Building an Analog Task Manager

Building an Analog Task Manager
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(Joe Buhlig) #1

When I decided to go analog with my task management, I knew it would be a rough road at first. Being used to the automation I had built up in OmniFocus meant that moving to a zero automation world would be quite the challenge to face. And I’ll admit that I’ve had more a few instances of reconsidering the move and found myself staring at an OmniFocus window.

Granted, I never did anything with that OmniFocus window other than look at it. :wink:

But over time, I have found myself pulling ideas from a number of places to come up with the following system. Enjoy!


The Notebook

This all starts with a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. I’ve been a fan of them for a while now. There’s something special about the layout and paper of these notebooks that has me thoroughly addicted.

But honestly, one of the most important aspects of this notebook is the double bookmark that comes with it. I originally thought this was a luxury that was unnecessary. But as I’ve been using this notebook it’s become a vital piece to its use.


Should you rewrite things?

No. It’s that simple. I tried a process or rewriting my lists each week and it was simply too much. It’s a nice idea in concept but that’s a much bigger time commitment than I was prepared for. So the basis of my system is to reduce rewriting as much as possible and allow me to keep running lists.

But this also means there are some lists that simply don’t make sense in a paper notebook. For me, those are my someday/maybe lists. Anything that will persist across notebooks and continually grow over time needs to be digital. For more on how I’m currently doing that: A New Experiment with Discourse

Now, on to the fun stuff:


A project list

I keep a running project list that’s separated into three areas, Personal, Work, and Church. Those are the three basic areas I want to segment my projects into.

The way this works is fairly simple. There’s a project code at the beginning of each item in this format:

  • YY = The year the project started in.
  • XX = Indicator of the area. JB, WK, or BC depending on if it’s personal, work, or church.
  • 99 = Incrementing number within each area.

These project codes correspond to file folders on my Mac so I can find the reference material sent to me or collected for each one.

Along with the codes and title, I will sometimes also include a page number for the reference notes I’ve taken within this notebook. More on that later.


Tasks lists

I try to keep these really simple as well. I start each project-related task with the code for that project. But I’m usually pretty good at spelling out the project as part of the task title as well. I don’t want there to be any confusion.

Over time I’ve developed a habit of writing down the next task for the project whenever I cross off a task that has a code in front of it. If anything the project code works as a great reminder to define what comes next.


Project reference notes

When I first set up this notebook, I picked a random spot (p.176) about two-thirds towards the page and set one of the bookmarks there. Whenever I’m on a call with a client or in a meeting I flip open to this bookmark and use that page for my notes. If a project develops, as a result, it gets added to my project list and the page number for the notes is included.

And when I’m done taking notes, I make sure the bookmark is set for the next available open page. That way I can always open to that point and know I’ll have a blank page right away.


Weekly tracking/planning

Every week I create this layout during my weekly review. It always lives on the left of the fold at one of the bookmark locations. This is one of the two pages I leave open all day and work from.

The main purpose is to give me an overview of how I’m progressing throughout the week and where I should be focusing my time and attention each day. It serves as a way for me to plan each day when I know what my goal for the week is and how close I am towards achieving it.

The seven bars at the top are hourly trackers for things I find important and want to ensure I’m accomplishing each week to some degree. The numbers within each of those bars is an indicator of the number of hours I want to devote to each area. And at the end of the day, I mark off how much time I put in for each category.

Basically, this is a lite form of time-tracking for someone who can’t build a habit of starting and stopping timers. But it also serves as a way for me to decide what to do each day. If I’m short on hours for my Client Projects but almost completed with my bar for Personal Projects it tells me I wasn’t focused as much as I should have been earlier in the week and need to do more client work.

At the same time, some of the numbers in those bars are maximums and others are minimums. I don’t want to spend more than two hours working on my After Hours list each week, but I want a minimum of 10 hours spent playing with my girls each week.

There are two lists with checkboxes at the bottom of this page. The left side is a list of recurring tasks that need to happen every week. So those are simply repeated and marked off accordingly. The right side is a list of the projects I’m focusing on that week.

Having these two lists are great augmentations to the charts because they help me see a breakdown to a lower level for my tasks and projects for the week.


Daily tracking/planning

On the right of the fold opposite the weekly plan is my daily plan. I write this out every morning and it includes two lists:

  • Calendar items for the day
  • My most important task for the day

This allows me to work on this page throughout the day due to the “must-haves” being right there. But having every day on top of the other like this has an added benefit of showing me how many times I failed to complete a task and rewrote it for the next day. Talk about motivation. “I rewrote that thing three days in a row!” :man_facepalming:


Finding my place

If I’m not rewriting anything, then I need an easy way to find my lists. I have the project lists, context lists, and the reference pages for my important projects all flagged with simple post-it notes cut to the width I want.

I also don’t want to get locked into an overall structure for the whole notebook. So the flags allow me to place any of these lists and planning pages anywhere I want in the notebook and still be able to find them.


A note on portability

One of the most common concerns I hear about an analog task manager is mobility. And although I think that’s a valid concern, I have to admit that it’s never been a problem. If I’m truly going somewhere that I can’t take this notebook with me or I really don’t want to carry it around, I just leave it behind. I’ve never had a case where leaving it at home has created a problem. It’s not like I’m a robot who needs to be able to work at any time and on every whim. I like having a bit of space once in a while.


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(Mike N) #2

This concern always seemed a bit silly. Does anyone question whether you’d bring your pc to a work meeting?

Do you still use notecards for things to do / capture when you are out & about?

One of the key advantages of an analog system. I get not wanting to rewrite the whole project setups, but having some sort of discomfort in the process is incredibly important.


(Joe Buhlig) #3

So true. :+1:

I do. And oddly enough, it seems if I capture on notecards then the tasks are completed sooner than if I capture in Drafts. Haven’t figured out why on that one yet. All the processing is done at the same time.


(Justin DiRose) #4

I think it’s the whole “out of sight, out of mind” deal. When I capture on paper, I’m more aware of the task but not stressed by it. If I put a task in Drafts, it tends to slip into a black hole.


(Joe Buhlig) #5

There may also be the scenario where I do the task that’s on paper because I was more committed to it and wrote it by hand. It was processed sub-consciously and easier to do later on as a result. Maybe. :thinking:


(Wilson Ng) #6

I can use Drafts only if it’s something I am going to reflect on later.

If I need to capture a task to do today, I gotta put it on my index card. Drafts and OmniFocus is the digital ether that hides everything I am not working on today. My paper notebook and index card are for things to work on today.

I guess going all digital works if I’m working on my computer all day, every day. I’m working at a retail shop and am not always in front of my computer. So I’d rather have a card or notebook with stuff I’m working on today. I would hate having to return back to my computer just to see my next action to work on. That’s probably why my “Today” list in my task manager utterly failed me. Now it’s become my dashboard or menu of possible things to work on today. Then I transfer what I really want to work on today to paper.

I like working my checklists in physical form instead of working from the digital world. Working in digital sounds nice in theory but it feels like grabbing at empty air.


(Mike N) #7

This is more than likely the critical component.

I liken it to requests from colleagues or customers - if they have to fill out a form or do any sort of initial effort to get their request addressed besides firing off a nebulous email, the volume of requests plummets. Generally, you are only left with the real needs. It is more effort to write something down vs. adding something to the “digital ether” (amazing term wilsonng).

There is a balance on that, too much friction and you won’t use the tool.


(Wilson Ng) #8

Do you have a process for the weekly review? I’m guessing I would probably use a Post It note with the date to review. Or I would have a 43 folders setup and put a project list into the folder where I want to review it (next month, next week, etc.).

Or I could come up with a single checklist with review dates and check off each project and mark the next review date.


(Joe Buhlig) #9

This is where I start to blend the digital back in. My checklists are kept in my personal Discourse instance.

But the bulk of the Weekly Review is to write out the structure for the next week. Just filling that out forces the clarity and decision-making that I need to be effective the next week.