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Mobile analogue or hybrid organisational and time-management system

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Posted by Dr Andus
Feb 11, 2018 at 01:08 PM


I’d like to invite comments and suggestions on how to design an analogue (pen, paper, notebooks etc.) or hybrid (combined with digital tools) system for personal organisation and time-management that is mobile (can be carried on the person).

So far I’ve been using digital tools (iPod Touch and laptops for mobility), mainly using WorkFlowy, Google Calendar, and Google Sheets, and occasionally including Gingko and MindMup (though at peak times I only have time to use the former two), and Boogie Board for ad hoc handwritten note-taking to work out issues.

The problem with my current digital system is that while it’s good for capturing and developing tasks (WorkFlowy, Boogie Board) and scheduling and tracking them (Google Calendar and Google Sheets), it is not good at detaching me from the system to give me an overview of the depleting resource (time), to give me a chance to reflect on the shifting priorities and avoid being sucked into dealing with low-priority tasks that may have used up more time than they were worth.

To put it in other words, I need to be reminded of the passage of time and be forced to re-evaluate my priorities and abandon (or satisfice rather than perfectly accomplish, or delegate) the current task, if it took too long to accomplish.

More concretely, as an academic, I need to make sure that whenever possible, I am able to eek out time for reading and writing (and planning future research projects) every single day, besides unavoidable duties such as teaching hours and administrative and management duties. To some extent it’s about protecting my research time from administrative and organisational demands imposed by others (which I mainly receive in the form of emails). There are some days that might be teaching-only, so I’d need to differentiate between normal and abnormal days (‘abnormal’ meaning that I shouldn’t even attempt other activities, as one activity dominates and it’s outside of my control).

I found that my current digital tools are inadequate for forcing me to re-evaluate priorities and abandon low-priority tasks. I often find myself racing against time to respond to someone’s demand only to realise that it took too much time, at the cost of critical activities, such as reading and writing for my own research (which is not only a personal priority but also an organisational one).

The problem with re-evaluating priorities is that it requires some ruthlessness, whereby I need to delegate tasks to resistant peers or other people I have no power over, or ignore tasks imposed by superiors. It is not a natural skill or an easy thing to manage or do in a consensual organisational environment. Military people probably don’t understand what I’m talking about :)

So I thought some analogue tools that can physically represent the depletion of time, combined with some electronic or digital tools into a system, might help to force me re-evaluate priorities and make the tough decision of abandoning or refusing or delegating tasks a bit easier.

Essentially I need to plan for 8 working hours in a day, be able to allocate those hours to specific types of activities (reading, writing, teaching, admin - emails etc.) and be able to shuffle those hours, while protecting the critical activities (reading and writing).

Ideas so far:

- use 8 paper index cards to represent each hour, with the task or type of activity written on each card, and me tracking the passage of time on each card. I also need some kind of a holder (plastic pocket) that makes it easy to review the cards.

- as my 5"x3” (127x77mm) index cards are a bit large, I thought of cutting them in half (perhaps I could looks for a smaller format), or using blank business cards for an even smaller footprint. As I’d be using a lot of them, I’d need to buy hundreds of these. Dealing with lots of loose cards could become messy though, and there is the question of what to do with yesterday’s cards (keep them or not, store them etc.).

- use a small 5"x3” bound notebook, and have each day represented by two pages in the open notebook, which then I could subdivide into 2x4 sections (8 hrs) by drawing 4 lines across both pages. The advantage of this system is that I could see the whole day at a glance, I could allocate specific activities to specific times (e.g. teaching hours happening at specific time of the day), I could plan for the whole week and not worry about losing individual cards, and have a record of the past easily at hand. I could use a red pen to make marks to indicate current time on the page.

The disadvantage is that it is not that easy to re-arrange activities once they’ve been written down (index cards could be just re-ordered), it would look messy, or I’d need to skip over the next few days already planned to re-plan the current day). Also, it is not possible to zoom in on an individual task as with index cards (where I can put the other cards away while focusing on the current task).

- perhaps the two systems could be combined, using the notebook for initial planning, and then using blank business cards or index cards to shuffle activities as they’re being accomplished or re-evaluated.

- the best system would be a notebook made up of removable cards that could be re-arranged.

- WorkFlowy, Google Calendar and Sheets would still be used for longer-term planning or capturing tasks and recording them.

- A watch, or stop watch, or timer would be also necessary (either to monitor passage of time or depletion of time, i.e. timer) This could be digital or analogue.

Has anyone managed to solve the above problem in an analogue or hybrid way? Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

To reiterate, the key aim of the system is to:

a) make sure critical tasks are dealt with daily (to enforce a daily routine);

b) remind user of depletion of limited resource (time for the day, as well as time per task) in a physical way;

c) force user to re-evaluate priorities of tasks in order not to encroach on time allocated for critical activities;

d) be portable (have small footprint, i.e. fits into pocket), not depend on 100% internet connection, be manageable and not turn into a huge mess.

Thanks in advance for any comments.


Posted by Dr Andus
Feb 11, 2018 at 01:24 PM


P.S. Time is of course not the only depleting resource. The daily (and indeed, weekly, and termly, i.e. leading up to a vacation) supply of mental attention (alertness) is probably even more important, but this could be mapped onto the time management system (i.e. to schedule critical tasks for the most alert times).

The reason digital-only tools are inadequate because they tend to suck the user into their world at which point it’s difficult to step back and look at the big picture. While you can use digital tools to provide the big picture (Gantt charts, calendars etc.), one is still within the digital space mentally, and so that can drag one into paying more attention to digitally represented tasks than they’re worth.

What I’m saying is that the system needs to allow the user to mentally break out of it, so proper reflection for re-prioritisation can take place, and the use of the system as a whole should not become itself a burden (or too enjoyable an activity that makes one have fun with organising without actually doing the important work).

This is why I think an analogue element is important, to allow for this mental “switching out” of the digital space (which is often designed deliberately to suck people in, to be “sticky”).


Posted by Franz Grieser
Feb 11, 2018 at 01:26 PM


First idea that comes to mind: small stickies (Post-It) instead of index cards. You can stick them in a notebook and move them around on the page, if needed.
You could also use different colors for different tasks or priorities.


Posted by Dr Andus
Feb 11, 2018 at 01:36 PM


P.P.S. I have considered the bullet journal system but I am not entirely convinced that reviewing all my tasks every day is a good use of my time.

My problem is that I end up with a vast number of tasks daily and weekly, and most of them end up being abandoned naturally, simply by being overshadowed with more important and urgent tasks, so having even another look at these tasks would be a waste of time.

I just prefer to record them in WorkFlowy and forget them forever (but still keep the option of returning to them, if they re-emerge as important or if I made a mistake of de-prioritising them - this is why I prefer the light web interface of Outlook, as I can copy URLs to specific emails and link to them from WorkFlowy.

Obviously this requires that I never delete those emails from Outlook. I keep all emails that are not junk, and I use the read/unread option to keep emails that are important “unread” until I will have dealt with them. It’s just another layer of marking out important todos, besides also linking to them from WorkFlowy.


Posted by Dr Andus
Feb 11, 2018 at 01:47 PM


Franz Grieser wrote:
First idea that comes to mind: small stickies (Post-It) instead of index
>cards. You can stick them in a notebook and move them around on the
>page, if needed.
>You could also use different colors for different tasks or priorities.


That’s an excellent suggestion, thank you very much! I’ve just tested it, and while 4 post-it notes don’t quite fit side-by-side exactly in my 3"x5” notebook, it’s still doable with a little overlap, so this would actually do the trick. I will give this a try next week in a real-life situation.


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