Wednesday, 5 December 2012

An analogue/digital journey - combining a filofax with a smartphone.

 Have you ever experienced anxiety over your precious data? Have you agonised over your choice of binder? Have you endlessly weighed up the pros and cons of a traditional filofax, versus some digital device? Have you tried to grasp at the elusive karma promised through the ensnaring embrace of "GTD" and felt deflated when you discover that you're spending more time working "the system" than you're saving? Have you looked out from your kitchen window and watched the saccharin sun struggle to rise above the sulphur cityscape, and experienced the sudden shock to your core as your drop your wrists onto the cold marble of your kitchen worktop, hands wrapped hesitantly around that overstuffed A5, listening for the familiar sound that announces the arrival of a faded yellow taxi and realised that, come what may, the success of your business trip may well depend on how you deal with the information you hold between your hands?

I've been taking this "journey" for some time and probably always will, being the geek that I am and constantly experimenting with any number of ideas in the search for organisational nirvana. But, right now, I want to share a concept with you if you are indeed sitting on that digital/analogue fence, a concept that could work with any size of binder and any digital organisational application. It's easy to understand, visually foolproof and substantially reduces the possibility of losing your data.

This is what I'm using right now, as the main part of my "system"; a vintage slimline (because I'm a vintage kind of guy) and an iphone; but "other binders and smartphones are available", as they say.

"Belt and braces".

In my slimline, I have around fifty sheets of lined paper. I use one sheet per day, so I find it easy to insert additional sheets on rare occasions as required. It's also cheaper than buying a diary and removes my seemingly endless quest to find the "perfect" template. But you may be thinking, I can't fit 400 pages into my slimline, but I think I have found a compromise that works for me, whereby I hold the first four weeks of my diary in my slimline, and the next few month's worth of sheets after that in a personal filofax on my writing desk. The remainder of the sheets in my slimline form a basic "GTD" system that I will share in more detail with you, in another post. For the digital side of things, on my iphone, I'm currently using the standard "Reminders" app that comes with IOS5 and 6, which can be used with the iphone 4 and above. There's a plethora of more sophisticated products out there but "Reminders" appears to work just fine, proving to be stable for me so far. I never trust any electronic system completely, even with Apple's "Icloud" (which I have set to automatically back up my data) but the beauty of my hybrid arrangement is that I have the security of having everything written down in my filofax.

Let me take you through my work process.

You're at home, or the office, or wherever your filofax happens to be.
Your partner calls you to arrange a lunch date.
You check your filofax and enter the information. So far, so good.

No templates, just plenty of space. Extra sheets for busy days will work just fine.

Now, you'd also add this appointment into your iphone app immediately after entering it into your filofax but, for the purposes of illustration, let's assume you simply don't have the 30 seconds it would take to do this. No problem, just get on with what you're doing.
Let's assume you repeat this process with a number of interruptions over the next hour or so. You're basically adding notes and appointments to your filofax, as you would if you were purely using your binder without any digital back-up. Personally, because I split my diary across a slimline and a personal sized filofax, I just have to make sure both filofaxes are on my desk, but that's fine.
So you're now in a situation where there are some entries in your filofax that aren't in your iphone.
But, let's now assume you have a couple of minutes to spare to "sync" your iphone with your filofax.
Enter the appointment into your iphone app.

Other apps are available, but Apple's "Reminders" app is nice and simple.
Now add some form of mark against your filofax entry, to indicate that this appointment is now entered in your iphone.
I use a circle, so that I can insert a tick into each circle when a task is done, but you can do whatever you please. If the note uses up two lines, just insert two circles, one for each line. The important thing is that, as each sheet fills up with notes or appointments, it's easy to identify anything that isn't also entered in your iphone, because there will be a gap in the line of circles. I can run through my entire slimline within 60 seconds, and cover the next week or so within 10 seconds. My recommendation is to avoid stickers,  highlighters, or different types of pen. Being able to use any pen frees you from the drudgery of carrying lots of, er, pens, and it also gives you the excuse to try out a new pen from time to time without fear of mucking up your system.

The all important check marker.
This simple checking system is visually foolproof, and can obviously work with both appointments and "to do" lists, both of which you can set up in Apple's reminders, just like most other electronic organising systems.
Now, you can leave your filofax in the office if you want, and just rely on your phone when you're out and about.
Of course, I could take my filofax with me, which I do most of the time because it's a slimline, but the key is that I don't have to, because I have two identical sets of data. Which means that I can restore all my data if my iphone is stolen, or restore my filofax system if my office burns to the ground. Additionally, because my iphones are linked to "the cloud", any data I enter automatically appears on each phone and can also be accessed using any pc.
The chances of my office burning down, both my phones being lost, and my iphone account being hacked by someone intent on maliciously wiping all my data, all happening on the same day, are pretty slim, so my procedure gives me great peace of mind, as well as eliminating the absolute necessity to carry a filofax everywhere I go.
It also means that I can carry my slimline, in the knowledge that any appointment more than four weeks in advance can be referred to by checking my iphone, no matter how far into the future that happens to be.And that single salient point is a revelation in the waiting because, let's face it, it's a real pain having to haul a fat filo around, when most of our fervent page rustling is going to be happening at the "front end" of our 'faxes.

But, I'm sure you're wondering, does my system work the other way around? In other words, what if you need to input data on your iphone first, on the odd occasion that you don't happen to be carrying your filofax?

No problem.
I've created a folder marked "IN", into which goes any new "stuff". Appointments, notes, "to dos", everything. In the example below, the appointment is in my "IN" folder, but I've already added the appointment to the calender, with a reminder set for 09:00 that morning. Ok, it's a little inconvenient, but that's the price of  freedom from the obligation to carry your precious binder wherever you go, like some infomatical "ball and chain". At least you know that "syncing" will be a breeze.

Doing it the other way round, using a digital "in box".
When I next get a chance to "sync" my filofax, it's an easy task to go through the minimal list of things in my digital "IN" box, adding the appropriate entry into my filofax, before "moving" each task into an appropriate contextualised folder.

Similarly, if you're "crossing off" tasks or appointments as completed, and you're crossing them off on your smartphone first, you need to move them to an "OUT" box set up so that you then have a list of tasks that you can refer to when you "sync" your filofax. When you've updated your filofax you can then delete these tasks from your "OUT" box.

I also use a Filofax M2 wallet, with a Rhodia no.12 notepad, for those times when I need to jot something down very quickly and don't have my slimline to hand. It's quite easy to update both my iphone and my main filofax system from here.

Ultra fast note taking when "on the move".
So there you have it. A versatile system that allows me to "sit on the filofax/iphone fence", gives me tremendous security from data loss and adds only a small amount of administrative time to my day. In fact, I find that duplicating everything in this way acts as a sort of review process, which leaves me with a clearer picture of the tasks in hand. It probably adds a total of ten minutes to my day, but I do seem to be more productive.

Coming up next week:
The easy GTD system that works on paper, on your phone, or in conjunction with my combined system as outlined in this post.


  1. This is a much more refined version of how I operate. mine is very basic but this is quite elegant. Looking forward to your post on the GTD system. I read the book, took a few ideas away but never really managed to use the Next Actions concept. Thanks.

  2. Interesting thanks Neil. I disengaged from my iCloud account because I had all sorts of problems - things not syncing properly, duplicated appointments and calendars and all sorts of other problems and it concerned me that I didn't have my data (i.e. appointments and contacts) on my laptop. Sadly I often forget to sync my iphone and laptop! I do tend to put everything in my filofax these days almost in desperation!

    Really looking forward to hearing about your GTD setup as I had the same experience as Paul (above). Also be interested in how you are using your ARCs.

    1. I too have been experiencing syncing problems with Icloud, perhaps compounded through entering data via two iphones and also via the site, and then "ticking off" tasks from different devices. One way round the problem, perhaps, would be to ensure that any "updates" were entered via one specific device.

      Alison, my apologies for the delay with my GTD setup. I thought I might write a book on the subject, so I'm keeping my powder dry for the moment. I'll let you have a copy for evaluation purposes if you like.

    2. Hi Neil - Part of the work I do is proofreading and editing so I would be delighted to have an advance copy in soft copy format to proof for you - a gain for both of us hopefully!

  3. Alison - re ARCs (note for new readers - ARC notebooks have repositionable pages and are available at Staples stores). I use these notebooks for meetings, where a big sheet of paper is ideal for copious note taking. One of the ARC inserts you can buy is a PVC slip folder, and I use one of these for any papers given to me at meetings. Once I get back to base, I transfer anything I don't need for a while into my main filing system, retaining anything I'll be working on in the ARC. Before I leave the office on another trip, I can transfer some of the ARC sheets back into the ARC notebook. I can always punch the ARC sheets with four standard holes, and carry them in an A4 filofax if I prefer, but the ARC notebook is a fantastic input device, particularly when table space is at a premium, when on a train for instance.

    Alison, I have notice some duplication of appointments when using Icloud, so I know exactly what you mean. I hear about other people who have suffered similar "issues" with other digital systems. However, I try and make a point, wherever possible, to use my slimline as the primary input device. In practice, for every 100 entries in my filofax, I'm entering 5 in my iphone, and I always use one iphone to enter data, rather than using a pc as well. Effectively, the Icloud facility just serves as a back-up, rather than a method of data input, so I'm only going to access the facility in a data recovery situation, which will probably never happen but it's good to know it's there. If the odd piece of data appears twice, or perhaps not at all, for some strange reason known only to Apple, then I'll just accept it.

    There is, of course, one absolutely foolproof method of syncing - always add the appointment to both filofax and smartphone at the same time, and leave Icloud switched off. And, if this isn't possible, just make a note in a notebook (I use a Rhodia no. 12 notepad in my M2) and update both filofax and iphone when you next get the chance to update both systems together.

    It sounds quite an arduous regime to follow, but I've found it quite easy to stick to, with enhanced clarity and security for a small amount of extra time spent inputting data.

    1. Thanks Neil. I like your ARC method. I have been used to using what I call a 'day' book to write everything in. It has the advantage of keeping everything in one place, which means it's easy to refer back to notes from phones calls and meetings, but the following disadvantages: 1) I have to tear out a page if I want to put it into a file and 2) the A4 can be a bit large to tote about.

      I might try the A4 ARC for meeting notes that I may wish to file and get a bound A5 for my 'day book' and things I don't want to lose.

  4. Excellent post. Really enjoyed it, but I couldn't help but wonder why you just don't use the iPhone as your only device? Wouldn't that be easier and up-to-date all the ti,e and backed up as well? Think if I was to incorporate a smart device into my setup I could just as well use an electronic calendar, list-manager etc.
    What I find to be the real beauty of an analog system is the fact that I get to have one sole place for inputting and maintaining a system without any of the digital issues and interferences...

    Glad to hear it works for you and you definitely made me rethink my own workflow...

    1. Thomas, thanks for your comment.

      I agree that all electronic systems have "issues", and I certainly wouldn't want to rely on them.

      But, on the other hand, a filofax offers no protection against a robbery or a fire, unless one laboriously creates a copy and stores it at another address.

      I certainly enjoy the merits of both systems, but I'm wary of relying on just one or the other. I find that if I "sync" on a daily basis, as part of my daily revue, the slight additional expenditure of time doesn't feel too unwieldly, and the peace of mind that comes with having such a redundancy system seems to help free my mind of any concerns that may affect my other thoughts.