REDACTED: Analog Productivity

For years, I’ve struggled with time management. I’ve always wanted to do more, put more on my plate and couldn’t seem to find a system to manage all of those details that kept falling through the cracks. This, obviously, leads to severe stress. How can anyone focus on relaxing during a break if you have the constant looming suspicion that you’re forgetting something?

For about a year, I’ve been a big supporter of online task management tools, like Any.Do, which I wrote about on Edge about a year ago. However, a few weeks ago, disaster struck: my phone died. How was I supposed to manage my calendar, my life and my constant stream of information without my phone? Anxiety quickly descended upon me as I frantically used every second I could to find a laptop, computer or tablet to connect to the internet to see what life had in store for me and what I was missing. I scratched down notes on pieces of paper that were quickly lost and the fog of disorganization only amplified  my feeling of disconnect.

Then, I had an epiphany. I didn’t need the phone. Everything that I needed to do could be done without any sort of digital devices. If anything, there was a peace of letting go. I could leave behind my phone for hours or days and nothing terrible would happen.

Once I got my phone up and running again (a problem with the power supply, for those who were wondering), I set out on a mission to embrace this new analog lifestyle.

My first step on my journey of post-digital enlightenment came in the form of the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I had read this book, and it always had sparked an interest with me, a sort of utilitarian master-plan for getting your life in order and reducing the stress of not knowing what you have on your plate. Yet, in practice, this system, which relies heavily on a series of lists focused on certain aspects of your life (work, home, emails, etc) was far too cumbersome for someone as on-the-move as I am. Similarly, the whole system was designed for business people, not college students. A key part of the process “delegating tasks,” was nearly impossible. I can’t delegate my homework, or reading, or almost anything! The things I have to do are mine to do. Begrudgingly I gave up my high hopes for “Getting Things Done” (GTD) with a strange attraction to the comfort of the phone I was once so dependent on.

Luckily for me, my journey was not yet over. I found another book, “Zen to Done” by Leo Babauta. Babauta, who runs the blog “Zen Habits,” acknowledged the cumbersome nature of the GTD system, and aimed to bring more simplicity to productivity. Eager to find some way out of the digital addiction I had created, I read the book searching for answers. In it, Babauta explained that many aspects of GTD were good, but too busy for most people who have flexible needs. This, I liked. Babauta went on to take an idea from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and suggested that each day should be focused on three major goals or “Most Important Tasks” (MIT). I liked this concept and the simplicity of it, but it still lacked one major aspect that I really needed as a student: an effective calendar.

Like many, my life is focused around a calendar. Work schedules, class schedules, meetings, appointments, rehearsals, etc all go into this uber-collection of information. Neither GTD nor Zen to Done offered a concrete way to deal with both the incidentals of day-to-day life as well as a macro look at what I needed to accomplish long-term.

Finally, I stumbled upon a blog that mentioned “Bullet Journaling.” It promised flexibility and attention to both short and long-term goals. With a hint of hesitation, I jumped in to read more. The Bullet Journal was developed by a designer in NYC named Ryder Carroll. The system is simple and uses only a few key ingredients:

  1. The Index – At the beginning of your notebook, take a few pages and label them “Index.” If, while writing in the notebook, you need to reference that section for later quickly you can simply flip to the index and write the topic and the page number. If more than one instance of this topic occurs, you don’t need to flip through your whole notebook looking for the notes, they’re all there at the index! (Example: I have Media Management notes in my journal on three different pages. If I need to study, I simply flip to these pages and I can see all the notes I need to catch up before an exam. The same goes for projects I’m working on, like Edge Magazine.)
  2. The Future Log – This is for long-term goals and plans. I simply take two pages of my journal and divide them into six sections. Now, I have an area to log events or ideas that need to be tabled between now and the next six months!
  3. Month View – The month view is for, well, a single month. You write down all the days of the month along the left side of the page and then you can get a macro view for how your month is broken up. You can also add a monthly task list, but I’ve found this to be unnecessary as a college student.
  4. The Daily Log – This is really the best part of the system. Every morning (or sometimes the night before), I write the date and log anything I know I need to do. It doesn’t matter if I need to do it today, next week or even next year. I write it down so it’s out of my head and on to the paper. That way, there’s no stress of forgetting things, or worrying about what you might have forgotten. There are a number of ways to organize these daily lists, but the key is to deal with everything on the list in one of three ways: 1) Do it 2) Migrate it at the end of the day 3) Schedule it in the Monthly or Weekly Calendar. You can also log notes (aka for classes) or events. I’ve personally been keeping track of when I wake up each morning to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Migrating a task simply means that you copy it (yes, by hand) from the day you didn’t do it to the next day. This not only reinforces the task in your head, but it really makes you think about A) If the task is necessary and B) Should I really push this off another day?
  5. The Weekly Calendar – I love weekly calendars. I love being able to visually look at them and figure out what I need to get done over the next seven days. I’ve developed my weekly calendar so that it shows all seven days over a two-page spread of my notebook with the time of day running across the bottom. Every Sunday, I write out all my appointments, work schedules, and classes for the week and get a sense of how busy I’m going to be.

Here is the website for the bullet journal. If you’re even a little bit interested, I’d recommend looking at it, maybe just for inspiration. Between migrating tasks an the weekly calendar, writing out what I need to get done helps me remember things even without referencing my journal. Studies have shown that writing by hand instead of typing helps with memory retention.

Ultimately, I’m still going to use my phone. We live in a digital age, and there are some things that just can’t be done by pen and paper (for example, this website). Yet, there’s something very meditative and relaxing about having everything you need in something that won’t crash and doesn’t require a battery. If you’re struggling with figuring out how to deal with the things in your life, I recommend a few steps:

  1. Decide if you need to keep it all – Sometimes, saying no to things is important. You can’t do everything, there are only 24 hours in a day. It’s best to focus on what your goals are, and write them down in your journal somewhere. Keep referencing them, especially if you’re deciding on a major change.
  2. Write it down; write it ALL down – Get those pesky worries out of your head and onto paper. It doesn’t matter if you keep the paper or throw it away (I’d recommend keeping it), because your brain just needs to know that you haven’t forgotten. You’d be amazed how many times I’ve been doing a daily brain dump and I suddenly realize I’ve forgotten something critically important. Taking this time for yourself is critical to reducing the stress in your life. If you know what you have to get done, chances are you’ll have a better chance of actually doing it.
  3. Make time for yourself – Burnout, even among college students, is a real thing. We cannot go 100% all the time. For me, planning out my day has become a moment of relaxation. I put my phone on “do not disturb” and I just focus on what I need to accomplish for 10-15 minutes. That’s all it takes, but it helps exponentially more.