Using a Personal Analog Device

I use a bit of a hybrid between paper-based planning systems and their digital equivalents. One strong component of this system, however, is my personal analog device (my PAD). I learned long ago that a computer-based PDA was too restrictive, too clunky, and generally not as useful to me as a simple 85 cent pad of paper and a smooth flowing pen. You might recall the post about The Notebook. Consider this a follow-on.

Let me quickly sketch for you the infromation model that I'm working from, and then we can drill into the details. My personal model for accomplishing things in a given day requires the following: upstream planning and mechanisms, downstream execution and management, and ground-level data capture and transfer. This post will focus on capturing data in a useful way, but I'll spend another quick moment on the concepts I mentioned in my system.

Upstream Planning

Before I can use my pad to its best effect, I have to know my overall plans, my goals, what I need to accomplish. How do you know WHAT to do? First, you must answer your own version of the question WHY. Why do I do my projects at work? Because they add value to the organization, and because I like being paid to support my lifestyle. Why do I do my external projects? I do them to build on a body of work, focusing on self-improvement and creativity. Upstream planning is the system for making sure you keep a focus on doing what matters most to you. Think of it as the big picture versus what you're doing in the day-to-day.

Downstream Execution and Management

The downstream of understanding what matters most to me is ensuring that the things I want to get done GET done. For this, I use a modified version of David Allen's GETTING THINGS DONE. I don't so much relentlessly pursue next actions, and I don't do one thing until it's done. I'm a little bit too multitask oriented to follow GTD to the letter of the law. Other tools that I use in the downstream execution and management of my projects and priorities are online calendars with reminders (like this or this or this), an online storage "hub," as mentioned in That Sync'ing Feeling a while back. So, what goes into the pad?

Data Capture

Whatever your system for getting things done, you'll need a means by which to capture information for further use. What kinds of things might you need to capture? A phone number, driving directions, a list of things to pick up at the store, or some of the ground-level details of your current project lists -- whatever the material, it's important to have a fast, available system to collect new information, to record its current state, and to mark off changes.

I use a cheap, pocket-sized notepad to do my dirty work. Why? Because it's inexpensive so I don't mind if I lose it. (Have you ever suffered from not wanting to "waste" a "virgin" Moleskine with something as silly as: go get milk?) I like it because it fits in most pockets. I also like that it gives me physical limitations, so I don't waste space writing something that would be better captured in another format.

Context and other Tricks

Because the pad is tiny, I have to be very attentive to space. I have a bunch of little tricks to make this work well. First, context.

David Allen mentions that it's easier to get things done when you group the actions required to complete your projects as they relate to context. It doesn't matter if you've written into your GTD planner "mow the lawn" if you're sitting at your desk at work. It doesn't matter that you've written "answer emails" if you're at the beach with the kids. What matters is understanding that you can only get certain things done in certain localities.

More than anything, I use the following contexts for myself:

@comp - at the computer with internet
@create- make content of some kind (articles, art, whatever)
@work- usually connotes meetings or a firewall-related reason to be in my office
@car- often denotes errands to run

Beyond this, I then use the following symbols:

! - an action
e - email someone
u - look up this URL
m - movie (people often give me movie suggestions)
l - library (big library user)
g - google. Look something up
$ - money. Used for when I owe someone something.
[] - boxes are just notes. Bright ideas, or just facts to remember.

Use the Pad, Luke

I use my pad all the time. I never rely on my memory any longer. But it's really of limited use, right? It's for data capture, not for processing. As I mentioned earlier, the pad is good for:

  • lists
  • tasks
  • status
  • quick facts/notes

Going back to older pages, I see where I cooked up a new project (this was a note). I see where I had to give my daughter $2 for milk money. I see where I had to call back two different hardware vendors for questions about their programs. These are the "foot soldiers" of the efforts of getting things done.

However, it's not where I store things like time-bound items. I think your D*I*Y Planner is a better device for this (or your online calendar of choice), because scheduling is by its nature a fluid experience. With just a few scratches and edits, you risk missing an appointment.

Other Times to Go Off-Pad

If you come up with a great project idea, move that into something a bit more static. Try using a storyboard from the Classic packs to get the project details clear in your head, and then transfer this into a project planning form. Then, when you've got this new project baked into something you want to pursue and execute against, you can use the pad to keep track of the smaller details, the tasks to complete, etc.

To me, the pad isn't somewhere to store long term data. Why? Because part of the beauty is that it's small, portable, disposable. If you are storing your list of movies to watch over the next few years, you won't want to throw away (or even store in an archive) your physical pad. Move your data into another form when you're ready to store it. I use online systems (or hubs), like Backpack for things like that, or a wiki.

I try to keep "copying" to a bare minimum, but if you collect little snips of data in your pad, like a phone number or a URL, it's best to move it into your primary planner tool of choice.

Hack The PAD Idea

I'm a big fan of taking an idea like this (my version of it) and getting people's add-ons or more interesting ideas. It's clear how this blends into the D*I*Y Planner system. It would be neat to hear what other D*I*Y Planner tools marry well into this.

--Chris Brogan writes about self-improvement and creativity at []

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Hi Chris. I really like your

Hi Chris.

I really like your shorthand technique.
I use PADs for almost everything, especially taking notes at meetings. I'm lousy at using an actual *planner*, but my notes tend to hold all I need, if I can find the information.

Two marks I use that you might find useful.
> Name < : It's a way to denote someone's name in a statement.
So if > John Smith < says he'll take the action, I'd write

Action: > John Smith <
or ! > John Smith < if I use your system.

A place I have to go to :
! Meet to discuss list > Cafe Campus < 5-Jun-06.

@ : To do. This marks an item I have to do something with.
I originally used a box, but found that the @ symbol was
easier to find and took less time to pen.

I tend to leave space along one side of my notes (when I remember) so I can use the Cornell system to summarize what I wrote. If I don't leave any space it's because I intend to transcribe the notes into the computer for assignment and tracking. :)

I'm not good at using small PADs, prefering the 5.5 x 8.5 size. I have one jouralistic style 8.5 x 11.5 - but I find it too big, and I just never got use to the page flipping up instead of to the right.

Do you number your pages or use any kind of margin notes?

Responses to Rebecca

Hi Rebecca--

I don't use margin notes. This pad is REALLY small. 3 inches across maybe?

I like your adds to this, and I think the size you use probably would work great, even better than the one I'm using. I use mine for convenience of back-pocket access.

Keep up the great work!


My Version


I just started using the "PAD" idea a few weeks ago. I took it one step further and cut it down to fit in my cell phone case with my cell phone. Now I always have it with me. I just wish I always had a pencil with me. I've got to get a better system like you have to take the notes.

It is simple and it works

Interesting to read your article Chris. I have struggled for years trying to find a simple method to keep organised, get rid of those pesky Post-It notes, and not miss follow-ups, without complicated planner systems. Finally, what worked for me was the combination to which you make reference: a small pad to jot down everything, a solid yet flexible PIM (in my case, data is kept on a memory stick; the PIM being installed at home and at the office instead of being online) and an electronic PDA which syncs with the PIM. This way, when I am away from either computer, I write everything on the notepad, use the PDA for reference (reminders, calendar, etc.) and transcribe only once from the pad to the PIM at either location. The data is always kept on the memory stick and continually sync'ed in the background to the PDA and to the computer on which I am working (for back-up in case something happens to both the stick and the PDA). What I found essential though was to make sure that everything be transcribed from the pad to the PIM a.s.a.p. and the pages be thrown away immediately to get rid of the clutter and keep only one consistent reference point where all the information is kept and sought.

I have used this method, which is essentially what you described, with some variation, for quite some time with very satisfying results. It keeps the clutter away, simplifies organisation, follow-ups and reminders, and I don't really need to think about it. It simply works.

Sylvain L.

3x5 notepad

I have been using a notepad for close to twenty years, I have found that writing down everything only once on the notepad makes for 100% follow-up. On the bottom page is the date then time for each entry, right hand is a box for ttd items. Action taken is written on top page with the time as a reference. Once the action is complete the box is filled in, x for not done. All entries are sequential in pen so are a legal record of what has happened. I found that I will write information I want to keep on the top page as well, never on the bottom. Names etc are transferred to my palm, dates etc. All action items have an order number which I write in the top page to show action taken, as well the date/time can be used to reference back to the original entry in the notebook. I use other abbreviations for names, etc but the most significant part is writing everything down when it happens and even if not actioned right away becomes a checklist to make sure it is done. Remembering that unless you check you don't know. As for looking back on the notebook for information, that sucks but if it is important enough the information is there. This has saved my bacon many times as people in general don't keep track of information effectively and assume that neither do you. As a person with subordinates who constantly have maintenance issues etc this is invaluable to be 100% sure you have actioned everything.

I think it is a bit

I think it is a bit complicated. Look:
@comp = work with computer

u = look up URL

But work with computer is to look up URL or to send Email or check firewall. And I think it is a part of your work. So here shoud be no context because IT IS THE WORK. Only Actions (e.g. Bill, sent invitation; Anna, delegate to buy flowers)

What is this? @car does not mean that you have only to drive. If car is broken. You still can think how to update firewall in car waiting for service.

I think you should do following:
only at work place