A Beginners Guide To Planning On Paper

Anyone who reads this site regularly knows that I do not have the world’s greatest relationship with paper. My handwriting is dreadful and my fear of a blank page is great. However, after deciding to forego technology in meetings in favor of Stephen Hackett’s Capture Form, I started to see benefits and began looking for other paper tools that might also work for me.

I’ve kept these experiments limited to planning my day and capturing my ideas as I still believe that technology is better for long-term planning. Once I pushed through my initial terror, I quickly saw the impact paper can have in the short-term. I’ve specifically seen the benefits of David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner (or ETP) and Aaron Mahnke’s Frictionless Capture Cards.

The Emergent Task Planner

Aside from small reminders, everything I need to do for my job resides in one of two places: my task manager of choice, OmniFocus or on my calendar. This does a great job of helping me know what needs to happen within a given day, but it doesn’t really help me plan out my time that well. After hearing Dave Caolo rave about the David Seah’s ETP, I decided to give it a shot.

The ETP is a form that was designed to help you realistically plan your day. It gives you space to layout your schedule (I do this in hour blocks) and to keep track of the things you need to get done. I now start every day by processing my email inbox to ensure there are no surprises. Then I grab my ETP form. I fill in everything on my calendar including lunch and any travel time needed for appointments. Then I jump into OmniFocus and start by copying the three most important tasks of the day into the ETP. If I feel like I’ll have more time, I’ll use the extra spaces provided for additional work, but since a “major task” often includes several steps for a specific projects, I often find I rarely get beyond three or four. I take these tasks and figure out where they best fit into my day in the gaps in my schedule. I usually do this by placing the number of the task in the correct time slot and blocking out the time I believe I will need to accomplish each task. I add a little padding to my tasks (as things often take longer than expected) and leave a short gaps right before lunch and near the end of the workday in order to deal with surprises. This takes minutes to complete and ensures that I know how I will be spending my day rather than consistently wondering what I should do next.

As the day progresses and little tasks get added to my plate (like returning phone calls or a small task for a co-worker) I fill them into the notes field. As I finish both major and minor tasks, I cross them off the list. There will always be little things left over, especially in the notes field, so either at the end of the day, or the beginning of the next I will add them to OmniFocus or to the next days ETP.

You can download a free version of the full page ETP here or buy one on Amazon. I actually prefer the 4×6 sticky pad version, which is also available on Amazon1.

The Frictionless Capture Card

I won’t lie, at first I only purchased my Capture Cards to support Aaron. In theory they lacked the structure I prefer in paper products. Once they arrived, they became my go-to tool for capturing ideas. The card is essentially a beautifully designed open grid that can be used for anything. While I still use OmniFocus Quick Entry for long term tasks and the ETP for short term ones, all of the little thoughts that pop into my head go on to a capture card. At the end of the day, I review the card and give those thoughts a proper home (be it as a task in OmniFocus, as reference material in Evernote or where many of my very best ideas go… to the trash can). I also find plenty of small uses, such as short notes or on the fly meeting notes when I don’t have time to print out Stephen’s form. They fit nicely in my pocket, they scan easily in my Fujitsu SnapScan and they hold up nicely (especially when you consider how rough I am on things).

Aaron’s also getting ready to introduce the Frictionless Planning Pad which may just include the best of both worlds when it comes to the ETP and the Capture card. While still remaining open, the Planning Pad offers a bit more structure for planning your day. It also offers the space needed to capture things as they come up. I’m not sure it will replace the clarity of the ETP for me, but I look forward to giving it a try. And looking forward to anything that involves paper is a very new experience for me.

You can order Frictionless Capture Cards here and pre-order the Planning Pad at a special price for delivery at the end of July.

The Paper and Tech Balance

As I’ve identified and experimented with the right paper tools for my needs, I’m beginning to see where they fit in context with my beloved tech tools. Applications like OmniFocus shine in the long-run and keep future work out of my present, but in the moment paper has the edge. It’s ultra portable, it never runs out of batteries and there is no load time. There’s also no integration issues or need for APIs, so I can pull information from various sources and have everything I need in one place. There are shortcomings, the biggest being the need to reenter the things you want to act on at a later date, but when working in the moment, the pros have outweighed the cons.

I’m certain true paper fanatics do things differently, but I’ve found the ETP and Capture Cards to be a great way for those who are paper curious to get started.

  1. These are affiliate links. In fact there will be a few in this post. Regardless, I use and love all these products and wouldn’t be sharing them otherwise.  

6 Responses to A Beginners Guide To Planning On Paper

  1. As a “paper fanatic,” my process probably is different. I’m going to reach for a piece of paper and a pen or pencil before I reach for my phone. The end result, though, may not be all that different. I often order my tasks on a piece of paper and try to prioritize them and give each one adequate time. All the ideas I write on paper eventually find homes on my laptop…well, if they’re ideas with any merit to them. A lot of my ideas go to the trashcan or are hidden in one notebook or another.

    • The hidden notebook thing is something I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand. Recall is so important to me, so I don’t see how things don’t just get buried inside of a notebook.

      • That’s why I have different notebooks. Poems go into one; business information into another. I meant “hidden” in the sense that I don’t look at those ideas because they’re too stupid, but I don’t want to throw them away because I hope that there might be the beginnings of a good idea in the midst of the stupidity.

        I do try to categorize my notes when I’m writing them by hand, but I’m not always successful, especially if I’m in the middle of a project. If you look at my most recent business notebook, a section of it is devoted to CSS and my attempts to figure out image sprites. I don’t know if anyone could translate those notes except for me. :)

        For me, taking my handwritten notes and putting them into a digital format is almost a revision process. I can order those notes and decide which ones deserve more attention. I’m still fond of my paper, though. I have this weird ability to remember on which page I’ve written a particular note. I don’t have a photographic memory; I think it’s the result of writing book reviews and academic papers and having to make connections between the parts of the whole. I should take a photo of a collection of poems I’ve reviewed. I have cross-reference notes all over the margins.

        • It definitely makes sense, I just prefer to start the notes digitally when it’s anything longer than one line. This way I always have them and they are always usable. Something like the CSS is something I’d refer to constantly, so having it in nvALT dramatically increases the recall time.

          • I have the CSS in digital format now. When I was trying to understand how to make it work, though, or was reading an article, I wrote handwritten notes first.

            I think I write faster than I type. That might be part of the reason I write first, but I don’t write first when I’m working on blog posts or a lengthy article. I type those. I also think I take handwritten notes because it gives my hands something to do. I get bored if I’m not taking notes or doodling.

            I have decided my process makes absolutely no sense. I also think I’m attempting to merge how I take notes with how I write in my explanation, and those are two different things.

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