Planning Analog: 11+ Tools, Tricks & Techniques to Unplug Your Brain

Everyone has a different process for getting great work done. As digital marketers, almost all our work happens in the digital space – whether managing a social media account (or a few), editing a company blog, or making a brand video. But behind the scenes, we might be working a little more analog. That is: more with paper and less with pixels.

I first heard the concept of “planning analog” in the great book Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman. Inspired by Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen, 2008), they advocate: “Don’t start by firing up PowerPoint; start by mapping out an outline of both your story and quick ideas for accompanying charts and photos. You can use Word, a notebook, a whiteboard, or chalk on the sidewalk.”

I’m big on planning analog. Even though I grew up typing things out on a keyboard, it’s always easier for me to focus my thoughts on paper. I was curious how other creative people organize their digital lives in the analog world, so I went digging around the Internet for inspiration. The result is this roundup of the 11 most interesting ways to organize our brains in the real world before we start making magic in the digital one.

1. Bullet Journal

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This method kept popping up during my research for this post – it’s a popular one. Designer Ryder Carroll devised this system to organize his own life through trial and error over many years, and is now sharing it with the world. The Bullet Journal method is a simple, organized system for quickly getting down the things you want to record. Whether it’s what happened today, what you need to get done, things you’re curious about, or personal musings, the Bullet Journal can hold it all. The full system is quite complex and worth looking into if you’re in need of a paper-based, tangible life-planner (and who isn’t?).

2. The 1-3-5 Rule

This rule, from Alex Cavoulacos at The Muse, keeps our daily to-do lists realistic. One of the problems I have with my daily task lists is they seem endless. The 1-3-5 rule makes my lists more achievable.

It goes like this: You get to pick 1 big thing you’re going to do today; 3 medium things; and 5 small things. It can be really, really tempting to pile on the Big Things. But be realistic. As Alex says:

“Like it or not, you only have so many hours in the day and you’re only going to get a finite number of things done.”

Alex also recommends writing out your 1-3-5 note at the end of your day to keep your groggy morning self focused when you get into the office. (Almost) better than coffee!

3. The Emergent Task Planner

David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner is a helpful system for visualizing your tasks and the time required to complete them. The Planner gives you room to prioritize three tasks for the day, with 15-minute increment bubbles for you to allocate your time. Seah touts the Planner as “serving as an anchor for your mind” by reminding you what you should be working on and how long everything should take. It also prevents task overload by bucketing projects three at a time, keeping you (like the 1-3-5 Rule) realistic about what you can accomplish.

4. Sketchnotes

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Sketchnotes are for the creative in all of us. “Getting more creative” is 100% about just creating more. Making our everyday note-taking more creative—sketch-based, even—pushes us to create more in all aspects of our lives. Push your boundaries, let go, and actually remember more from the notes you take with this method. Try it!

5. Behance Action Method Notebooks

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The Behance Action Method is an idea organizational process that helps people retain more of the great ideas that come out of brainstorming sessions. Use the lefthand page, a free-form dot-matrix setup, for brainstorming, and capture salient points or “action items” on the righthand page. Simple but powerful, you can use their special notebooks or repurpose one of your own.

6. The Hipster PDA

This one hearkens back to before most of us had even heard of hipsters – 2004. It’s the simplest idea on this list: Get a pile of index cards. Clip ‘em with a binder clip. That’s it. Merlin Mann, who coined the term, points out you could color-code the index cards if you need to get fancy. But the main point is just to keep notes, keep ‘em handy, keep ‘em simple.

7. Time Management Board

time management board

I really like this simple, Post-It Note based time management map from Jordan at Create Like Crazy. She has four sections – Categories, Tasks, This Week, and This Month. Each category gets its own Post-It color and tasks are collected in, you guessed it, the Tasks area. She can then move tasks over to This Month and subdivide them into Monday-Friday in the This Week section. Straightforward, visual, organized. Works for me!

8. Leonardo DaVinci’s To-Do List

Robert Krulwich (of Radiolab) wrote a wonderful piece about Leonardo DaVinci’s notebook, including his to-do list. Thanks to the illustration abilities of Wendy MacNaughton, it looked something like this:

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He had a million things going on! And was, as we know, astoundingly creative (and productive). Krulwich uses the example of DaVinci’s brain-dump to talk about the virtues of uninhibited curiosity.

“Minds that break free, that are compelled to wander, can sometimes achieve more than those of us who are more inhibited.”

Many of us have creative roles that are also bound by productivity goals. If you’re ever feeling stymied by the pressure of a deadline, shake off some of those inhibitions and let your mind wander. You might find something amazing.

9. The Daily Stack 

Daily Stack from Anders Højmose on Vimeo.

This one is definitely my favorite – and not just for the slick soundtrack. This video showcasing the first prototype was released in 2010 and I haven’t been able to find any updates online, so it might never become widely available. But it is a really cool idea. These designers built a set of building blocks that connect to your laptop via USB to create a hybrid tangible-technical time-tracking system. Bricks are color-coded for work, play, and personal tasks, with different sizes for different chunks of time. As you work (or play, or tackle personal tasks), you build up your stack in the real world and sync it to your computer. You’re left with an electronic record of how you spent your days, and a little bit of joy every time you add a new block. I’ll sign up for any system that lets me feel like I’m back in kindergarten for a few minutes every day.

10. Post-It Plus App

The snazzy folks at 3M launched a new app that “captures physical brainstorm sessions, storyboards, project plans, and other projects and makes them digital.” It even stores each note separately, so you can continue your physical brainstorming session – moving notes around, re-prioritizing, reorganizing – digitally. It looks pretty powerful and a much easier way to record brainstorming sessions than typing all our notes into a third-party software.

11. Bit Planner

Bit Planner from Special Projects on Vimeo.

Ok, this one blew my mind. I know I’ve already said several of these are my favorite, but this one is just so dang cool. Very clever designers built a LEGO wall calendar that syncs to Google Calendar to organize their activities in their firm. A video’s worth 1,000,000 words – watch it.


And just for fun, Johnny Cash probably perfected the to-do list.

So what about you? How do you organize your day, week, month, life? Any of these strike a chord? I want to hear all about it!

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