Improving My Index Card Method: The Field Notes 56 Week Planner

My Field Notes 56 Week Planner

Running a business in today’s world requires a special type of focus. It’s so easy to get distracted. If you’re not careful, every day can be an endless stream of interruptions from your friends, family, and co-workers manifesting themselves in every format imaginable: phone calls, text messages, emails, app notifications, and good old in-person distractions.

One simple routine that I started almost a decade ago has been my most effective tool for keeping focused and on task without feeling overwhelmed (well, most of the time).

It started when I read The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. The following passage really got me thinking:

Don’t ever arrive at the office or in front of your computer without a clear list of priorities. You’ll just read unassociated email and scramble your brain for the day. Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening. I don’t recommend using Outlook or computerized to-do lists because it is possible to add an infinite number of items. I use a standard piece of paper folded three times to about 2″ x 3.5″, which fits perfectly in the pocket and limits you to noting only a few items.

By the end of 2007 outlining my daily goals on a single index card had become routine for me. I posted a visual representation of what I accomplished that year:

2007 Daily Goal Index Cards

At times I’ve slipped, but I’ve always picked it back up because of how well it’s worked for me. Finally, sometime about 3 years ago it became a staple in the way I work:

For a few years I got away from using the index card, but came back to it for good (hopefully) a little over a year ago. This doesn’t replace a calendar, an electronic to-do list for recurring tasks, or a project plan: it’s simply a short list of what I need to get done for the day.

I think that last sentence is really important. Daily goals are different from my other forms of staying organized. It’s the 1-3 most important things that I want to get done in a given day to keep me on track for accomplishing my larger goals. Sometimes what’s on my calendar or RTM list is essential, other times those things are secondary. Knowing that gives me the ability to postpone/delay/cancel as necessary to hit my goals for the day.

There will always be days where something with the business or personally completely blows up my plan. That’s to be expected. It’s why I write everything in pencil and not pen: it’s easy to erase and move things around!

There’s also a Sunday component to making this all work for me. Sunday I sit down and write out my goals for the week. It’s my first pass at each day, with more detail and accuracy expected for Monday than for Friday. The biggest benefit is that I get to zoom out even further and make sure that I’m happy with where I’ll be at the end of the week if I hit those goals. If the answer is no, I might plan a night or weekend day to work, or cut something that’s less important.

Over the past year I found myself using this method for more than just work goals. I’ve been writing out my workouts, things to do around the house, and stuff to do on the weekend. For a while I was just printing out a 7-day grid I made in Excel. Then I came across the Field Notes 56 Week Planner. As soon as I read about it, I picked one up. It is exactly what I’m looking for: no fancy calendar, no dates, just a bare bone grid with a space for each day of the week. You get that feeling of scratching something off of a list that digital can never replicate. It’s nice to have an archive of prior weeks handy. It’s also slim enough to throw into my bag without taking up any noticeable space. Sometimes the perfect product is created to solve your exact problem. This is one of those products for me.

2 comments on Improving My Index Card Method: The Field Notes 56 Week Planner

  1. Rob says:

    Some interesting stuff here that echos my experiences. Thanks for sharing.

    Do you still use RTM? Do you use an outliner at all? What happens when you need to add new tasks, subtasks, ideas, notes, reminders etc – do these go on a separate index card, a scratch pad, straight into RTM or what?

    I use workflowy and have done for years to manage all of my thoughts, todos, notes, projects, reminders etc. I like the simplicity of it, however I often find myself copying that day’s tasks onto a piece of paper which I work through, then go back into workflowy at the end of the (day/ week / when I can’t stand the messy piece of paper covered in notes) removing the finished items and adding in new items. It leads to duplication of work and a messy sheet of paper every few days so it’s not ideal.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Rob!

      Workflowy is really interesting, not sure I’ve come across that before. I effectively use a Google Doc to do the same thing for any projects I’m working on (the main one I work on is a Detailed Image Programming Plan with headings for each project and a table of contents for easy navigation). Docs are nice because there’s no rigidity – some features need screenshots, annotations, notes, while others need a bulleted list, and others need a bunch of links. When I finish something I cross it off, when I finish an entire feature I move it to a different doc of completed projects (mostly for speed/cleanliness). Plus sharing, mobile access, etc with Google Docs are all built into my daily workflow already. If I was starting from scratch I’d probably consider Workflowly since it appears to have some nice power tools. I like the hashtags and collapsing/expanding of lists.

      I do still use RTM but that’s just for small tasks or repeating tasks. I use the notes field and the URL field, so sometimes I’ll link the URL field to a wiki page with further instructions. I have a lot of weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly small tasks that I need to keep track of. Things like “renew SSL certificate” or “run AdWords report”. I’ll also use it for reminders to follow up with someone, but eventually I may switch to Boomerang for that stuff. I’ve got my eye on getting the entire company onto Boomerang but no one else seemed all that interested last time I brought it up.

      I use Google Calendar for all of my appointments, but that could also be used to do something similar with my tasks now that they’ve added a few features. At this point I’m just comfortable with RTM.

      Pretty much everything I put on paper is either on my calendar, RTM, or a Google Doc, but paper simplifies and pulls it all together, plus it forces me to consider my non-work activities alongside my work activities. Sometimes I get a reality check when I have a super busy week personally and in turn dial back my work a bit.

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