Monday, 2 January 2012

My planning system

A couple of readers have asked me for more detail of the diary and planning system that I use, so here goes. Warning – this is a really long article!Click on the pictures to see a larger version.

The core of my ‘system’ is a set of key area to goals to projects to next action sheets that sit behind a tab in my filofax which is unimaginatively labelled “goals”. I learned, somewhat to my cost last year, that getting the heart of this section right is more important than completing the “next-action” (to-do) list that flows from it. In 2011, I spent more time following the plans and not enough time on making sure the plans were right for me and as a result, I spent a lot of time on things that, in the grand scheme of things, weren’t right for me, or I got stressed because I didn’t complete things. The fact I had unticked items on my daily/weekly lists made me feel like I had failed and so I wasn’t trying hard enough or something. It didn’t really occur to me until I took the time to sit down and think, that they were things that didn’t matter.

Just before this New Year, I spent a lot of time thinking. What did I really want from my life? You can read the result of these thoughts here. The upshot of it all was that quite a lot of what I thought were important goals last year, turned out to be just things I could do, not things I dreamed of doing.

So, my key areas – the aspects of my life that are really important to me – are:
Health and Happiness

“Work” is in brackets because I am trying this year to focus on the good bits of my current job and see it as a way of earning money. It isn’t especially my career. It sure as hell isn’t my dream job. My dream job is to be a writer. So “work” is in brackets because there are no goals stemming from this key area except “to leave work at work” and “don’t hate it so much”. I know, I could have better goals that included getting a new job, but, as I said, my dream job is to write and spending time re-training or applying for other things would just take my time and energy away from pursuing my dream of writing. Of course, I’m sure there are many jobs out there I could do. Frankly, few that would pay me what I currently earn without major re-training and few that have as nice a pension. I have no desire to be a penniless writer in an unheated garret, on the brink of starvation!

The first page in my “goals” section, is therefore a mind-map, drawn on plain filofax paper and using colour-coding for each of the key-areas. I am a very visual person and you will see that the colour-coding runs right through my system.

On the page after my mind-map, I have a page with two questions on it:
Is it my dream?
Is it essential?
Then a statement: Time is finite.

These are to remind me not to get bogged down by the coulds and focus on the dreams.

Then there is the meat and drink of the section. I have a sheet for each key-area, under which the goals are listed. Next to each goal is a list of the projects that will allow me to attain that goal. If I take the Chimwemwe key-area sheet it looks like this:

Key area summary sheet for Chimwemwe

The first goal was to raise £500 by the end of 2011 (you will see a lovely “achieved” in red under it!). The projects that allowed me to reach that goal were:
Produce and sell 50 calendars
Market and sell ‘good gifts’
Approach local Rotary clubs
(again, the first two are ticked)

After these summary sheets for each key area, come the project sheets. Again, let’s consider one for Chimwemwe.
On the front side of the sheet the key-area is written in green (the colour for this key-area). Underneath, the goal is repeated. Then the project is listed, followed by the purpose of the project and a section for notes.

front page
reverse side

So, the sheet goes (forgot to photo it...):
Key area: Chimwemwe
Goal: to raise £500
Project: to sell 50 calendars
Purpose: to raise £150
Notes: (blank, but could be used to jot down info about which company to use to make the calendars etc.)

On the other side of the sheet, I list my next action and when its due date is. For the calendar, these were as follows:
Shortlist pictures for club to vote on (the club being my Rotary club); end Oct, 2011
Investigate companies to produce calendar; end Oct, 2011
Get calendar printed; mid Nov, 2011
Sell calendar (Rotary and work etc); end Dec 2011

As I hope you can see, the next actions are clear, achievable things that can be ticked off. This isn’t my invention of course! I owe a lot to many, many time/task management systems and in particular to David Parker (check out his website including some of the pages he uses in his system).

Okay. I’ve spent some time explaining the key areas to goals to projects to next action system because it’s important to get that bit right. What I do with that set of project to next action pages doesn’t really need much thinking time in my weekly/monthly planning; the thinking time came before, making sure my goals were not only clear, but important to me and that the projects would support those goals.

After my goals section comes my diary section. This seems really complicated, but isn’t (to me at least!). In order it goes:
1. a home-made month to view diary (for long-range awareness)
2. a monthly planning page for the current month
3. a weekly planning page (listing all the next actions and to-do for the week) for the current week
4. a week of day per page diary sheets (for planning each day) with a Today marker in, marking Today
5. a weekly review check sheet
6. the weekly planning pages for the remainder of the month
7. a monthly review check sheet
8. the monthly planning pages for the remainder of the year
9. a week on two pages diary with a second Today marker indicating the current week
10. a forward planning sheet where anything beyond 2012 is noted down (mostly my vaccination dates but before I bought the new WO2P diary, there were lists of when the car tax, car insurance etc. were due
11. (slightly randomly) a log of my running and weight

I’ll walk you through the system bit by bit.
1. The month to view section
I use this for long-range awareness. I only log big things like birthdays, holidays, events etc, not day to day stuff. I could probably do without these pages, but I don’t like flipping through lots of weeks of a diary to see things and I have a better awareness of how far away things are when I see the month laid out like this.

DIY planner home-made month to view

 2. The current monthly planning page
Each month, I produce a list of ‘things to be done in that month’. This list is semi-automatically generated from my “projects to next actions” sheets, using the due dates to allocate the actions to the months. If you were using a computer, you could generate these lists automatically I guess. I like to write them out as it makes me feel more connected to them.
Here is January:

January's planning page

As you can see, it’s colour-coded. Things that relate to the key-areas are written in the colour assigned to that key-area. Then it doesn’t matter if I write them in an odd order, I can still see how much of each colour there is (and therefore if the balance looks okay). Some of them have tick-boxes after them so I can indicate when I have completed them. One of them is pretty vague – “be able to run 8 miles” but I’ll explain that one in a bit! On the reverse side is a list of the books I have read and the blog-posts written (just for interest really!).

3. The weekly planning page for the current week
At the start of the month, I allocate each task from the monthly sheet to a week of the month, keeping an eye on how many other commitments I have each week to try and avoid overloading myself. By doing them all at the start of the month, I can make sure that the tasks are spread out over the weeks.
At the bottom of each weekly task sheet is a space for “don’t forget” – things I have to do but which aren’t part of any key area or goal.
Here is this week’s list (with a few bits redacted):

This week's planning page
 Again, you will see the colour-coding running through. The “be able to run 8 miles” has morphed into a couple of specific things for this week – a 4-mile run and a 3-mile run (at different paces). Next week, these targets will be closer to 8 miles and I’ll finally (hopefully) do the 8 miler at the end of January. The “don’t forget” includes taking meter readings and posting things to a friend.

4. A week of day per page diary sheets
At the start of each week, I sit down with my “list of things to do this week” and a week’s worth of day to page diary sheets. I work part-time and the days aren’t regular, so I mark out which will be work days in the coming week and which not. I also transcribe any appointments across from the week on two pages diary (see below) to the day per page and then I allocate the things-to-get-done-this-week onto individual days. I write these in coloured pen on the day, on the RHS. Unless they are particularly time-specific, I just allocate them as and when throughout the week. Any appointments that arrive in the week go straight into the day per page sheets. Anything later than the end of this week goes into the appropriate bit of the week on 2 pages diary.
Here’s a snapshot of today and tomorrow:

LHS (today) with some of today blocked for tasks; RHS (tomorrow) will be planned/blocked tomorrow
 At the start of each day, I review what I’m supposed to achieve that day and then often allocate a specific time to do it. For example, I prefer to run in the morning, so if I was scheduled to run, I would block off time in the morning for it and allocate other tasks to other parts of the day. I’m less creative in an afternoon, so would put writing into a morning and other things into an afternoon (chores; less creative tasks like editing or updating an email list etc). I know many time/task management gurus would advise against it, but it’s a system that works for me.My filofax lies open at the current DPP day at the side of me on my desk during the day.

5. A weekly review check-sheet
Each week, I take out the DPP diary sheets and file them (in a spare filofax). I check off what’s been done (or not) from the weekly list then put in the next 7 days’ worth of sheets and allocate the tasks for the following week. I do a few other bits and pieces in my weekly review and this check-sheet keeps me right!

check-sheet (printed on card for durability)

6. The weekly planning pages for the remainder of the month
Just one after another until the month runs out. 
7. A monthly review check sheet
Similar to the weekly review check-sheet and used once I get to the end of the month to keep me right in my monthly review/planning session.

again, printed on card for durability

8. The monthly planning pages for the remainder of the year
Again, just one after another until the year runs out. I have the whole year in the filofax – that way if I know something absolutely has to be done in a particular month I can write it in and not worry that I’ll forget.

some advanced planning!

9. A week on two pages diary (full year)
This indicates which days I’m working (I work part-time and the days aren’t regular), important things like when the car-tax is due or when I need to pay the balance on the holiday etc. It’s probably a bit of a luxury as I only look at it once a week when I am planning the week ahead, or when I am booking appointments in, but I don’t want to carry a year’s worth of daily pages and my month to view is too small to put everything in. A week to a page is too small too! I prefer the lined version as it keeps me neater.

sticker from Accessorize. This week isn't very busy!

10. A forward planning sheet
Anything beyond 2012 is noted down here (mostly my vaccination due dates, but before I bought the new WO2P diary, there were lists of when the car tax, car insurance etc. were due)

11. (slightly randomly) a log of my running and weight
It’s in this section for no particularly good reason!

I still think people may need to see it in the flesh to really get what my system is, but hopefully the walk-through has been fairly clear. I would have to emphasise that the main thinking bit took place when the goals were drawn up. Although in the weekly reviews I cross through completed next actions (with highlighter so I can still read them), I’m intending to do a deeper “root and branch” review of all the goals on a quarterly basis to try and make sure that I am not wandering into the I could do this territory and away from my dreams.

Anyway, what do people think of the system? “Complicated as hell!” or “Might work for me”?


  1. Wow - that looks great, but my little brain seems to be suffering from overload (although that is partly due to the big exercise I did over the last couple of days trying to fit everything into one FF).

    I particularly love the goals, to projects to next action plan sheets... now you've got me thinking :o)

  2. wow - this is awesome! i have been fine tuning my system STILL - which is why i haven't yet written a post about my osterley setup. i have certain sections that are fine the way they are. i also have monthly and weekly reviews which really does help but i find that my to-do/action/project/goals sections are unsatisfactory so i tweak and tweak. i had been trying to follow g-t-d system, but i think it's the layout of the pages that i should change so perhaps i should work on that more. thanks for sharing. hopefully this week i'll have it more to my liking and then i can share as well.

  3. Amanda - this looks great!

    Thanks for all the detail. I especially like your idea of having plans for the full year mapped to specific months, which gives much more structure than simply putting things on a future list. I did something similar years ago with the old Succes Manager system, and I may very well revisit it now, thanks to this post.

    The idea of nesting next actions and projects with the key area which generated them also sits better with me than the GTD "one humungous scary list" approach, and reflects my own planning method.

    Hmm - plenty of food for thought here, so I'm off to continue tweaking my setup. Thanks again.

  4. I LOVE THIS POST! Ahh! By which I suppose I mean that I love your system. :) It sounds like it works really well! I love the goal-project-next-action sheets, and the way you have your task planning arranged. It's really brilliant. You've certainly inspired me to consider some tweaks to my system. :)

    Thank you so much for sharing your system with us!

  5. @everyone
    Thanks guys! Glad you like the 'system'! I know how much I love reading about other people's set-ups and how many tips I get from them. Hope you've glenaed something form the (admittedly humungous!) post...

  6. Amanda I love the detail of this blog. I hope you don't mind but I've copied a few of your ideas (especially the Weekly Review sheet). Thank you

  7. OH. MY. GOSH. Can I please bring my Filofax/inserts to your house so you can help me set stuff up? I am not worthy...

  8. how did you print out on card stock? do you have a special printer?

  9. @mppaul2
    No, no special printer as far as I know... it's a Canon MP640. It seems to take thin card reasonably well.

  10. Ok, so I love this system used to use it, but now I am totally digital, anybody know of a way to have/ make this into a digital way??? paper is my kryptonite

  11. Hmm. I'm paper-based, but I'm guessing that Outlook or similar, could automate some of this? I'm not sure where you could put the goals to next-actions, but once you had those and put the due dates on them, they would automtically pop up in your weekly to-do list wouldn't they?

  12. @angie. I use the TMI system "off the shelf" and love paper over digital even though I work in IT. I unsuccessfully tried Outlook as a total solution. Outlook works well for the day to day stuff but the planning/projects/goals don't get looked after. What I now do is;
    1. Depend on Outlook for mail, contacts appointments
    2. Use my Time Manager Int for projects,goals planning and a recapitulation of my diary
    3. I have set up MS Onenote as am mirror(tabs and sections) of my TMI paper system to collect digital/web content and align it to my paper system.

    I might try to go digital again when Win8 tablets become powerful and part of the mainstream corporate environment (replacing laptops) but so far I keep coming back to pens, paper and ink.

  13. I'm sorry to comment on a post so long after it was written (no idea what the etiquette is on that!) but this post has been fascinating and really helpful for me, and recently I've been thinking how good it would be to adopt some of your methodology. I especially love your custom sheets which have your goals listed with their component projects. If this is too cheeky please forgive me, but is there any chance you'd consider sharing your template with me so I could print a few to try? Sorry and thank you!

  14. @Shadow wolf
    Thank you for the kind words and I am more than happy to share. Do you have an email address I can send them to? Very happy to help!

  15. Wonderful idea. I, too, would like to know if if may have a copy of your template. I absolutely love this and would rather see things printed as opposed to my unsightly hand writing.

    1. Of course I'm happy to share! Do you have an email address you can send me and I'll send you them.

  16. This is so amazing. I found you through Pinterest, and just finished setting up a 3 ring binder with your system. To anyone who wants to make this in a digital version, try Evernote. I used to use it, but I frequently forget to charge my devices, so paper is just more handy for me.

    1. Thanks for the comments.
      I'm not on Pinterest and if anyone has pinned my images there, they have done it against my express wishes (See top right hand corner of every page of the blog). Whilst I'm glad you found the blog, I'm sad that people must have been stealing my images.

  17. What do you make the templates with? (I have a Pocket Filofax)

    1. I just did them with Word. I have ones that are set up for Personal size paper and another for pocket size paper and print directly onto the paper.

  18. I do love your ideas and wanted to let you know I would have never found your blog without it being on Pinterest. I am a visual person and see no difference between using googles picture finder, as a way to search and using Pinterest. With Pinterest I can see the content faster and share it easier then with google. How is sharing something on Pinterst stealing, I honestly would like to know, please. Thank you for your time.

    1. The issue with Pinterest is that people steal images without referring them back to the site they pinned them from, effectively claiming them as theirs. The other more major issue is that Pinterest has decided that it has the royalty-free rights to any image on Pinterest.
      There is an excellent article by Steve Morton covering this:
      I've had my images put on Pinterest with people never referring back to this website and I've had my images used by people selling things on eBay - using MY images for their item.
      Unless people say exactly where they got an image and have asked permission to use it, taking the image is stealing.
      Sorry to sound grumpy, but I took the pictures and so they are mine to use as I wish, not for someone else to put on Pinterest and then people use however they wish with no reference back to me.
      I've never put any image from this site on Pinterest. Any image there is being used without my permission. I'm a visual person too, but I'm against Pinterest because of their terms and conditions - that THEY have the royalty-free rights (including to then sell them!) to MY work when I was never asked. If things were just being shared - "I've seen this great site, check it out" that would be great! It's the "I like this image so I'll just take it" that's not.

  19. I think that the enduring popularity of this post is a good indicator of how useful it is - it strikes me that the act of deciding and writing down the goals and action plans - is as important as the actual result. Really interesting. I also did not know about Pinterest and their approach to royalties.

  20. Hi Stuart!
    It was a real light-bulb moment for me to stop thinking what I could be doing and start doing what I yearned to be doing. Time and resources are finite (though it took reaching 40 before that sunk in properly!!) and can only be spent once. Once I'd got my head around that, my goals became much more important. The time spent on deciding those, was invaluable.
    Glad this post is still useful after all this time!