My 2020 Analog (and Digital) Planner Setup

An analog-planner-inclined friend of mine asked about my 2020 planner “lessons learned” and thoughts for 2021 planning. After writing an extremely long email in response, I thought I’d flesh it out into a post in case it’s useful for anyone else.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, last year I did two things that helped my planner setup immensely.

  1. I read “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport. You might not need the lessons in this volume, but I definitely did. In January I did a digital detox which involved removing all social media apps from my phone for the month and considering how I spent my time online. Reading this book helped me understand how precious my time is, and how important it is to spend it how I want.
  2. I took Shawn Blanc’s “All the Things” course in which he details his hybrid productivity method. He uses both a digital task manager to store to-dos and reminders, and a notebook to plan his days. Since I have never successfully done all-digital or all-analog, this primed me to accept a planning model that wasn’t all one or the other.

But I was still deeply committed to analog planning because I think better on paper than I do on the screen. After years with Bullet Journals, I started 2020 with a dated Passion Planner Weekly. I have finally accepted that I think and plan in weekly increments, and while I admire the creativity and skill it takes to create elaborate “weekly spreads” in Bullet Journals, I don’t enjoy doing that anymore. I like the Small (A5 or 5.8” x 8.3”) size for portability, although the planners also come in Medium (6.9” x 9.8”) and Large (A4 or 8.3” x 11.7”).

There is a lot to love about Passion Planners. The company was founded by Angelia Trinidad, a Filipinx artist and entrepreneur, and they have a deep commitment to giving back through their “Get One, Give One” program. Passion Planners are made from high-quality materials, like long-wearing faux leather covers and sustainably-sourced 120 GSM paper that stands up to any my fountain pen inks. But most compelling to me is how this planner encourages me to break down my big goals in smaller, achievable steps, and reflect monthly on my progress.

In January, I filled out my Passion Roadmap for the year, feeling very organized, inspired, and ready to achieve my goals.

And then the second week of March happened. Everything at work changed almost overnight, and kept changing. Suddenly I needed much more note-taking space than my Passion Planner had — or so I thought, because I was hoarding the 20 blank pages and 20 dot-grid pages in the back.

So I switched to a dot-grid notebook for the note-taking space, and went back to a Bullet Journal setup. This gave me plenty of space for notes, but lacked an efficient way of tracking projects, due dates, and agenda items, and all of these were only increasing in intensity.

Two months into my new remote-working situation, it was clear that my system was about to fail, and fail hard. I transcribed all of my items into my digital task manager, Todoist … which resulted in lots of lists that were overwhelming to view and challenging to manage.

Here is where the hybrid productivity method I learned about earlier really came in handy: I now use Todoist as a place to collect tasks and track due dates, and use my Passion Planner as the space to plan out when I will work on them.

By June, when we started to work onsite again, I had ditched the Bullet Journal for the Passion Planner again, with a slight modification of the back pages I was hoarding: I used the blank pages as post-it parking so that I could utilize the pages without using them up.

In retrospect, I should have just used the blank pages for notes. All of this was such over-engineering! Now I manage all of those agenda-type notes in Todoist, one list per meeting.

The big missing piece of my puzzle was what everyone kept telling me to do: the weekly review. Weekly reviews were frustrating for me this year because everything changes so quickly; I grew disappointed in spending all that time on a Sunday evening planning everything out only to have it all lost by Tuesday afternoon.

Now I do a 10-minute review each night before I get ready for bed. I look at one of the filters I’ve set up in Todoist and use it to time-block the next day in my Passion Planner.

I used to think it was a waste of time to copy my appointments from my calendar app to an analog calendar, but now I view the practice as a way for me to keep my days in balance. With only a digital view into my days before, I could accidentally overload a day with meetings. These days I have a clearer picture of what needs to get done so I can block off enough time to do it.

I learned three big lessons from planning this year:

  1. I don’t collect to-do items in my email inbox. That’s a fast track to chaos for me. Email gets read and deleted or moved out to my task list. I try to only “touch” each email once so it doesn’t accumulate.
  2. I don’t write to-do items in my Passion Planner, only the focus and objectives for the week. Each week I set one work-related focus and one personal, and two to three objectives. (Objectives are bigger than routine tasks but smaller than projects.) This has evolved from previous systems in which I planned to accomplish three objectives every day. I scoff at the naïveté of my pre-pandemic self. I’m not going back, either.
  3. I only use time-blocking for workdays. That’s intentional because I need unstructured downtime to bolster my mental health, especially right now.

All of this is, in the grand scheme of things, not that important. It’s important to me because the structure I’ve described allows me to keep functioning. People rely on me to keep functioning, so I’m very focused on it right now. And also I am aware that I am privileged to even be writing this when others are losing their jobs, their homes, their loved ones, their lives. But like I said at the start, maybe some small part of this will be useful to someone else. That’s my hope, anyway.

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I acknowledge that I live and work on stolen Cowlitz, Clackamas, Atfalati, and Kalapuya land.
I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.