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Freestyle Productivity: Balancing Systems and Simplicity When Organizing Your Life

A Geek Goes Back to BasicsPlan.txt

I recently received an e-mail from a college freshman. He described himself as “kind of a techie person,” which he then unambiguously confirmed by noting that his productivity system made use of Evernote, his iPhone, a calendar application, and an online to-do list service.

“I like adopting new gadgets and technology,” he told me. “But I feel it’s becoming more of a hindrance than help.”

Fed up with the maintenance of his crowded stable of productivity tools, this student recently tried an experiment in simplicity: he used only a paper notebook to informally organize his day.

“These were the most productive days of my life,” he said.

Does this mean that the student was converted to productivity Luddite? Not quite. Though he had enjoyed immense productivity, he still felt a creeping dread about his new approach.

“I’m afraid that if I only depend on paper and pencil I’ll lose something important or it’d be too hard to navigate after a few days.”

This student’s problem is a common one: how do you balance high-tech rigid solutions with low-tech informal solutions when organizing your student life?

Freestyle Productivity

Having spent the last decade systematically experimenting with student organizational strategies, I’ve found that the following balance produces the most consistent results:

  • High-tech and highly-structured solutions are best for capture.
  • Low-tech and loosely-structured solutions are best for planning.

I use the term “capture” in the GTD sense of the word: a common place where all of the “stuff” in your life can be reliably stored so that your mind doesn’t have to worry about it. This includes tasks, appointments, and projects.

As the student from above noticed, it can be hard to use simple paper-based solutions for capture. The number of tasks in your life, for example, can be voluminous and soon overwhelm notebooks — transforming them into a mash of crossed out, unclear jottings.

I prefer simple online solutions that can be accessed from any computer. I use google calendar and google tasks because I can use them from my gmail account, which is the one website I know I will return to many times a day.

Though these tools are great for capturing stuff, they also turn out to be terrible for planning what to do with this stuff. Most people who’ve tried a systematic approach to planning know what I mean. (Who among us hasn’t assigned priority-based dates to our task list, only to find that we spend more time resetting deadlines than actually doing the work?)

As the student from above also discovered, a looser approach to planning works better. He used a blank notebook to organize his days. I happen to be a firm believer in the use of a plan.txt file, which is similar. As I explained in this earlier post, each Monday I record in a simple text file a plan for my upcoming week. There are no rules for this plan. Sometimes it includes pages of discussion about changing the rhythm of my work flow, other times it’s short and practical (e.g., “Monday is all about submitting this paper, Tuesday is about experimenting with the data collection tools…”).

The important point is that I trust my mind’s ability to build the type of plan that best suits the current situation. It will always outperform a rigid system.

This freestyle approach provides an answer to the quandary faced by the student from above. The reason he feels conflicted is because neither of his productivity approaches are best in isolation. He should continue to use his iPhone and fancy calendar applications to capture and wrangle the stuff in his life. At the same time, he should allow himself the flexibility to make weekly plans that are not constrained by strict rules.

A blank sheet of notebook paper, as he learned, can outperform even the fanciest scheduling system, so long as the work to be scheduled is held somewhere safe.

The Freesytle Lifestyle

I first promoted this approach to productivity in this post from last November. (I recommend that you read the original post for more detail and examples.) The idea is important enough, however, that I thought it was worth reiterating here.

Before concluding, I want to address the most common complaint about this philosophy: notably, the worry that freestyle productivity clashes with my canonical advice on autopilot schedules, time blocking, Sunday rituals, and similarly structured approaches to planning.

Here’s the important observation: freestyle productivity doesn’t eliminate structure in your planning, it just eliminates its status as unchangable. It’s perfectly fine for your plan.txt to say, for example, “I am going to keep using my autopilot schedule this week because it seems to be really helping.” At the same time, it’s also expected that your plan.txt might say, “I need to make the following changes to my autopilot because the timing is not working out,” or even “I’m dropping this approach altogether to instead try…”

In other words, the collection of productivity tactics I’ve presented on this blog can be seen as an arsenal of weapons at the disposal of your flexible and always evolving work plan.

24 thoughts on “Freestyle Productivity: Balancing Systems and Simplicity When Organizing Your Life”

  1. What I find quite well is to write out a decent autopilot schedule and write down the changes for each day. For instance, if I normally do chemistry problems for a certain hour of the day but need to change my plan, I’ll write this new activity in my planner. That way, I’m not swamping my planner with zillions of details every day. 🙂

  2. Dear Cal,

    I really love your approach to handling college life. It is ingenious. However I was home schooled all of my life. Although I enjoy the social aspect of college(I am a socialite), I am really struggling with my academics. I am a freshman @ CUA, and my advisor is suggesting that my educational background is a factor. I have 2 tutors and I am yet failing quizzes and exams. What should I do?

    Again you are a genious!!!


    Juliet M. Wilkins

  3. Hey Cal,
    Great post dude.
    I have a rather unrelated question for you – do you have any advice for high school seniors (like me!) who are currently applying to college? That is, regarding the whole getting applications done/keeping deadlines straight, etc? You have some sweet advice about how to do well in college admissions, but not so much about sorting out the admin work, I think. Thanks!

  4. From the red book, page 35:

    …the professor announces the date and time of the midterm – something…that needs to be scheduled…[Stephen] adds “Sched. Gov midterm (4/5, 3 P.M.)”

    How does our hypothetical student schedule the midterm the next morning?

  5. Hi Cal,
    great post! It’s all about balance, isn’t it? I think that the internet is the real hindrance because you end up surfing and procrastinating. As you pointed, the paper and pencil are the best tools to develop ideas, because the interaction between our brain and our hands are perfect! There is something natural about it that just flows.

  6. I use the method from the little red book using a sheet of paper and that has helped a great deal. I tend to not follow it exactly during the day, especially the study times, since I have a nasty habit of napping right after class. And I also follow up with google calendar for tasks and events, and transfer the events to a larger paper calendar. It’s working pretty well, but I have a problem with autopilot schedules.

    I do something similar to free styling by using google calendar and having a weekly event that I keep moving up every week that lists my thoughts for that class, such as my studying/note taking methodology. It’s not really working that well though, because it’s really hidden. So I might transfer that into a plan.txt file and implement this strategy, though I seriously need to just sit down and do work. I’m afraid to lose any more time to planning.

    And as for “The second concern is actually doing the stuff that you need to do.”, I don’t think that gets any easier regardless how hard or well it’s planned. Though it does become less paralyzing if there is a detailed action plan. I find it simply requires effort.

    Thank you for the post!

  7. Informative post. Your take on capture, GTD-style, is different than how I understood it. Capture is not a holding place for your “stuff.” Capture is collecting those stuff. In that sense, low tech i.e. paper and pen, can often be more effective than gadgets. After capture, you can process the stuff and put it into your hi-tech programs and devices (iCal, PIM), etc..

  8. I used to be an “early adopter” of technology and web-related events, products, and services. But I realized that all that got me was knowledge of things I didn’t need. Now I evaluate whether things will increase my effectiveness and/or happiness before I even consider learning about them…

  9. Have you tried Notational Velocity? It’s really simple note software for Mac, like a text editor, but it’s really easy to search the notes to find the exact one and you don’t have to save them bc it autosaves for you with the date and time you last edited it. Plus it’s free.

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  11. As the student from above noticed, it can be hard to use simple paper-based solutions for capture. The number of tasks in your life, for example, can be voluminous and soon overwhelm notebooks — transforming them into a mash of crossed out, unclear jottings.

  12. Cal,

    I really loved this article. When I volunteered to serve a mission for my church, every week we would have something called weekly planning. It took us about 3 hours if we planned properly. I knew if we took that small chunk of time to address the details, our week would go much more smoothly. I feel very strongly that if I apply this to my “college” life I will feel a lot less overwhelmed. But obviously I would plan Sunday nights using moderation (not 3 hour planning sessions). I also tried using a planner on my iPhone but for some reason it’s just not the same as a paper one!

    The hardest thing for me is that I stopped going to school for 2 years and getting back into the swing of things has been really hard. I save a lot of things until the last minute and put in half the effort. I still am pulling A’s but BARELY. If I could just take the time to plan out my days and make check-lists… I think I could be a lot more successful and prepared. When I apply myself I am not so stressed all of the time. Stress is what discourages me so I try to avoid that as much as possible.

    Thanks so much for the article!

  13. I really like your ideas here! I have tried many times to use my tablet for note taking and for planning and scheduling but it has never worked! I now use a paper planner and I am more on track and it is working so well for me. It feels nice to be able to make changes that are needed and planning is so much easier on paper. Putting pen to paper definitely helps develop more ideas and become more flexible with life changes. I do feel the phones and gmail are going to help with reminders and scheduling but paper really takes the number one spot for me when it comes to planning.Paper to capture your ideas and use cadets to process them. I love this, thanks for sharing.


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