Productivity planners: time to get organized

by Mike Sharkey

Productivity planners

Whether they’re analog or digital, productivity planners can help boost output. Discover what productivity planners are, when to use them, and how to get the most out of them.

What are productivity planners?

We all have a productivity system, whether we realize it or not. Maybe you write in a blank notebook, stick Post-it Notes on the fridge or leave yourself voice memos on your phone. A productivity planner, whether digital or analog, can be an essential productivity management technique in these uncertain times.

Having everything in one place can help if you’re feeling overwhelmed and have several competing priorities fighting for attention but you don’t want to lose sight of the big picture. Planners can also be helpful now that many teams are working remotely, and it’s more challenging to keep track of project progress or remember meetings.

Essentially productivity planners – also called day planners or personal organizers – are a way to keep track of your team’s schedules, tasks, projects and goals. They’ve come a long way since the heyday of the Filofax in the 1980s when the fashionable ring-binder files contained a calendar, contacts, task list and blank pages for notes. These days, dozens of software programs and apps recreate the experience of an analog productivity planner. And these organization-wide tools can be a critical way to keep your teams and projects on track.

And yet, despite the sophisticated nature of today’s digital productivity tools, paper planners - from bullet journals to the humble diary - are still popular. Why is this, and how can more contemporary digital productivity planners complement them?

Did you know? The day planner was introduced in the 1930s by Gustav Grossmann, who said that it helped people increase their productivity and lead their lives in a ‘rational’ way when used in accordance with his enclosed instructions.

What’s the methodology behind the productivity planner?

Anyone can write down some tasks and tick them off a to-do list, so what makes a productivity planner different? The answer is that it’s a methodology that, once committed to, can help us maintain habits and reach goals. To get on board with that methodology, you need to find the right productivity planner to suit your team’s needs.

What types of productivity planners are there?

There’s a productivity planner to meet the needs of anyone wanting to add some structure to their day, week or year. The type you choose depends on your objectives and priorities. The most intensive version is the daily productivity planner for people who need easy to reference and timely information to work their to-do lists. Weekly planners help you view your week at a glance. And monthly or yearly versions help to track, manage and develop medium or long term goals. Pick your objective and select the planner that suits.

Common questions about productivity planners:

Do planners increase productivity?

Using a planner has been shown to increase productivity. As the productivity guru, Brian Tracey says, “your ability to make good plans before you act is a measure of your overall competence. The better plan you have, the easier it is for you to overcome procrastination, to get started and then to keep going.”

As well as enabling you to plan projects and goals, you can use a productivity planner to reflect on individual and team progress and how you’re improving.

What’s the best productivity planner?

This is pretty subjective. When it comes to productivity, everyone has a different style. Some people plan down to the last detail by breaking all tasks into small steps, while others focus on the bigger picture. The design of the planner you choose for your team should suit your style or be flexible enough to adapt.

The first thing to consider when deciding on your team's best productivity planner is the reason you need it. Does it need to cover just working life? Or do you need to get a handle on your personal productivity and academic life too? Think about whether you’re looking for support with your team’s day-to-day plans, longer-term goals, or both. Experts suggest avoiding very fixed and templated productivity planners unless people are entirely disorganized and new to this sort of time management.

There may be particular things your organization needs from your productivity planners, like a calendar or task list. Both digital and analog styles of planners can offer positive motivational psychology in the form of nudges and gamification that are ideal for procrastinators. Some planners are very niche, whereas others are more of a ‘one-stop-shop.’

If one of your essential requirements is to connect with other people in your organization, you’ll need a specific productivity planner. Likewise, if you need your planner to be compatible with other software already in use in your business, you may be restricted to a narrower selection of planners.

What should I look for in a paper productivity planner?

The popularity of paper productivity planners has endured despite a worldwide shift from analog to digital. There are a few key reasons for this. Research shows that writing down your to-do list and schedule for the day makes you feel more engaged in the task at hand. And neuroscience backs this up by finding that writing down goals makes you more likely to achieve them.

Writing things down can help with memory and recall. Many people find they’re more concise and focused when writing on paper. And some of the more creative people in your organization may thrive on the visual stimulation of colors and being able to doodle in margins. There’s no right way. It’s a case of finding what works for you and your team and gives your organization the best results.

  • Size. Do you prefer something small that can fit in your bag or pocket, or do you need something more significant to hold all your ideas?
  • Weight. How heavy your planner is may be vital if you are always on the go
  • Portability. If you travel a lot, you need a portable planner that can easily fit into your luggage
  • Format. Some planners are flexible with pages or sections that you can move around, whereas others are very fixed and templated. Often you can choose a vertical or horizontal format.
  • Dated or undated. Undated planners may be best if you’re not committed to using your planner every day

Did you know? Despite its reputation as a tech powerhouse, Japan has a strong affection for paper planners of all shapes and sizes. Like the bullet journal, a personal organization system that uses symbols to order information.

How effective are digital productivity planners?

There are definite advantages with digital productivity planners in the current working environment. Digital planners have come a long way since the release of the original Palm Pilot in 1996 and, like paper planners, come in both flexible and fixed formats.

One key difference with a digital planner is that you can link up with your team and see shared calendars and task lists. You can break projects down into manageable chunks and assign different team members to different task segments. Plus, you can get notifications and alerts, which may provide helpful nudges if people forget appointments or arrive late for meetings.

Many team managers use a digital productivity planner and a paper planner in tandem. Often, people use the paper planner for personal appointments and goals and the digital planner for anything work-related. However, you may want to encourage your team to use the group planner for their personal appointments too, so they can see what they’ve got on at a glance. Research shows people are more productive at work if their brains are free from thinking about their to-do lists.

What are the key benefits of digital productivity planners?

With a digital productivity planner you can:

  • Stay connected with your team
  • See everyone’s calendar and to-do list at a glance
  • Use it to test, learn and improve
  • Have everything on your phone or tablet, which you’re less likely to leave on a plane or train
  • Be more flexible when you need to make changes

Introducing a new productivity planner to your team

Before choosing a productivity planner for your workplace, ask other people for their recommendations and take advantage of any free software trials. Don’t be afraid to try different combinations of productivity planners until you find one that works for your business. It may be a process of trial and error to find what works best for you and your team. But don’t wait around for the perfect planning tool – start today and see your productivity begin to soar.

Bear in mind there will be some change management involved when implementing new organization - or team-wide - productivity software. If in doubt, go for the most straightforward system that does the critical things that are most important to your team. After all, as Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, suggests, “the more complicated the system, the less likely it is that people will actually stick to it.”

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