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Electronic devices may be trendy, but when it comes to time management, paper-based planners are hard to beat.

Fam Pract Manag. 2004;11(3):100

It’s OK to come out of the closet. Many people looking for a better way to master their time are doing just that. They are giving up their personal digital assistants (PDAs) and returning to paper planners. For planning and prioritizing, a paper system gives you something a PDA cannot: quick access to the big picture. With a flip of a page, you can see what’s in store for today, next week or next month and plan accordingly. If you have a PDA and think it’s the best invention known to man, good for you. Keep using it. But if it’s not living up to your expectations, consider a return to paper.

Use a PDA for managing data, not time

There’s a good reason to hold onto your PDA if you are a physician: It’s a terrific information manager. By downloading software to your PDA from the Internet, you can access a variety of medical textbooks, calculators and evidence-based disease-management tools at any time from any place. Literally thousands of programs are available for your choosing. As a point-of-care reference, your PDA is worth its weight in gold. But its value in managing your work and life priorities could be questionable. For example, it may be time to return to a paper-based planning system if you’re spending more time locating your PDA, turning it on and finding the correct data-entry screen than you would simply writing in a paper planner; if you frequently experience electronic blackouts because you can’t remember to keep your PDA battery charged; or if you often end your day saying, “I was so busy today, but I’m not sure what I accomplished.” These are sure signs of poor planning.

You may be able to alleviate some of the problems above simply by taking the time to learn how to use your PDA properly. If you’ve done that but are still having trouble managing your time and priorities, you should probably begin doing some planning on paper.

Use paper for managing priorities

A paper planner doesn’t need to have a lot of bells and whistles. Many efficient people I know use a plain spiral notebook to keep messages, to-do lists, ideas and pending items. Regardless of what the planner looks like, make sure it has a daily to-do list, a weekly overview so you can prioritize your workload, a monthly overview, and blank pages for notes and ideas. Also, consider splurging on a nice pen. It will make using your planner more appealing.

You should also have a project management list to help you organize your long-term projects. Effective project planning requires looking at the big picture, mapping out the steps needed to get the project done and setting due dates for each step. To make a project management list, begin by determining your project due date and counting the number of weeks you have until that due date. Then, create a table, labeling each column “Week of X.” If, for example, you have a project due on June 7 and you want to spread the work over eight weeks, label the columns “Week of April 12,” “Week of April 19” and so on through June 7. Record what you want to accomplish each week in each corresponding column. Carry this project management list with you and look at it often. Doing so will help you to maintain your priorities when other demands compete for your time.

Whatever works

The most important lesson in time management is to find what works best for you, whether it’s paper, technology or some combination of the two. Don’t worry that a paper planner might make you look old-fashioned. If it helps you master your time and attention, you’ll be far better off than the trendsetters.

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