for days when I filled the pages. To-dos were either mostly empty, or completely packed. This was not a workable system. So I started reading up:
  • hPDAs looked useful and low-budget, though I'd like to use my Sheaffer...
  • FPN recommended Levenger papers pen-friendliness, and luckily
  • The Levenger catalog kept gracing my mailbox thanks to my regular Franklin purchases
  • But... what is this D*I*Y Planner thing I keep reading about?
And that did it. My self-imposed "trial year" ended in May, and I'm pleased to be using a system that actually works with me. 3x5 cards handle the bulk of my task-tracking needs, and they are punched and bound with the Rollabind system (equivalent to Levenger's Circa product.) My tickler file keeps me on track with all the little reminders that need to get done on a certain day, and my DIY planner handles calendars, book lists, birthday gift ideas, typewriter models, and all the other mental detritus that needs a reliable place to be noted down. And at the core of this is David Allen's Getting Things Done methodologies and their emphasis on offloading your brain into a trusted, physical system. I cannot praise this enough, since the combination of all of these factors really loosened me up, loose enough that I was willing to try a little something different last fall and write a novel, and then think about doing this year's novel on a typewriter, and then bothering my father to send along his mother's old typewriter, and then growing impatient and taking matters into my own hands, and then starting this silly blog about it and all the other little mechanical obsessions I have, and in turn meeting a number of people who share the same manias.

Anybody need a Franklin planner?

UPDATE: photos posted on flickr


Strikethru said...

Well told.

How about a picture of your current system?

mpclemens said...

I'll have to corral all the parts together on my desk, but I can do a pic or ten.

matthb said...

Can I add an AMEN?

I don't think I'm over the affliction. It started with Filo-fax (still the coolest-looking organizer IMO), then Franklin, Circa, Moleskine, et al. Currently using Rhodia pads with the leatherette cover and Post-It file tabs. If Moleskine would make a Rhodia-sized reporter notebook, I'd be all over it.

Thanks to ST, now I have to check out Myndology!

mpclemens said...

Myndology is just a differently-shaped version of Circa* so if you've been down the disc-binding route before, you probably won't find it that different. Their ring-punched card stacks are neat, but I can't help seeing the DIY potential in them. Hole punch, book ring, index cards or colorful paper from the office supply store.

* Technically the other way 'round: Atoma came first, and Myndology is selling Atoma products. It's your best bet in Europe.

Anonymous said...

I'm making my way through abandoning the Franklin system and then to disc and back to Franklin and discs.
Franklin is hard to shake after so many many years.

mpclemens said...

I know what you mean. I kept feeling guilty, for some reason. The two nails in the Franklin coffin for me were

1) pen-friendliness and
2) annual upkeep cost

Pen-friendly paper may have just been an excuse, as 99% of what I write that's planning-related seems to wind up on index cards. I'm actually considering redoing my planner to just be printed on 4x6 or 5x8 index cards, since they are so sturdy and disc-friendly.

Annual cost really did me in. Paying $40+shipping every year for pre-punched and dated paper, half of which I never used? Craziness. And that was the barest-bones system I could have -- the discount store binder in the smallest size, the refill, and a box to hold the previous year's (mostly empty) pages. Why?

That was really my a-ha moment, and what led me to DIY planner. I'm now amazed at how little I really needed that daily to-do lists. My cards + tickler file tell me when there's something to do on a given day, and my playing-card holder shows all the "background noise" projects I should be grinding on.

My lifestyle didn't fit the Franklin mold, I was just too nervous to break out of it since I needed something I could probably make do with a three-ring binder to hold my calendar and errata, but I love the Circa foldover so much, I don't think I could break away from that. It sounds silly, but with a desk as packed as mine, being able to fold binders and pads in half is a real lifesaver.

Anonymous said...

I hear you on that one. Fortunately for me, I can get the franklin refills for free through my office. But those do pile up after several years.
I do like the fold over Circa. I have four or five in different size myself.