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The D*I*Y Planner: Hipster PDA Edition

a million monkeys typing » D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition

Geek worlds collide as Douglas Johnston releases the “Hipster PDA” edition of his popular D*I*Y Planner. As with the classic version, Douglas has adapted and refined popular “paper planner” templates—only this time they’re tailored to fit on our beloved index cards.

To commemorate this august occasion, we’ve asked Douglas himself to share his thoughts on why paper seems to be making such a comeback (if it ever “went away”), including some insights into who this format may and may not work best for.

Great work all around, Douglas!


The D*I*Y Planner: Hipster PDA Edition

by Douglas Johnston

D*I*Y Hipster PDA In this day and age, paper-based planning (PBP) is a notion roughly analogous to horse-and-buggies, pneumatic networking, sliderules, and steam-powered lawnmowers — in other words, ancient technology.

So, why are we suddenly seeing a resurgence in paper-based organizational tools like planners, index card sets (a.k.a., the Hipster PDA), file folders, pocket briefcases, and honest-to-goodness real-ink pens? Outside of a number of philosophical reasons, I believe that it's ultimately a matter of knowing that these things actually work. After all, not even the trendiest tools last for more than a season if they don't deliver (and I have a junk drawer overflowing with orphaned gadgets to prove it). There's a proven track record behind paper-based planning, and an endless array of options for those people wanting to define --and redefine-- their systems.

Despite being an IT professional, I've found that the dozens of technology-based systems I've used over the years have never really been fully effective solutions for managing my time and projects, and so bits and pieces of my life are now scattered in a hundred incompatible systems, never to be seen again. The last straw was when several of my Palm databases became badly corrupted last year, the bad data having also spread to the desktop and the backups: needless to say, much was lost. I began to wonder if the Day Runner I used a lifetime ago could be resurrected and made useful again. This plan had its problems, however: not only was the nearest Staples a four-hour jaunt away, but their shrink-wrapped forms were quite limited in variety and usage, not to mention very expensive -- a typical pack of 20 To Do sheets was about $5 USD. The D*I*Y Planner project was thus born as a way of providing a wide assortment of forms at little cost. (Although, my wife might argue that I was just being cheap.) With the realization that others might find it useful, I decided to create a system that could be tweaked to suit almost any methodology or situation, relying heavily upon user feedback for ideas and direction.

The latest member of the D*I*Y Planner family is the Hipster PDA Edition, a set of 34 organizational and planning templates designed specifically for 3x5“ index cards. I've received hundreds of requests for a kit like this, many claiming it was an important option for creating an ideal customized system. At first, the demand took me by surprise; after all, why would you want to print so tiny on cards that contain so little information and are so hard to file?

The bits that work well...

The past few weeks, I've been experimenting with the Hipster PDA and the cards that people have asked me to create, and I now admit my initial impressions were born of ignorance. So why do these work?


Although I've never minded hauling my planner around, sometimes the “weight-to-usefulness” ratio is a little low. It's far more sensible to take a grocery list on a card to the supermarket than your entire project portfolio, for example. A pack with a few GTD All-In-One cards, a few Notes cards, and two months' worth of calendars is a great way to be portable. The most important info for the day can be written on them before you hit the road.


I have about 200-300 pages in my Day Runner, most of which aren't of immediate importance. In contrast, the Hipster PDA emphasis is upon short-term planning and productivity, which means that you don't have to carry around the next six months of materials, only the basics you need for the day or week; this essentially forces me to focus on getting things done now. This fits quite well with the immediacy of the GTD philosophy.


Even if you use a regular paper planner or software like Outlook/Entourage, DEVONthink, Tinderbox or wikis, these cards make great scratch pads for moving information into a more permanent solution later. I've started hauling around a Hipster PDA during the day as I go about my business, and then settling down with my regular “classic” kit in the evenings, transferring and processing the most important details. I then review my projects, calendar, actions and references as normal, and jot info onto the cards for the next day.


Now, Merlin's initial concept of the Hipster PDA stressed simplicity and portability, which is probably why it caught fire. However, a number of people do like forms that help structure thoughts, and they like the feel of a bona-fide “product” that looks like it was meant to help them organize. I don't see this as hand-holding, but a form of inspiration and motivation. Plus, each field is a potential prompt for you to think about what you're doing, and why. (Of course, in no way does this diminish the free-form thinking you can do on a blank card.)


Anyone addicted to 43 Folders knows the importance of refining one's techniques for the sake of productivity, and part of the fun is experimenting with new methods and forms. The Hipster PDA in general, and some of these templates in particular, provide the opportunity for tackling your day in completely different ways. For example, I've fallen in love with the “flip-it” version of the monthly calendar: the top three weeks are on one side, the bottom two weeks on the other. Since I only have a couple of items per day (most tasks fall into my Next Actions lists), it's perfect for me. I've also heard back from a few testers who are really enjoying the Covey Roles and Covey Quadrant forms, because they're using them to explore the top-down approach for the first time. I've tried to advocate tweakability with the D*I*Y Planner kits, encompassing as many methodologies as reasonably possible, so there's plenty of room for experimentation. (A blessing or a curse: you decide.)

To keep your mojo rising, I've also included two quick-reference cards: one being a Getting Things Done flow chart, brain tickler, and weekly review list; the other based on Covey's First Things First, a little cheat sheet for weekly planning, daily work, and reviewing.


You know those boardroom meetings where some people haul out tattered $2 notepads from the office supply company, and others whip out sporty PocketPCs, wireless Palms, and 12“ ThinkPads and Powerbooks? Think there isn't jealousy in the air? I think a nicely-constructed Hipster PDA has the same sort of caché. People seeing these babies —nicely printed and organized— seem inherently fascinated by them and often ask where they can buy a set. Hauling out a stack of these in front of your boss can only serve to impress. (Yes, we organizational geeks can be slaves to fashion, too.)

..And not so well...

This is not to say that the medium and design don't have their downsides, for some people and certain situations:

  1. Filing isn't quite as easy as with regular paper. The thickness and size of the cards make permanent storage a little problematic. True, you can keep lots of index card storage boxes or bulky envelopes, but this is clunky compared to a typical file cabinet with folders designed for larger, thinner paper. If filing is a necessity for you, then you might think about transferring your information to another medium.
  2. It seems like 30 cards is a ”sweet spot“ in terms of toting the Hipster PDA around and shuffling for data. This is great if you just carry a calendar, some action lists, some notes, a few project sheets, and a bunch of blank cards or forms. If you want more —like numerous reference lists, full project details, a year's worth of monthly calendars (or a month's worth of daily calendars), and so on— then the deck becomes unwieldy and tends to make finding information difficult, even with tabs or dividers (which, again, increase the thickness). If you're an information junkie, you might be better off with a ”classic“ planner or a high-tech PDA.
  3. The small size of the forms necessitates a 0.15 inch line spacing, which also seems to be a standard for small paper planners. This height is fine if you can print small and have a 0.1 to 0.3 pen, but if not, your cards might soon be a mess.
  4. Like any other system, integration is always an issue. Can you make the Hipster PDA work in conjunction with your other organizational tools, or will it be just another alluring productivity distraction?
  5. Paper cuts. Clumsy people should also carry a few band-aids.

This is just a summary of what I personally find to be the upsides and downsides of working with the Hipster PDA version of the D*I*Y Planner; your mileage will vary wildly. Whatever the case, I still believe it's a great option for experimentation, and I'm going to make the Hipster PDA a permanent part of my own kit.

Just a final note: both the regular 'Planner and Hipster PDA kits were influenced by hundreds of requests, questions, comments and complaints from users, readers, and especially the members of the 43 Folders Google Group. My deepest thanks and appreciation goes out to these people: you've helped shape this product, and deserve much of the credit. Hopefully, it reflects far different and wider needs than my own; this, I think, will be the key to any success.

Related Links

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About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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