Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Why I Went Back to a Digital Organizer

by Andre · 10 Comments

PDAIt’s been said that in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. So I always like to personally test out different ways of working rather than assume that something will or won’t work, especially if I think it won’t. One of my last experiments was switching from the Palm Desktop to a paper planner, and I wrote about my positive experience with doing so in Switching to Paper-Based Task Management. As you can tell from the title of the post you’re reading now, something’s changed. What happened?

Three months later

At the end of the previous post mentioned above, I added a qualifier:

There’s always a placebo effect that accompanies any change of gear, so once the novelty wears off, I’ll be in a better position to reflect on just how substantial the progress has actually been.

And that’s exactly been the case. I was working through my lists faster for a while largely because the medium was new to me. The fact is that the essence of my system has always been most effective when I collect on paper, and process what I collect into a digital organizer.

I assumed that if I could capture incoming information on paper faster than I could on a laptop or PDA, then the same speed increase would apply to processing, organizing and review phases of task management. Over time, I noticed that I was increasingly irritated with having to leaf through the pages of my Filofax to find items or make new entries. Hunting for the right page added just enough sand in the gears to bring things to a halt. It would only take a few seconds, but it was long enough to unconsciously resist the impulse to review and enter information. I was less inclined to pull out the planner to write down small tasks.

For users of traditional time management systems, that’s not much of a problem. Small tasks are probably not worth writing down in the first place — that’s good priority management, right? But in GTD, anything consuming attention that goes untracked is an open loop, regardless of whether it’s big or small; it’s still an incomplete thought.

That might seem academic, but for anyone who’s experienced having nothing on his or her mind, despite having a heavy workload, any system that makes it inconvenient to track everything is unacceptable. I want to spend most of my time doing things, not thinking about them.

Rewriting lists

Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on your temperament, but I really got tired of having to rewrite my lists from scratch, instead of making local edits, during weekly reviews. Proponents of paper systems maintain that having to write new lists forces them to look at their lists more carefully, enabling them to see items that have been sitting around too long. Writing down the same task three weeks in a row gives them pause, prompting them to either redefine the task, get rid of it or move it to the Someday/Maybe list. On a digital system, it’s easier to gloss over undone items, since they stay on your list until you deliberately delete them.

Oddly enough, I found it easier to ignore undone items when I was using paper lists. Rewriting lists from scratch was just irritating enough to make me want to get the exercise over with a soon a possible, mechanically copying the items from the previous list that weren’t crossed out, and in my haste I would gloss over some that really needed further examination.

Copy and paste

Like the iPhone, the Filofax is crippled by the inability to copy and paste information into a notes field. Most of the information I’m exposed to comes to me over the computer, and being able to copy and paste relevant sections of content as action support was an enormous advantage I realized I wasn’t willing to give up. I liked being able to paste addresses into entries on my Errands like, or urls into certain entries on my @Computer list (it was actually more convenient than using bookmarks).

A hard edge between collecting and organizing

I don’t equate technology with complexity. Sometimes it’s simpler to commute to certain places with a car instead of a bicycle. One of the ways using a digital organizer simplified things for me was in distinguishing between the collection and organizing processes. I knew that if anything I wrote down was still on paper, it needed to be processed. If I had nothing on paper, there was nothing further to process. When I did everything on paper, it always seemed like whatever I collected passed through a fuzzier continuum.

I’m perfectly aware that all you really have to do is get specific about defining projects, next actions, etc., then cross out what you’ll collected; but while that make intellectual sense to me, it didn’t make experiential sense. Even after processing an item, it still felt like “stuff.”

What about digital distraction?

I’ve been using a smartphone and notetaker wallet ever since I adopted GTD. The notetaker wallet just replaced my standard wallet without significantly taking additional space, and since I would carry a cell phone anyway, adding PDA functionality to it saved me from having to bring another device.

The biggest drawback to smartphones, for me at least, was having too many options available: games, document editors, outliners, and other tools and toys. As soon as I pulled out my phone to look up or enter something in my calendar, I’d start thinking about what else I could be doing on the phone.

Since going back, those potential distractions really haven’t been a problem, even though I haven’t specifically done anything to prevent those distractions. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, since I did have those distractions before. I think I’m undergoing a shift in my attitude toward distractions, especially since I’ve eliminated so much of the emotional backlog I was keeping (see Disembedding Your Identity from Your Stuff). The more focused I’ve become on what I want, the less need I feel to block out what I don’t want. Knowing more precisely where I’m headed obviates the need to wear blinders to prevent me from going off course.

A few months ago, I was doing most of my freelance writing on an Alphasmart Neo — a decidated word processor with no internet access, no media player, and none of the distractions you expect in a laptop. Now I do virtually all my writing directly on the laptop or a junior legal pad (when I’m out, a junior legal pad is more portable than the Neo). Distractions happen from time to time, but I’m self-assured enough now to know that I’ll get back on track.

Stick with your system

I’m not advocating that anyone abandon a functional paper system. If you’re not having these problems, don’t adopt them just because they’re rhetorically persuasive. As always, do what works for you. But if you find yourself reading this thinking, “I thought it was just me!”, then you’re the one I’m writing this for. I’d actually prefer using a paper planner for a number of reasons that I outlined in the original post, but at the end of the day, the costs outweighed the benefits — for me.

(Photo credit: chaz_dixon)

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Tags: GTD · Questioning My Assumptions · Technology


  • Eric LeeNo Gravatar // Sep 26, 2008 at 8:33 am

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  • Charlie GilkeyNo Gravatar // Sep 26, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Great post, Andre. I’ve also abandoned my paper-based productivity system, but I’ve declined to write about it until I went through the same process as you have.

    What changed the workflow for me was the iPhone and taking on a different, location-based job. I’ll leave it at that teaser for now, but I’ll write about it before too long.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Sep 26, 2008 at 8:55 am

    You and your iPhone . . . :)

    I predict that we’re going to see a bunch of geeks in the next year abandoning their Day Runners and outing themselves as techies again.

  • curious visitorNo Gravatar // Sep 27, 2008 at 3:59 am

    > “I was working through my lists faster for a while largely because the medium was new to me.”

    Hmm… I see what you mean, but is this really so? If the system is new, you can’t have practiced skills, so you must be slower than your optimal speed. At least, this is what my experience of practice across many fields tells me.

    > “I was increasingly irritated with having to leaf through the pages of my Filofax to find items or make new entries.”

    I understand your point, and I don’t have a solution, only a suggestion from the lean mindset: were all those pages actually required at that point in time in your Filofax?

    Thanks for your blog.

  • Charlie GilkeyNo Gravatar // Sep 27, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Upon further reflection, I’ll have to say that I’m currently running a dual system that manages to have the advantages of both types of systems. I may be at the bridge stage, as I see my digital processes being more prominent, but time will tell.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Sep 27, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    @Curious Visitor: I went from working through lists relatively quickly to a slower speed. If practice had been the decisive factor, my speed should have increased, not decreased. That’s why I stressed the difference between theory and practice. In this case, I started out faster because the change of medium initially made me more aware of items that would’ve otherwise been ignored for longer. Once the novelty of the medium wore off, so did my acuity.

    To me, paper is just a different medium to implement the same methodology. I could do GTD on clay tablets — it’s just slower. No matter how agile I could possibly get with a paper planner, the speed of copying and pasting support material into note attachments is will always be faster than writing that information onto a page. I conduct my work primarily through a computer, so it’s inherently easier to extract information for transfer to a PIM. At any rate, I don’t believe in adjusting my process to a tool, but adopting a tool that facilitates my process.

    As far as the Filofax pages, I always eliminated past calendar pages and To Do pages where all the items were crossed off. It’s was so much a case of leafing through pages being unbearable; it’s just that I was coming from a tool where the issue was nonexistent. It’s like the Seinfeld joke about admiring the Chinese for sticking with chopsticks even though they’ve seen the fork.

    @Charlie: I think of mine as a dual system: paper for capturing, electronic for organizing and reviewing. The organizing is actually a hybrid as well, since I use file cabinets and have no plans to digitize my paperwork.

  • JohnNo Gravatar // Sep 28, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your journey to paper task management and back. I’ve actually found a dual system to work best for me, too. I use paper for outlining my day, to schedule everything that needs to happen. Then I use a web-based task management system for getting things done. The web-based system is ideal for tracking tasks because some take only one day, while others take several, and it would suck to have to rewrite that list every day. Also, a web-based system gives me reports so I can do some number crunching on how long each task took to complete. Then I know how much time to allot for similar tasks when i’m jotting down my day on paper again.

    BTW, The web-based task management tool I use is called Intervals.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Sep 29, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    The web-based system is ideal for tracking tasks because some take only one day, while others take several, and it would suck to have to rewrite that list every day.

    Most of my tasks are undated next actions, so I had less of a problem with rewriting lists every day. I only put hard-landscape items on the calendar: the tasks that were time or date dependent.

    But I did have a problem with pages where most of the items were crossed off, when one or two items remained undone for several days. I’d want to cross those remaining items off and put them on a fresh page. Some people find seeing a bunch of crossed-off tasks motivating. For me, it was just clutter. I love the ability to check a task and see it disappear.

  • Brad TannerNo Gravatar // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I ride the fence on this one. I love the convenience of my Paper Assistant, but I don’t like to rewrite items on it each week. So I use my paper planner as a ubiquitous capture tool. Then during my weekly planning session I transfer ongoing items to Outlook and sync with my smartphone.


  • Distribute Your Productivity System // Oct 3, 2008 at 11:10 am

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