New Year, means new plans and new tools

  • General

It’s the new year and like many folks, I am planning not only what today looks like but the new decade! Sitting at the kitchen table due to a small hip injury and trying to figure everything out. From architectural plans for a house to lots of personal and work projects everything is spilling out in a great creativity session.

However, spilling creativity is great, capturing it and making use of it is another thing altogether and this year I want to kick off with a better productivity workflow.

How I am working now…

Big ideas and projects each get there own Trello board, often set up as a kanban with individual columns for the progress of tasks this is where I come for where a project is at what I’m doing and to dump ideas for a given project.

Ideas, thoughts and notes they go into Google Keep which is both on my phone and computers. It’s where all my notes go, from copy and pastes code dumps through to shopping lists its a disorganised mess of notes and sticky notes.

Except that’s not where ALL my notes are kept, for most of those notes started off in a notebook as a scribble or thought often in more shorthand making it indecipherable to everyone including me.

So an idea starts in my head, might make it to paper, or put straight in as a digital note then, gets turned into a task which gets put in Trello and there it sits until I’m ready to do something with it at which point I…

Put it in Todoist, Todoist is a great todo app and each project in Trello also has a project in Todoist as well as in Productivity Challenge Timer my time tracker of choice. Keeping up?

Good, because I’m not, there are so many leaky things about this that stuff is getting lost and everything gets out of sync by me merely looking the wrong way then I get upset and I throw my arms up and declare my utter failure at everything.

In other words this works great on digital paper but this is failing in reality.

Two potential replacements

I am sat at a crossroads as so often is the case with a choice to make and as of writing I haven’t made it, indeed I’m hoping you dear reader will help set my mind one way or another.

my choice analog or digital.

Option 1 – Bullet Journal

There is something right about using your hands and holding a pen. I love notebooks I doodle and while I literally can’t draw a straight line that doesn’t stop me from trying. Bullet Journaling or BuJo to give its hip social media name is a method of journaling that goes beyond simple planning it’s planner, diary, CBT therapy all rolled into one. It’s very trendy, very popular and if you watch Youtube or start googling it you will almost immediately feel like you are the worst human being on the planet with all these beautiful journals filled to the brim with thoughts and emotions and the people talking about how much it has changed them.

That is not to say that it has not, and success shouldn’t be discouraged but if you are coming from a low place the BuJo community is somewhere you might not immediately enjoy and embrace. However, once you get over the shock there are some great thoughts and ideas that I love.

  • Plan by hand, almost everything to do with bullet journaling is done by hand to get going you need some paper, probably a notebook, a ruler (unless you can draw lines) and some pens, there better be some colours there. After that, it’s yours to create.
  • Most have the “diary/planner” at their core, for some this is divided into two a more practical I need to meet Bob to discuss things, or these tasks must be accomplished while the other is more thoughts and feelings. These can role into one.
  • Tasks typically are identified as a dot . and completed with an x, something that is information has a dash – before it and something that is important it a *
  • Most bullet journals have ideas, and notes sections for writing down things, while this is obviously much harder to search than a digital version you are more likely to get it into memory as you have written it.
  • There are lots of resources out there, and once you join the cult, I mean community it will embrace you.

I have seen beautiful bullet journal spreads and I can easily see how it would work for me, but where it won’t work as easily is the day to day task management, it’s not going to remind me to do it and it won’t get in my face (that might be positive)

Beyond productivity and into mindfulness I can really see the benefits of BuJo style journals mixed in with traditional diaries and the power in setting out each morning what you want to achieve. My friend Piccia who runs Design for Geeks is a perfect example, she writes out each morning how her perfect day will look like this reinforces such a positive mindset and image of the day that more often then not, her day becomes remarkably close to the point I have referred to her pen as a magic wand. I really want to get a magic wand of my own and feel if it was part of a wider system for tracking me this would work well.

However I can also see myself adopting a simpler system, each day has the 3 priorities at the top, any additional tasks and events underneath and notes on the alternate page. With monthly planning around it.

In theory, I could actually do all this digitally but it loses a lot of the charm, and if going down the digital route the simplicity might become a negative almost.

It also lets me buy another notebook, or perhaps even make one, I remember watching Darbin Orvar video on making a traveller notebook and thinking it would be a lovely thing to try.

Option 2 – Notion

Whereas bullet journaling is a set of ideas and thoughts centred around using a notebook my digital option is basically software.

Which basically means they are almost not comparable yet they cover so much of the same ground, my current problems are things are everywhere, a bullet journal would allow me to organise my thoughts in a structured way in a notebook. The key is to try and be systematic while keeping everything in one location. Having identified my problem is that if I’m needing to reference and maintain links to each thing in multiple places I’m going to struggle.

So for the digital option I really want to centralise, notes, tasks and projects into one location in effect I want a second digital brain.

Notion (AF) has been on my radar for a couple of years and I seriously looked at it as a replacement for Google Keep after one of Google Keeps many issues crept up but decided it was overkill and had to much overlap with Trello and Todoist.

In my head it was the app for when I started again, well now I’m considering starting again and I very much can see how I could use Notion to replace Trello, Todoist and Google Keep. At its heart, Notion is just a file manager and text editor, with the ability to generate documents and pages that are linked. It’s sophistication not that much more than a wiki. However, its a beautiful well-crafted wiki-like system with templates and everything is designed to get your to your data quickly and easily.

By far Notion most powerful feature is Templates, these allow you to quickly and easily change the layout of a page converting it from a traditional text document to a Kanban board in a couple of clicks. Building out a BuJo style set up but digitally could be done potentially in minutes rather than the hours it would take with a ruler.

Being Digital it also has the benefit of integrations, embedding video, maps and just about anything into the page and the pages themselves link seamlessly so you can share data objects.

I can see how Notion could be my digital option, either mimicking my current setup or coming up with new options. Like bullet journalling there is a massive community of people pushing out templates and sharing tips.

Digital also has the advantage I can import my existing content, while I could do that with a paper solution it would be tedious which means it almost certainly wouldn’t get done.

Is there a third option, could it be… WordPress

Nah don’t be silly, you’re not going to build out an entire WordPress site, with a pile of custom post types to do what notion already does. Yes, there is a Kanban board plugin and a calendar plugin and I’m sure a todo plugin but they won’t play nicely together and it’s going to be a silly insanely complex project.

It would be open source and very much in my control though….

No there are two options to think through (unless you think otherwise comment below if you think option 3 is even a possibility)

So more than two options, but which route?

So there are actually near-infinite options, but really I’m trying to decide do I go Analog or Digital. Analog comes with the lack of flexibility but is that actually bad and is much more physical thing. In many ways, I think the analog option will benefit from it being slower and much more personal thing even if the content is the same.

The digital route has flexibility and ultimately I suspect improved productivity with similar benefits but it loses some personality. What it gains is much more accountability it goes beyond being a book I can leave, it can remind me when things need to be done it can keep me in routines much more easily than a notebook.

So there is my dilemma dear reader, as we start the new year, do I take the red or blue pill of productivity. As both would be a fresh start I plan on documenting whichever route I go but now I want feedback from you.

Are you an avid Bullet Journaller or have a written diary/planning note-taking regime that’s not digital, does it work, have you got suggestions and ideas for someone like me?

Are you a Notion pro or heavily into digital productivity can you recommend resources and things to help me get going?

Maybe you are having the same internal argument, which way are you leaning or maybe you simply want to learn more about one approach or the other and are keen to watch me learn one let me know. It’s been many years since I have actively solicited comments here but please do comment below with your ideas on which route I should go down.

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Notes & Links

AF – Please note this link, contains tracking code which acts as a referral link to Notion, if you were to sign up that would give you $10 credit and me $5. if you don’t want to do so then you can visit

Cover Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

22 thoughts on “New Year, means new plans and new tools”

  1. A very timely post. I am usually straight for the digital tools but I do tend to also use a scruffy notebook when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been eyeing up some of the planners but have struggled to decide which one. Like all things it’s not the tool it’s the process on how to use them and that’s what I need help with. I’m interested to see what you go with.

    1. My biggest concern is getting things centralised, I think its the halfway between two methods that things seem to fall down so hopefully with a direction I can then focus on a single process. I’m looking forward to hearing from folks successfully doing one route or another but it is nice to know I’m not alone!

  2. Hey Tim, I attended a great talk you gave a few years back at WordCamp. You could check out Adam Savage with Tested he has a lot of theory about how he plans builds and things. You may in particular want to check out the one he did with a to scale housing model of the place he grew up in, it was rather cool.

    Wish you a Happy New Year and every success with your projects.

  3. This is a battle for me constantly.

    I flick between bullet journal (tweet you link) and note books and then OneNote. Just got a new iPad and would like to utilise this more and debating an Apple Pencil to do my note taking digitally.

  4. I’ve been having the same struggle for a few years. I like the idea of using bullet journal, but I find most of my tasks have an associated link (to a Trello card, a GitHub issue, a website, a Google doc, etc) and that basically makes it too inefficient for me.

    I’d really like a digital solution that’s quite similar to a bullet journal but haven’t found the right tool yet. I’ve toyed with Notion, but it’s never taken hold – maybe it’s time to give it another go. Or then again, maybe it’s more efficient to stick to my current stack (TickTick todo app, Trello and Evernote) and just force myself to use it the way I originally planned to.

    You’ve given me a bit to think about. Thanks, I think!

    1. I think a lot of people who have been long term Evernote people, try Notion and then go its good but I have so much invested in Evernote. For me Google Keep hasn’t got as much emotional investment. How do you handle keeping Trell and TickTick in Sync?

      1. “Not very well” is the answer. I use TickTick for short tasks, daily chores, etc (ie like a traditional todo app) and Trello for more complicated stuff. Sometimes I keep them totally separate, but sometimes there is crossover.

        It’s generally one way: I’ll add something to TickTick pointing to the relevant Trello Card / Board. That can either be a high level thing like “work on plugin” or a low level thing like “update WP in dev environment”. Either way, I do that so I will actually spend some time on it as I use TickTick more through the day and Trello boards get lost.

        So I guess I’m saying I don’t bother trying to keep 1:1 sync between them, that’s too hard. I’d like one system that handles both though. Just never found it. Tried Trello for everything, but too clunky for the small to do tasks for me.

        At one point I tried to do a bullet journal like system through Evernote: a weekly ToDo note with a list of tasks for each day of the week, with links to various places, etc. It worked okay, but a) was very manual (no recurring tasks, have to move tasks around using copy/paste) and b) swamped my Evernote with these weekly todo notes making it hard to search for other notes (I know I can get around that various ways but it became too messy for me).

        Anyway, it part of the new year tradition to try to find a better system! 🙂

  5. Tim this is going to be a bit long and won’t work for you as-is but it’s what works for me. 😊I’m a bit of a mess with a tendency towards chaos and super forgetful.

    I tend to separate things into
    – “what I want to do at some point because that looks cool but not now although I’d like to remember it” which is your creativity spill I think
    – plans which are when I decide what I’d actually like to get done
    – projects which are how I do what I want to get done.

    So maybe ideas, plans and projects? I haven’t thought about this before now but I think that’s pretty close. You say “capturing it and making use of it is another thing altogether” so I’ll tell you how I do that, the plans and projects bit.

    For planning, I do yearly, monthly and weekly goals and have used this for 5 years, starting on my 6th now: This works for me and keeps me vaguely on track with what I’ve decided to do – I have a tendency to flail about otherwise and going back to remind myself what I decided to do in a calmer moment helps a lot with that.

    Going back to previous years and seeing what’s worked and what hasn’t helps me in setting new goals too. I use the calendar bits to show where I have to be when but I don’t drill down into exactly what I’m working on each day. (Any appointments, phone calls, things I have to do at or by a certain time go into my phone calendar as soon as I know about them with an alert set because I am *incredibly* forgetful.)

    Daily planning happens elsewhere and I’m changing it this year to try time blocking. What does work for me and I’ll keep is either a notebook with one thing I need to get done to call the day a success then a few others that I want to focus on or a daily planner with much the same. It’s mainly so I have something I can sit on my desk to keep me on track and it’s good for getting sucky things done like “email the accountant because he’s made a hash of it all”. I find those easier to do if they’re spread out a bit.

    Planning pulls from larger goals (eg weekly pulls from monthly which pulls from yearly) and also from whatever projects are ongoing. I keep each project separate and in a separate space mentally, in my mind for the same reason I don’t put everyone’s clothes and all the sheets and pillows in one big closet, it’s easier to find what I need if they’re not all together in the same place. Not sure that analogy works and tbh usually the clean clothes are in a pile waiting to be put away anyway.

    Project planning is fairly broad for me and again I tend to start general and then drill down. I use Airtable a lot. Eg, I have a base (their name for the UI for the relational database) for each house which keeps track of a dump of things I need / want to do, a list of people who do things (plumbers, etc) and then also tracks things like renovations and money spent on house stuff.

    For work, one of my clients uses Airtable as well and it’s great for keeping up with requested features, priorities and those sorts of things. They can dump stuff into it without worrying me about it and then we can go over it later to prioritise. I do tend to create either my own Airtable base or Trello board (depending on who I’m working with) for larger projects to avoid micromanagement as much as anything else.

    Airtable is also where I tend to dump my ideas and start prioritising them without necessarily planning for them to get done. I can go back and see what I need or wanted to do at one point then, when the time is right, put them into a plan to do.

    I have no clue if that’s what you’re looking for. For me the time I take planning helps me feel a bit more in control of everything and not so overwhelmed. It pulls together the life admin crap and work and health and all that, all of me I guess, and then the project management bits make sure that what needs to get done get done correctly and I don’t forget anything.

    1. It feels a bit like your using Airtables a lot like I envisaged Notion working and like many people you are successfully doing a hybrid approach, I love the look of the planner as well.

      You have given me a lot to think about, thank you for sharing.

  6. I don’t think I’ll be much help because I use a variety of approaches and am perfectly happy with that.

    I find it really useful to separate stuff into ephemeral and practical.

    Ideas are ephemeral. They accumulate over time and as they accumulate they gain traction in my brain. The drip, drip, drip of thoughts and ideas accumulate until they are ready to become practical.

    Doodling and jotting down in notebooks is IDEAL for ephemeral stuff. I might not want to refer back to it later and it’s not structured enough to make sense in the long term and to make it worth making it permanent/searchable/structured.

    Eventually there comes a time when the ephemeral becomes more focused and starts to turn into more structured thoughts or practical actions. At this point stuff tends to become digital and I gather my ephemeral notes and record them digitally and organise them.

    This sounds like I have some wonderful working process, but I really don’t!

    A bit like you and others I have:
    – Physical Notebook(s) for jotting stuff down. I love the focus this gives me. Though, oddly, using an iPad works the same way. I often type blog posts on an iPad and it’s way less distracting that having my laptop open somehow.
    – Bear Notes: For recording everything written I want to remember (except links/bookmarks which go in Pinboard) plus writing draft blog posts and ideas for talks and videos and stuff.
    – Trello. I use this in two ways: 1) as a high-level project status board (with separate boards for personal, work and household projects) 2) as kanban-style boards for in-flight projects.
    – TickTick for the day to day “what the heck am I doing next” and odd things that don’t warrant a Trello card.

    I also think it’s useful to do something like a physical written-down daily plan at the start of the day. What are the three things I want to do today? Ticking them off gives you satisfaction and some brain chemicals that make you feel good! But I’m not really sure how this fits with using TickTick for day-to-day todos. Hmm…there ARE too many things.

    I’ve used Just Three journals (by Sam Hotchkiss who did WordPress stuff once upon a time – pretty successfully for me, but they no longer exist.

    And I use a Daily Greatness Business Planner on and off too, which I LOVE but it’s a whole year with week-to-a-page and loads of other stuff too and it’s just too big to carry around with you. I actually love the planner format, but I want a quarterly planner like this, not a whole year in one book.

    Maybe there’s some helpful stuff there. Let us know what you do!

    1. I’m quite like the consensus seems to be people don’t centralise and that I’m not doing it “wrong” currently. I still think I am going to push for more Digital or more Analog but I’m realising just talking to people that it will be almost impossible to go all one way or another and that’s ok. Thank you for sharing your tools, a few people have mentioned Ticktick I shall take a look at that.

  7. For work I keep a hand written set of bullet points of what I did yesterday and what I’m going to do today, but that is for the process we have at work. From what’s been said above it feels like you are trying to record different things which are linked but different. One is ideas and one are ‘things I have got to do’. So this post has inspired me to try the following. Keep a bullet journal of stuff that enters my head. This will be handwritten because for me I like writing down ideas and it can mean doodling maybe or stuff which just wouldn’t be text. And then refine those ideas down into todos if applicable. No idea how to record links in a handwritten journal, maybe use one of the tools above to record references, and then refer to that in the journal? I know this doesn’t answer the centralised ideas/todos questions but maybe the answer is not to centralise them? Will let you know how I get on 🤔😁

    1. Well yay this has inspired you! I very much know what you mean about liking writing ideas down, especially ones bouncing constantly in my head writing out ideas by hand seems to get them out of my head far more efficiently than typing them. Looking forward to seeing how you get on!

  8. I would be very careful with Notion. Per their privacy policy:

    “As a condition of your use of the Service, you grant Notion a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide, transferable, sub-licenseable license to access, use, host, cache, store, reproduce, transmit, display, publish, distribute, modify and adapt and create derivative works (either alone or as part of a collective work) from your Content.”

    1. I saw a few tweets over last few days pointing out the clause, I am following to see how they respond however it is a pretty standard clause that seems to be default boiler template both Twitter, Facebook both had/have similar clauses and while not pinnacle of virtues either it seems that is where such clauses originate.

      So yes something to be aware of and careful with, also Notion is a US company, which means it has the data protection standards of a toddler who has learnt where they live for the first time.

  9. Hey Tim!
    Happy new year!
    Timely post and… felt issue!
    I hate Trello with a passion and would opt for Asana for teamwork.
    I live by notebooks (was trendy before I knew it, I guess) as the act of writing triggers the creation of synapses and is way more powerful in “setting” information in my head.
    For all the rest I squabble between auto-emails (I do this a lot) and tools that come and go, so I’ll check out Notion :)

    ‘Til next time, happy & productive 2020

    1. Auto-emails? Do you send yourself an email, that’s an interesting idea using your inbox as an inbox. I have tended to notice so many todo apps are effectively looking like reskinned email clients.

  10. Your post is most welcome, Tim. As someone who rages against not being organised but then finding it impossible to be organised, I flit from one method to another. I have multiple notebooks, one small for day to day and an A4 one for wider ideas and topics (business ideas and details, for instance). And I try to take that online for obvious reasons – surely it would be more efficient and immediately available – but just cannot settle with any. I truly dislike Trello but have to use that for WordCamp organising, I get on fine with Asana so should perhaps look at my own account there (used for WP&UP work). And then you mention creating one’s own in WordPress – that appeals, but of course there is no time for such frivolities…
    Your post and the comments here and on Twitter encourage me to realise that doing it my way is just fine. And maybe after several months of owning the Procratinator’s Planner I’ll faff less and go with it…

  11. I have started using Notion in the past 3 weeks and I’m happy with it. I also use a paper notebook – I like doodling and sometimes writing something down with a pen just works better. I have tried keeping a bullet journal but eventually, it all goes back to simple disorganised notes. But then again, I only use one notebook, so I know that if I write something there, it will be somewhere there and if I needed to find it, I would.

    Notion works for me because of the endless possibilities to organise my content. It makes me write much more and makes me more productive. Once I decided on Notion, the whole issue of ‘what to use/do, what is the best way’ is gone, my brainpower is freed to actually focus on the writing. I like the minimalistic design, I can hide the sidebar and all I’m left with is the page itself.

    One thing I don’t like Notion for (haven’t found the right way to do) is a simple ToDo place. Like – reply to an email, go to the post office, that sort of things. I know I can make todos in Notion but it doesn’t feel right. Mainly because it takes a long time to open on the phone. So, for now, I’m using a simple notes phone app for that.

    Trello – I only use to work with others. I tried to use it to organise my own stuff but I keep forgetting to update it so all my boards are outdated and messy :)

    I have OneNote too, I have all my old notes there, but I find it hard to organise the content there, the UI is too busy and cluttered, I avoid it if I can.

    I do have to say that ever since I started using Notion I have become much more organised and productive.

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