Advanced planning…

I picked up a 2015 year planner for my Filofax while in Selfridges yesterday. I’ve been working on some big, long-term projects (more on that in a few months) lately, and I’ve noticed that looking at the year on a single sheet of paper is actually more helpful than on screen.

Even the 21″ screen of my iMac.

Having used my 2014 planner to good effect, I picked up one for next year, as some of my projects definitely spill over into 2015.

Most helpful? Seeing ‘blocked out’ days that are either already spoken for or are spent on a plane. I’m definitely not noting exactly what I’m doing on each day – that detail still goes into my calendar on my iPhone/iPad/iMac. But for a top-down view of my general business and key deadlines, paper can’t be beat.

Planning your week is very, very useful. Reviewing your month also. But seeing your entire year, its commitments and – for me, anyway – where free spots are, to facilitate travel to far-flung lands, is incredibly useful. Seriously though, it’s too easy to over-commit or be too optimistic about what you can actually do without a higher-level view of time.

I’d never (if I can help it!) book in two full weeks of training delivery, for example – as it just keeps me away from the ‘office’ and the day to day admin that needs to be done in a business. All that stuff piles up in the background. Looking at my calendar only from week to week means this could actually happen!

David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology reminds us to look up from the immediate tasks level on a regular basis. It’s a really useful way to remain mindful of longer term commitments and goals. A pure focus on tasks to be done in the here and now means we’re unlikely to ensure we achieve goals most important to us.

I’ve been playing around with the year view for a few months now. It’s not a replacement for iCal, and couldn’t accommodate the level of detail I put into my electronic calendar. But for getting a bird’s eye view of commitments and free time, I can highly recommend it. I’m not a fan of writing and re-writing things: be it to-do lists or calendar entries. So only the most important and key deadlines go in here.

And I’m even using colours. Which is most unlike me! But it helps me tell what’s what on such a small page. Green for confirmed client work, red for ‘blocked out’ or ‘busy’ time and yellow for my holidays. The latter is quite motivating! I’m counting down the days until our next trip to Japan. But I can also see the relatively ‘dead’ time around the Christmas holidays and other Bank Holidays.

This is not me moving to paper full-time – I couldn’t live without my gadgets – but for high-level planning, I can really recommend the year planner approach.

Checking it twice

I travel a lot. A. Lot.

Mostly for business, mostly short trips to UK cities and occasionally further afield. Personal trips too, mostly within Europe, but at least once a year something to either North America or (like last year and later this year) Asia – in the form of Japan.

And in all this travelling – which I dearly love (most of the time) – there is just one tip that I can safely pass on to anyone out there:

Make a list.

Readers of this blog will know I‘m an avid user of Evernote  (This blog is now ‘hosted’ in Evernote and published via ) and one of the best use cases for this epic app is the checklist. I’ve now crafted a pretty good travel / packing checklist which is use and re-use when packing. It has saved my bacon more than once and is front of mind this morning as I prep for a trip to Spain.

Using Evernote, you can put together a checklist in just seconds. You can then have it sync across all your devices and share it with others. No, you don’t have to use Evernote, but I find I’m less likely to lose this list than if it was on  scrap of paper. And I alway have Evernote with me in some form – on my phone or tablet. Far less likely to have a random scrap of paper which I can add items to when inspiration strikes.

My checklist is not your checklist.

I’m not going to share my list in full. Details of this checklist would probably completely ruin whatever shred of credibility I have left. Let’s just say it’s tech-heavy. More electronic devices and cables than I’m comfortable taking about openly.

But some things are always on there, regardless of my destination: epilepsy meds, passport and a charger (and international adaptor) for my phone. With just these things, I could survive losing everything else. American Express travel insurance has kicked in several times over the years, meaning I can buy ‘essentials’ when luggage goes missing (thank you, American Airlines).

But that’s the disaster catered for. For run of the mill trips, I break it down into the following prompts:

  • What will I need at the airport?

  • What will I need on the flight?

  • What will I need at the destination?

  • What do I need for entertainment?

Anything out of the ordinary gets added to my standard checklist, which includes toiletries, clothes, running gear and so on. Working through this list means I rarely leave anything behind and feel a lot more secure locking my front door behind me. And far less bored/frustrated on a long flight. And a lot more organised when I arrive at my destination.

Yes, I rarely go anywhere where buying replacement items would be impossible. But that’s a chore. And it can get pretty expensive very quickly. As recent trips to Sweden and Switzerland have highlighted…

It’s a way of life

Not Evernote (although I could argue for that), but thinking in terms of checklists. It’s a mindset, really. If you’re interested, I can recommend ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ as a powerful insight into the way checklists can make the world safer and more efficient. Relying on checklists for frequent activities means you’re not wasting brainpower ‘remembering to remember’ but can focus on more important things.

If I hadn’t worked through my checklist this morning, I would have forgotten to pack the new phone case I got to take my Samsung Note 3 running (yes, it looks hilarious strapped to my arm but I don’t care) and a textbook I need to read for an upcoming coaching course I’m attending.

Checklists aren’t lazy, old-fashioned or boring. When you find yourself in another country without an adaptor for your phone or important medications (note the order I wrote that…says a lot about my priorities!) then you’ll wish you’d had a checklist.

To get your started, here’s a link to a useful post on Evernote’s blog all about checklists.

Happy travels!

Doing with Todoist

As I mentioned before  one of my biggest worries about leaving iOS behind was the absence of an Android version of OmniFocus. Having used the app for years, I really came to rely on it for all aspects of my life. Complex, multi-month work projects, shopping lists and everything in between.

One month in to life in the world of Android – rocking a Samsung Note 3 and a Nexus 7 – and I can honestly say I shouldn’t have given the jump a second thought. I don’t miss OmniFocus a bit and have found an excellent replacement in the form of ToDoist.

Another GTD bore?

Before talking about the app in more detail, maybe it would be useful to expand on my obsession with ‘to-do’ apps.

I’m not a naturally organised or conscientious person. Really. Left to my own devices, my life would collapse around me in the pile of unpaid bills, gone off food and lost jobs, while I’d bumble along hoping things would work themselves out and an upcoming week would magically contain two extra days for me to ‘catch up’…

Reading ‘Getting Things Done’ a few years ago was quite an eye-opener. In the true sense of the word, it was life-changing, in that I changed a lot about my life – including organising myself better, to take off some of the pressure.

I’m not evangelic about the GTD methodology as I know it doesn’t work for everyone or their personal circumstances. But I still try to stick to some of its principles. Including getting ’stuff’ out of my head and into a trusted system. There’s little point in using my brainpower (what little there is) remembering to remember things and wondering what I’ve forgotten.

This is where OmniFocus was fantastic. An app present on all the platforms, it was where I could jot down things I needed to do just to get them off my mind. This represents the very tip of its functionality – you can organise your actions into projects, assigning deadlines, locations, contexts and so on.

You can, essentially make it as complex as is helpful for you.

On the tube, I’d have a thought about something I’d need to do later that day. A quick note in OmniFocus on my iPhone and it was off my mind. Which is a lot easier than spending the remainder of the day with a little voice whispering inside your head, trying to remind me of that semi-important to-do.

Basically, I wove OmniFocus into both my work and personal areas of life and used it to good effect with several other apps, including the Mac Mail app and Evernote.

The thought of daily life without OmniFocus was the kind of thing to leave me in a cold sweat. That’s why I didn’t upgrade the app on my iPhone when OmniFocus 2 was made available – based on the fear that a bug would somehow wipe my OmniFocus database clear and leave me with an horrific blank slate.

Interestingly, when I started to use ToDoist, I was left with that same bank slate, as I couldn’t think of an easy way to import all my OmniFocus data. This wasn’t in any way horrific, it was actually a great relief.

I didn’t type in all my OmniFocus actions and projects – instead, I reviewed them and only added anything to ToDoist that was absolutely important and likely to ever happen.

This reduced the number of projects on my list by half. I’d obviously been over-egging the OmniFocus pudding.

A little bit about my set-up

Firstly, I set up my projects in ToDoist based on four spheres of my life: family, personal, wellbeing, work and professional. (Obviously, these make sense to me and may not work for everyone).

“Family” includes things like birthdays, family events and so on. “Personal” includes shopping, personal finance, travel, household stuff and my social life. “Wellbeing” includes anything health-related or fitness-focused.

“Work” contains the projects I’m paid to complete (simples), while “Professional” is more about CPD, training and various psychology conferences I attend and professional societies I’m a member of.

ToDoist enables you to colour-code projects, which excited me more than it really should. Honestly, when you’ve got lots on, a quick glance at the small coloured dots associated with these areas of life can be very helpful in cutting through the ‘noise’.

Under each of these role-level projects, I set up multiple sub-projects. And some more under them. But conscious of my OmniFocus set-up,  I really tried to avoid over-complicating things and to just keep it nice and simple.

ToDoist allows you to do two more very GTD-centric things with your actions: assign them a priority and ‘tag’ them with a context. There are four built-in levels of priority (again, each colour-coded) and I’ve set up a series of contexts that I’ve grown comfortable using, like: @Home, @Office, @Online, @Errands and so on. Again, in the move to this new system, I drastically reduced the number I had been using in OmniFocus.

All of this means that you can search your projects and actions looking at things in terms of their place in your life (role-based projects), relative importance or urgency or the context in which they need to be completed. This really is GTD made flesh.

The ToDoist advantage

In the month I’ve been using this system (it’s more than an app, really), I’ve noted the following things I really like about it.

  • The interface is clear, uncluttered and easy to navigate. Regardless of which device I’m using or wether I’m accessing it online, the interface is consistent and very very easy to use. The contrast with OmniFocus here is striking. ToDoist has far fewer icons, buttons and obvious bells and whistles. Much, much easier on the eye.
  • Colour-coding is surprisingly helpful and something I’ve come to rely on. I never attempted this with OmiFocus (and I’m not sure it’s even possible?)
  • You can set up private email addresses to mail yourself actions, which helps with attaining the legendary “Inbox Zero”, but you can do this on a project-specific level. This means as emails come in, you can amply forward them to one of your ToDoist email addresses and they get turned into actions with a given project. Needless to say, my “Inbox” email address was added to my contacts app within seconds.
  • The fact that you can access it via the web is fantastic. OmniFocus meant reliance on one of my iDevices to access my data. ToDoist means I can get to my projects via any web browser on any computer. Much more flexible and a very useful ‘Plan B’ if I was somehow separated from my phone or tablet.

One thing I definitely miss from OmniFocus is the built in “Review” feature, where it guides you through each live project to allow you to update it and keep on top of things. According to GTD lore, this should be conducted (in-depth) on a weekly basis, to allow you to scan your environment and add more actions to your “trusted system”.

There isn’t an automatic way of doing this and no handy “Reviewed” button in ToDoist. But I’ve carried on regardless just doing it manually. It works, it’s just not as satisfying as the OmniFocus method.

The personal perspective

I hope nobody thinks this represents some kind of attack on OmniFocus. It’s an excellent tool and one that saved my bacon more times than I can remember. But in my move to Android, I’ve noticed that I was over-complicating its set-up, something OmniFocus’s flexibility makes all too easy.

The fault was mine, not the app’s.

I think if you’re going to use a GTD-type app to organise yourself, you have to enjoy using it. I definitely enjoyed using OmniFocus and would still recommend it to people in the iOS universe who had a solid grasp of GTD principles.

But to be frank, I enjoy using ToDoist more because it’s snappy, pleasing to the eye and (at least in comparison to OmniFocus) quite minimalist.

The acid test? In a month of using this new system, I’ve yet to drop any important balls. It’s doing what it was designed to do: freeing up my headspace for more important things.

If you’d like to learn more about the app and what it can do, check out and their videos on YouTube, like this one:

A maintenance day

Today was going to be about getting out, doing lots and enjoying all the pleasures my local cinema could offer. Squeezing as much enjoyment out of the end of the weekend as possible.

But it panned out as quite a different sort of day.

A combination of atrocious weather, along with some timely equally atrocious reviews of the film I planned to see, meant that I stayed indoors and pottered about.

Most productively.

It was what I like to think of as a “maintenance day”, full of small but useful errands to keep life ticking over. Some laundry, tidying up, cooking, holiday planning…that sort of thing. One of the most useful of these was a revisiting of my OmniFocus settings.

Rock. And. Roll.

Anyway, my forage around in the depths of OmniFocus was prompted by a read of the ever-excellent Simplicity Bliss blog, by Sven Fechner. Sven has an incredibly helpful set of OmniFocus resources and how-to’s, which got me thinking about how I use the app to better effect.

The outcome?

Several actions were (appropriately) turned into projects, while several projects were put on “hold” and others abandoned completely. More than anything else, an attempt to simplify things so that OmniFocus is less complex, less daunting and less of a unending catacomb of folders and sub-tasks. And much more aligned with what I want to get done.

There’s no point in using any kind of productivity software if it becomes so unwieldy you dread even looking at it. Just like having the most complete to-do list is no use if you don’t look at it occasionally.

Today’s review of my projects prompted reflection on priorities, a look at the year ahead and agreeing of some all-important dates: namely, holidays! Which in turn resulted in new projects in OmniFocus and new notebooks in Evernote to research the locations.

Without sounding too obsessive about it, I’d recommend scheduling a maintenance day like this every month or so. A review of the calendar, a checking of commitments and plans. A good clear out of tidying up of all those unfinished tasks and errands.

David Allen recommends a “weekly review”, which I agree is essential if you want to keep on top of things. But a deeper, more periodic review of how things are going in general is also incredibly useful. A macro version of the micro weekly review if you like.

For me, this left me with a clearer mind and feeling a lot more in control of things. You don’t need OmniFocus for this, but it does help.

I’m conscious of sounding evangelical about OmniFocus when I discuss productivity and organisation – with friends and clients. I’m living proof that a combination of a good system and useful and usable software can make all the difference in our efforts at getting things done. Or “life”, as most people describe it.

OmniFocus can, at first glance, seem daunting and impossibly complex. It needn’t be, really. If you’re at all interested in using the app, I’d first have a read of the relevant resources on Simplicity Bliss and take it from there.


Return to paper, week one

Stationery nerd klaxon!

I’ve had my new Filofax one week and it’s barely been out of reach. A stack of meetings and a two-day course on Thursday and Friday meant it was invaluable for extensive note-taking. The fact the Fusion has a pocket large enough to hold my iPad Mini is the icing on the cake.

I barely used my laptop Thursday and Friday, just reaching into the Filofax to check emails on my iPad. Having scanned the course pre-reading into Evernote, I could access it via the iPad and leave most of the paperwork at home.

A win-win for both sides on the “paper versus electronics” debate!

As I said in my last post on the Filofax, I stripped it of everything I didn’t need, including the large calendar. I definitely don’t want to go down the 100% paper route and replicate information easily available elsewhere. So for me, the Filofax is a work-centred GTD “capture device” not the “file of facts” as used by most other people.

I’ve set it up as follows:

1 – A section containing static data, like a year planner, personal information and so on. Yes, I don’t maintain a calendar in it, but the fold out planner allows me to see six months at a time and I’ve just added Bank Holidays and major dates in it. I won’t be adding anything else. I’ve also got my favourite GTD flowchart here.

2 – A section for noting to-do’s. This is a mix of Filofax brand to-do sheets and some I picked up a couple of years ago in Amsterdam. The idea here is that, when it’s not appropriate to access OmniFocus on my iPhone or iPad, I can quickly jot notes in a specific section to revisit later. I don’t want to develop reams of paper-based actions, so it’s basically a holding pen for content that will eventually make its way into my core GTD system in OmniFocus.

3 – I then have a ‘Projects’ section, mainly used for brainstorming and creative writing. This has been “cleaned out” several times this week, and anything vaguely useful has been scanned into Evernote.

4 – This section covers “intensive” notes, like outputs from meetings, interviews. Again, anything from this that I want to keep, I scan.

This is all in an effort to keep the binder as light as possible.

I’ve also got a zipped plastic envelope which hold my passport and foreign currency. I have an annoying habit of accumulating euros in my desk drawer and forgetting to take them with me when I travel for business.

I’m not one for lots of specially-created Filofax inserts, but I have picked up a few pads of paper and meeting planner templates. As for the rest, I’m sure some structure will emerge with more use.

It’s working well so far.