The Survival of the Kittest

When visitors or interviewers contact me under the mistaken impression that I’m sort of productivity guru, due to the D*I*Y Planner project, I don’t know whether to laugh, sigh, or just continue the charade. You see, I am one of the most chronically disorganized people on the planet. Seriously. I am a project manager during my day job, having to juggle and direct dozens of disparate interactive and marketing projects, and the reason for my success in that role can be summed up in one simple piece of advice: “Write stuff down in a place where you can find it.”

Yes, Allen’s GTD adherents will recognise the “trusted system” at work here, and the Covey adherents will recognise their daily planners with their big and little rocks, but it’s a tough rule to stick to. For example, I’ve been blessed with a pretty good memory (despite what my wife claims), and I had taken advantage of that for my day-to-day organization. Some readers out there will emphathise: you have three or four towering stacks of papers and magazines and books in the corner threatening to topple and kill the cat at any moment. Someone asks, “Do you have a copy of that?” Why yes, I do, and it’s that purplish thing four inches from the bottom of the second stack. Retrieving it in an SPCA-appropriate manner, though, can prove a challenge, were it not for my elite “pull it out real fast while compensating for mass shift” skills.

But the reliance on memory is just the first stage in our organizational evolution.

Sooner or later, no matter how good one’s memory is, things will start to slip. Then come the night-sweats when wake up at 3 am, think “argh! How could I have forgotten that!” and proceed to come up with a list of plausible, if somewhat elaborate, excuses to tell the boss/spouse/junior ball hockey league. And you lie there, unable to sleep, staring at the patterns of light streaming through your blinds from the streetlamp outside, and wondering if your reasons for leaving all those helmet- and stick-toting twelve-year-olds in the care of the McDonald’s staff are really good enough to pass mustre. (Or is it mustard? you muse, while you drift off into fitful nightmares involving hormonal slapshot-happy teens and condiment wars.)

One eventually migrates to stickies, often the first thing accessible to someone speaking on the phone. The monitor soon sprouts dull yellow leaves around its entire periphery with dates, random names, system logins and year-old grocery lists you forgot to shove in your pocket. Or, if you have a flair for colour, there’s always the migraine-inducing mix of bright yellow, fluorescent pink, hide-the-ink blue, and princely purple, flashing you back to the genie pants of nightclubs, circa 1990. (But my, those were better times, weren’t they? you ask yourself as you struggle to find the uber-secret password for the accounting server.)

Next phase in our evolution branches off into two different cladograms: the digital approach (or, whatever is on your computer that happens to have a calendar view); or the day planner (you know, the toilet-paper-thin one offered by your company that happens to be sponsored by a printing or oil company). Things start out well, but after a week or so, you start slipping. Soon, people phone you to arrange a meeting, and you scour the stickies once more, wondering if you’re free. You throw caution to the wind, and double-book the time you were meant to show up at your daughter’s dance recital. (Never mind, she can dance for you at home, once you move the sofa.)

Soon thereafter, gadgets get serious. Palm/WinCE PDAs were once the in-thing, now it’s smart phones. All in all, wonderful ways to carry reminders that you have a 65:3o meeting with Mr. 4Fre0 31aUmb4Vmm, not to mention postage-stamp-sized pornography. Of course, it’s not the size that counts: it’s the cost. And there’s nothing like paying $400+ twice a year to prove that you have something stylish that might be able to organise your days, once you figure out how to use it.

And use it, you probably won’t.

That’s about where I was when I started producing the D*I*Y Planner. Really, the premise was simple. Make forms that forced me to fill them out correctly. If the form wasn’t filled, then I was forgetting something. Take a look at the project management ones, with all the bits about resources, budgets, procedures, sign-offs, and the like, and you understand what I mean. Or the personal profile one with the spaces for the numbers of your plumber, landlord, and medical plan. Flexibility is nice, so allow people to keep track of their own information in their own ways. Ultimately, the D*I*Y Planner forms shoot for a unique balance of laissez-faire and supreme dictatorship. The first is inspirational, the second is motivational. It’s about creating a model that suits your needs, and giving you the structure within that model to reinforce your behaviour.

Does it work? Well, it does for me, as long as I remember the credo: Write stuff down in a place where you can find it. Stickies are transitory, one-off digital solutions often evaporate in the bit-bucket, and cheap planners lack quality and connection. Whether you choose a customised paper planner or a well-thought-out and consistent digital platform is entirely up to you — both provide a productive solution that is far more permanent than fleeting memories. Just stick with it, or it’s a trip back down the evolutionary ladder, and you’re nothing more than pond scum with an urge to assimilate and a nagging suspicion you were supposed to be doing something else right now, like dropping off the dry cleaning.

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