Get Ahead

This planner has skyrocketed my productivity — here's how

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Like many people, January, for me, is an opportunity to set new goals. And often my professional goals have an overarching theme: Be more productive.

To that end, every year I go out and buy a pretty new planner that I can use to jot down my tasks. Somehow I thought just having a planner would magically make me productive, that my time management issues would just melt away.

Of course, you can own a planner complete with highlighted dates and sticky notes and still not get done anything that actually matters.

I was often plagued with this problem. I would write down my to-dos in no particular order, listing them out as they popped into my head. On busy days, my to-do list might be 10 or 15 bullet points long. I'd have important deadlines for work penciled in right next to due dates for bills and outings with friends. There was no rhyme or reason, just whatever I had wanted to get done that day was scribbled there.

It lacked prioritization and provided no strategy for time-management, so I had a warped sense of what I could actually accomplish in a day.

Then I got a new planner from my boyfriend, who is always finding small and sneaky ways to make my life easier. It was the tool I didn't even know I needed, and it changed the game for me.

It's called the Productivity Planner by Intelligent Change (for $24.95). What it does for me that other planners haven't, is provide a realistic planning method on how to tackle my to-do list instead of just a pretty page on which to write it.

A space for the 5 most important tasks helps me prioritze

On each daily page, the planner has five numbered lines where you write down your most important tasks for that day. Whereas I used to jump right in to my endless stack of bullet-pointed tasks listed in no particular order, now this planner's structure has forced me to think about what is actually a priority. And the five slots made me realize it was silly to believe I could accomplish a dozen different tasks every day even though my tasks and my days are never the same.

Pomodoro plotting allows for accurate time management

Even when you know your priorities, not all to-dos are created equally. That's where the Productivity Planner Pomodoro plotting comes in.

The Pomodoro Technique calls for users to working on a single task intently for 25 minutes, then break for five minutes, creating a time interval called a Pomodoro (the name reportedly comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the creator of the method used to time the intervals).

In this case, next to each of the top five daily tasks, the planner has five fill-in bubbles. Each bubble represents a Pomodoro. The planner gives you a section to set a target goal of how many Pomodoros the task will take. Then you can track your progress every 25 minutes by filling in the bubbles for a real life count.

Repeatedly doing this has given me a way more accurate idea of how long I actually need to accomplish things.

Pomodoros also help me focus

In its introduction, the planner hashes out two different methods you can use to approach Pomodoros: the Get-It-Done Method, in which you focus on getting the entire task done, regardless of how much time it takes, and the Hit-the-Target method, in which you choose a fixed number of Pomodoros to finish during the day for breaking down larger projects.

I decide which method is the right one for each task, estimate my Pomodoros and proceed accordingly. So instead of my old MO — jumping from task to task, leaving one halfway completed to try and tackle something else to get everything worked on — I either commit to finishing no matter how long it takes (though I do have a fairly accurate estimate ahead of time thanks to the planner), or I set a number of Pomodoros and complete just those before moving on.

For me, something like responding to the day's leftover emails works with the Get-it-Done method. I might set a target of two Pomodoros, or 50 minutes, but if my inbox is particularly clogged and it takes me three Pomodoros, that's okay. I kept my focus and got it done.

I use the Hit-the-Target method when I have bigger projects looming, like writing a feature article. That might take me 10 Pomodoros, or more than four hours, which is too much to take on in one day. So I'll commit to working on the article for five Pomodoros, or 125 minutes on Monday, and another five Pomodoros on Tuesday. As long as I complete my five daily Pomodoros, I hit my target.

Review pages help me analyze what worked and what didn't

At the bottom of each daily page is a space to rank my productivity from one to 10. The top five priorities and corresponding bubbles enable me to account for how I've spent almost every minute at work, so I can look back and decide what worked well and what didn't. There are also pages for weekly reviews.

Doing this consistently, I've been able to distinguish the patterns that yield peak productivity. The most important habit that works for me, I've discovered, is doing next-day prep before I leave the office at night. Filling out the next day's top five priorities and estimated Pomodoros gives me a head-start in the morning. I can hit the ground running instead of wasting prime brain time on prep.

The planner comes with other good productivity tips

In its intro and via inspirational quotes peppered throughout, the Productivity Planner provides good advice on how to work more efficiently, some from big-time moguls like Tim Ferriss (who advises, "Let ... less important stuff slide. It will still be there tomorrow").

One caveat with the planner is that I can't cram everything I'd like to do in a full day on a few small lines, so I use my Productivity Planner solely for work to-dos and tasks, and I use my old pretty planner for social obligations and personal commitments. But in the end, that actually helps me focus when I'm at work. One Productivity Planner page at a time.

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