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The new hand-held planning devices are cool, but an old-fashioned paper planner may keep you just as well organized.

Fam Pract Manag. 2000;7(3):68

You may notice other physicians carrying around fancy leather planners or the latest model hand-held computer and wonder whether you too should invest in getting organized. Or perhaps you wonder whether the personal organizer you already own is really maximizing your efficiency. Determining which planning system is best suited to your personality and lifestyle is easy despite all the options available. Here's what you need to know to choose one that's right for you.

Take your history

The first step in choosing an organizing system is to identify whether you're a planner or a scheduler. To do this, ask yourself which of the following physicians you most closely resemble.

  • Dr. A keeps a daily schedule but also has well-thought-out goals and a life plan. She establishes personal and professional objectives to help her reach these goals. She prioritizes with a life plan in mind. She breaks big projects into small units and schedules their completion. Dr. A meets most of her deadlines.

  • Dr. B keeps a daily schedule and a daily to-do list (with most items marked “urgent”). He doesn't plan for the future but instead focuses on day-to-day responsibilities. He doesn't plan large projects ahead of time but knows they will get done somehow. Dr. B also meets most of his deadlines.

If you haven't guessed it already, Dr. A is the planner and Dr. B is the scheduler. When it comes to choosing an effective planning system, schedulers and planners have very different needs. If you're a scheduler, a simple calendar planner with a to-do list will work. But if you've set professional and personal goals and have a plan of action to reach these goals, you'll need a more sophisticated planning system.

Diagnose your needs

As you consider what planning system would be best for you, be careful not to jump to the conclusion that you need something electronic. Most physicians do spend a lot of their time on the run, but that doesn't necessarily mean everyone needs a hand-held device. These gizmos are great but not if they're just a quick way to check your schedule. Anytime you buy a planning device and don't use it to its full capabilities, you're wasting your money. In fact, being on the run doesn't necessarily mean you need any kind of electronic planning system. A paper planner that can fit in your lab coat may be the best choice.

More important than how busy you are is whether others need access to your schedule. If your calendar has to interface with those of your colleagues or office staff, or if someone else inputs your meeting appointments, you may need a computerized system that you maintain, at least in part, on a networked desktop computer. Still, you can have your administrative staff print out your daily and weekly schedules for you if you prefer to keep track of them (and your projects and appointments) in a paper planner.

With these points in mind, check the criteria below to help you decide which planning system is right for you:

  • Use a paper planner if you want to set priorities, plan projects, keep notes and see the big picture; if you want access to your schedule and notes anywhere, anytime; if you don't want to take the time to input simple entries (such as phone calls made or returned) into your computer; or if you simply prefer greater flexibility.

  • Use a desktop computer planner if you want to do the same things that you can do with a paper planner but don't mind the learning curve involved or the time it takes to boot up the computer; if your schedule is networked with those of your staff and colleagues; or if you want to interface your planner and e-mail with other software such as Microsoft Outlook.

  • Use a hand-held computer if you want all the benefits of a desktop computer planner and don't mind entering large amounts of data with a stylus or on a small keyboard (nearly full-sized keyboards are available for newer hand-held devices, but they don't fit in a pocket!) or if you want a portable system you can hook up to your desktop computer.

The bottom line is that the most effective systems for getting organized enable you to do both short- and long-term planning, and they give you flexibility to adjust your planning daily.


Any planner is only as good as the plans it supports. Don't buy an expensive planning system thinking it will help you get into the habit of planning. Learn to plan first, then choose your planning system.

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Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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