Emergent Task Planner To Go

I’ve been using David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner form — a part of his suite of productivity tools — for years. Every night I use one to jot down what I’ll do on the following day, and I keep it by my side to capture additional stuff and track my progress as the day goes by. I shared the specifics on episode 006 of the Home Work podcast.

This week I’ve been using the 4×6″ Emergent Task Planner StickyPad. It’s a smaller, more portable version of the form with a thin strip of adhesive across the top. It retains almost all the features of the full-sized version (save the 15-minute time markers for tasks) and is very easy to toss in a bag. I’m looking forward to taking this to the library to work, as I often feel guilty for taking over so much room with a full-sized ETP pad.

My order came with two pads and a handy instruction card. It’s definitely forced me to write more neatly than usual, which is a good thing, and is a new “toy” to fiddle with during the day. It won’t replace the full-sized planner for me, but I’m enjoying using it and will replace it’s larger sibling when I’m working remotely.


The clipboard

Each night, I list the tasks I must complete the following morning on an Emergent Task Planner (EPT) Persnickety? Yes. But it works. I’ve also taken to keeping my EPT on a clipboard. Behind that are several other forms that let me track what’s going on throughout the day and the week. The cheap Staples clipboard keeps everything tidy and portable. Here’s what I’ve got clipped together on my desk every day.

Top – Emergent Task Planner

On the left hand side, I list what will happen from hour to hour, in 15-minute increments. On the upper right, I list the tasks that must be completed before the day’s end. There’s no particular order to this list. The only important thing is that each item be completed.  There’s a notes section on the lower right that I tweak a bit. Specifically, I divide it in half. On top I list what I consider “minor” tasks. These *could* be completed by day’s end, but the world won’t end of they’re delayed. Below that is the “running commentary.”

The running commentary contains anything: thoughts on the day, ideas, accomplishments [1. I’ve found it’s very reinforcing to look at at list of the day’s accomplishments.], what I did during scheduled breaks (“strawberry patch looks great”), etc. Anything can go there. I created the running commentary section to give my monkey mind an outlet, to save you people from stream-of-consciousness tweeting and to give myself an empirical list of the day’s accomplishemts. It sure feels good to review the major and minor achievements from the day.

Center – Resource Time Trackers

This two-parter is fantastic. It lists the major deliverables that will represent progress on a major task, as well as the smaller steps that lead to each deliverable’s completion. I staple both forms together (one lays over the top 1/4 of the other in a clever way) as well as any support files (for instance, I’m using the Fast Book Outliner to prep my next book project).  Now, I can flip to each major project and see what needs to be done, my estimate for completion time (as well as actual time spent working), tasks to complete as well as outstanding (and completed) milestoines. Fantastic in a hugely nerdy, paper-centric way.

Last page – Concrete Goals Tracker

Here’s an important one. The Concrete Goals Tracker lets me “score” the tasks I’ve completed on a scale that reflects my working towards goals. For example, “signing a new sponsor” is worth 10 points, “published an article” is worth five points, “new social development” is worth two and “maintaining a relationship” is worth one. At the end of each day, I score  anything that meets these criteria, and tally the grand total at the week’s end. If I score higher than I did during the previous week, I know it’s going well. It sounds a bit silly, but the CGT also provides empirical, measurable evidence of progress towards life-sustaining goals.

David Seah’s Fast Book Outliner

I’ve been a David Seah disciple for years now. Specifically, I adore his Printable CEO forms. Here’s a part of the evidence:

On Twitter:

In short, they’re tremendously useful. That’s why I was elated to see that he’s released a new form: the Fast Book Outliner. Dave created the form to keep track of notes to be used for review or his own education (reading an instructional book, for example):

“For me, the biggest pain-in-the-butt about the note-taking process is marking the passages so I can find them again. Highlighting is only good if you use a lot of bookmarks, and you still need to re-transcribe. It’s also difficult to see the STRUCTURE of your notes unless you re-transcribe, and if you’re writing a book review you need to do that at some point. If you’re trying to learn difficult material, you want to access both the structure of your notes AND revisit the original pages for re-reading.

So far, the best part about this approach is the feeling that I can now read books rather superficially at any given time, opening it up in the middle or just skipping around, and if something catches my eye I can add to the existing book outline instead of starting from scratch. My own “Cliff Notes” creator! :) If I am reading with more focus, I am also rewarded by being able to quickly annotate WHERE a particularly-interesting line of prose can be found again.”

That’s fantastic, but I’ll be using them to outline a book I’m writing. The Fast Book Outliner satisfies both my paper fetish and my efficiency-draining tendency to write out ideas in longhand [1. I blame the nuns.]. The form is new, as Dave admits, and I suspect he’ll be tweaking it soon.

I’ll put it to a full, real-world test over the next few weeks. As I work on my next book, I’ll use the Fast Book Outliner to the fullest extent possible, and let you know how it goes along the way. Expect scribbled updates. I’m optimistic.

OmniFocus and the Printable CEO

After Shawn Blanc shared my rig, I received several questions about how I use OmniFocus and David Seah’s Printable CEO forms together. To answer those questions, I’ve written this post.

Before I begin

Please note: I present this as a description of how I work. I’m not suggesting that you should adopt my methods, or that my system is superior to any other. I’ve been using the routine I’ll describe here for a long time. It works beautifully and has allowed me to stop “fiddling” with productivity. With that said, here’s how I work.

GTD modified

My daily routine is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I say “based on” because I don’t follow his instructions strictly. I do break projects into observable tasks, which I sort by context. I also conduct a weekly review, which I believe is crucial.

However, I stray when determining what to do. David suggests that you notice your available resources, time and context when picking a task to complete. I identify the 3 tasks that I must complete within 24 hours. These are the day’s most important tasks (MITs), and are pulled from OmniFocus.

I also identify 3 or 4 “batch tasks.” These could be completed before the end of the day, but the world won’t end if they aren’t. I took the MIT/batch task idea from Leo Babauta’s book “The Power Of Less.” Check it out if you haven’t.

Once I’ve identified my MITs and batch tasks, I grab an Emergent Task Planner (ETP) and get to work.

Setting up an ETP

The goal of the ETP (as I use it) is threefold: To monitor how much time I spend on certain tasks, to act as an inbox and to provide scratch/support information.

The ETP provides room for nine major tasks. I put my MITs in the first three and batch tasks underneath. Next to each is a series of “bubbles.” Each one represents 15 minutes. The idea is to fill them in and see how long it took to complete each task. Before I begin, I draw a little hash mark to represent my best guess (for example, if I think a task will take one hour, I’ll put a hash above the fourth bubble).

On the far right are more bubbles, text fields and boxes. There’s a box next to every fourth bubble, marking the hours. There are 14 boxes in total. I write “7:00 AM” in the first one and continue down to 8:00 PM. The fields next to the bubbles are labeled with the active task and the bubbles are filled in as time passes.

This way I can measure a task’s duration and watch as a scheduled appointment (“Take daughter to cheerleading practice” or “Call Janie re: class”) approaches. The bottom half of the form is meant for additional, minor tasks, but that’s not how I use it. At the top of that area I write “Inbox.” Halfway down, I write “Support.” The inbox should be self-explanatory. As new “stuff” arrives (by my definition, “stuff” is anything that isn’t where it should be), it’s written down for later processing.

Support is where I store information related to tasks-in-progress. For example:

  • Research
  • Image dimensions
  • An app’s system requirements

I like having a work area like this for jotting down bits of data for quick reference, working out problems, etc. At the end of the day, several things happen.

  • I can see how many tasks I completed
  • I can see how long each task took to complete, compared to my estimate
  • A total number of hours worked is tallied
  • Anything in the inbox is processed and added to OmniFocus as is appropriate

I know what you’re thinking

Why use a piece of paper when you’ve purchased powerful, expensive software?

I need both. Some information, like images, can’t be stored on paper. Also, OmniFocus is where I keep all aspects of a given project together, like files, research, email correspondence and so on. There’s no denying that OmniFocus is tremendously powerful. The over-the-air sync alone is a huge selling point. Check it out if you haven’t.

Then there’s this: I just like writing on paper. It’s efficient and fun. I love David’s beautiful, useful forms. Using both lets me work with a sense of relaxed control that is unattainable otherwise.