Focus On This Podcast

91. The Best of Both Worlds: Using Technology with a Paper-based Productivity System



You set yourself up with all the latest productivity tools to get ahead of your busy days. But now you find yourself monitoring too many systems and never knowing where you put that one piece of information. You feel frustrated—and maybe even a little guilty—that you’re not using your planner the right way. You need a system that keeps you focused and tracks all the complicated, changing information that’s part of your job.

In this episode, Courtney, Blake, and Verbs share how they each use technology in conjunction with their Full Focus Planners. They offer 3 tips for figuring out a personalized hybrid system that works for you, so you can streamline and integrate a productivity system that empowers your most important work.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • 4 questions to consider while customizing your own system
  • Why you should limit the role of multi-function digital tools
  • The case for deleting work apps from your phone
  • When to use digital tools versus your planner for maximum productivity


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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. I’m Verbs, here with Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton. Happy Monday, guys.

Courtney: Hey. How’s it going?

Verbs: Hey, hey.

Courtney: Hey, hey. That took me back, Verbs. I just had a flashback to middle school football games for a second.

Blake: Wait. What?

Courtney: You never heard any of those cheers? You’re going to make me give this away.

Blake: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Verbs: You’re just going to have to do it. That’s what’s going to have to happen.

Blake: What are you saying?

Courtney: You don’t remember any of those football games in middle school or high school, some of those, “Hey, hey, ho, ho…” Okay. I’m not going to do cheers…

Blake: A little bit more.

Courtney: I’m not going to do cheers on the Focus on This podcast.

Verbs: How did the end go?

Blake: Were you a cheerleader? People are wanting to know. Inquiring minds.

Verbs: Did you cheer, Courtney?

Courtney: I don’t really want to answer that. I did. I did.

Blake: Oh, yes! Okay. Well, we will leverage that information in the future, but for today…

Verbs: Since we’re here, we’re going to need video also.

Blake: Yeah. We’re going to need some video.

Courtney: There is no video. I made sure once I was out of college.

Verbs: You erased the VHS?

Courtney: Mm-hmm. It’s all gone. I want to know from both of you, off the top of your head, all-time favorite piece of technology. Like, all time.

Blake: I remember when I first got the iPod, when the iPod came out that had the click wheel. It was not the first generation. It was the first one that had a click wheel, and I got it. It was shortly after a movie called Ocean’s Eleven came out, and I had the soundtrack. Between classes in high school, I would be bumping. I was like, “I’m about to rob some English class right now.” I felt so cool.

Verbs: It just puts you in heist mode.

Blake: Oh, yeah. I felt awesome. It’s the scene where they’re in the bar and George Clooney is like, “All right. That makes 10. You think we need one more?” Brad Pitt says nothing. “You think we need one more. All right. We’ll get one more.” Cut to Chicago with Matt Damon. That’s like my zone, my productivity zone.

Verbs: I think it’s proper that we’re talking about technology and our favorite pieces of technology. Obviously, here at Michael Hyatt & Company, we love our planner, but we also love technology. One of the questions we get a lot around here is “How do I use my planner alongside my technology?” because it’s obvious that there are some limitations to the planner that are also helped by technology. For example, let’s say, when a meeting never makes it into your planner and you miss it because you weren’t keeping an eye on your calendar. Things like that occur all the time.

Courtney: Wait. For clarification, you mean when a meeting gets scheduled in the middle of the day and it wasn’t in your planner from whenever you did your workday startup.

Verbs: Exactly.

Blake: A lot of people think, “If I start using the planner, am I going to have to throw my iPhone in the trash?” I say, “Yeah, you are, but that’ll be good for you.”

Courtney: I thought you were going to say to have them mail it to you and that you would take care of disposal.

Blake: I would take care of it. And that’s part of the heist. All right, last time. I promise that was the last time.

Verbs: It is true, guys, the reason we got this question is because there are a lot of folks who feel frustrated, maybe even a little guilty, that they’re not using the planner correctly or using it in the right way. So, we’re going to talk today about a system that keeps you focused and tracks all the complicated changing information that could be part of your job and try to figure out a hybrid system that works for you.

Today we’re going to be talking through some of the tips that may be able to help you as you set up your hybrid system into a format that really works for you. Blake, we know you’re kind of the resident hybrid professional extraordinaire chef/architect, and I know Courtney has some thoughts as well that are going to help us all think about this hybrid system in a more productive way. So help us out. What are some of the things we need to be considering?

Blake: We have three solid tips, and then Courtney is going to blow your minds when she reveals the behind the scenes of how this executive “execs” all day long. Okay. The first tip when we’re talking about using a hybrid system, combining tech with good old-fashioned pen and paper, is to clarify your needs. Clarify what you need. This is important, because there’s not some sort of hard-and-fast right way and wrong way to use different tools, but the right and wrong really depends on your individual needs, which is going to vary from person to person.

Courtney: Yeah. It’s different for everybody. Actually, guys, for everybody listening, more than probably any other episode, we talked about this episode a lot before we started recording today, because it is a really unique solution. There’s a reason we get asked this question a lot. But as you’re thinking through how to clarify your needs… That sounds great, like, “Yeah. Clarify your needs.”

Here are some questions I want you to think through. The first is…What tasks need to be accomplished? Then…What do you need to automate? Then…Where are the holes in your current system? What are the things that are making you lose your mind, the things that you’re like, “Golly! Why does this keep happening?” Write those down.

It could be that you’re dropping the ball or they just take too long or there’s just a lot of friction around them. Sometimes you don’t really know these until you experience them. Maybe make a list in the back of your current planner, documenting what these are. Hopefully, just the awareness is going to give you some clarity.

Blake: For example, in my own world, something I need is a system to keep track of all of the conversations I’m having with potential clients of ours. This is ranging in the hundreds, potentially, in a given month. That, quite honestly… Not to spoil where we’re headed with this, but you can imagine, that’s a lot to try to keep track of with a ledger and pen and paper. It’s just not super practical. However, it is super practical to use pen and paper for the sales process. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But that would be something I wrote down. I have to figure out a way to have a system where I know those relationships are documented and the urgency of where those relationships are at… That’s the origin of what we now know as the CRM. The customer relationship management system is designed to meet that need.

So, that’s an example for me. Another need that maybe you’re not thinking of is how you need to feel or how you need to show up for your team or your family. You have an emotional guidance system of sorts when you’re trying to be productive, and if you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, that’s your emotions telling you, “Something is broken. Something is broken.”

For me, I need to feel peaceful when I leave the workplace, so that’s going to inform how I use a hybrid system. I need to feel like I’m satisfied with my work or something is missing. So if you don’t feel satisfied, if you don’t feel peaceful, that’s something to write down as well, because you can start using tools to facilitate feeling how you want to feel and accomplishing what you need to accomplish.

Verbs: It’s interesting you said, “How do you want to feel at the end of your workday?” I think, even as we’ve talked time and time again about those Sunday scaries, even being able to kind of transport “How do you want to feel?” to the beginning of your day, just so you can go into the day more clearly, kind of checking into work from the home mode into the work mode. So that’s an excellent tip.

Blake: The second tip is build from the bottom up. When you get a new phone or a new computer, Courtney or Verbs, do you like to do that thing where it makes a clone of what your old phone was like or do you like to do a clean slate?

Verbs: Clone it.

Courtney: Yes. I’m clone it too. I’m like, “Don’t make this harder on me than it needs to be.”

Blake: See, I love the clean slate, just the ruthless slaying of everything and then seeing what survives. What’s the app I download first? I love doing that. You don’t have to do that when it comes to your own hybrid system, but some of you probably do. Some of you, if you were to look at your phone, if you look at your computer, if you look at the apps you open out of habit, not everything is really necessary, and it’s too cluttered, and you deserve to give yourself an opportunity to start fresh and figure out…

When we say, “Build from the bottom up,” it’s not that you have to start from zero, but I do think it’s important to sort of Marie Kondo your apps a little bit. It’s like, “What is this for? Is this useful to me? What’s the purpose of this? What’s the result? Does this bring me joy?” Slack doesn’t bring me joy today. That’s why I’m not in any of the Slack channels anymore, guys.

Courtney: Oh. I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from you in a while.

Verbs: Wondering where you went.

Courtney: From tip one, if you’re clarifying your needs, this one is… Basically, you’re saying, “Okay. I have some awareness of what I actually need.” If you were going to build your dream team for your productivity, what would you use? You may use most of the same things you have now, but you may have some things that you’re like, “Yeah, this is not really serving my needs anymore. I’ve just kept using it because it’s what has been there for a while.”

Listen. If you’re out there and you’re still using Lotus Notes, I’m going to call this one for you. It’s time to let that one go. Move on. People are out there listening who are like, “Lotus Notes? What in the world is that?” But if you know what it is, it’s time. It’s here.

Blake: Where this is really important, Courtney, is multifunction digital tools. For example, Slack now has a lot of different functions and a lot of different purposes. We could have all of our team meetings in Slack, if we wanted to, and not use Zoom at all. You can call someone through Slack, so we could say, “Oh, we never need to phone anyone on their cell. We can just use Slack.” It’s important to define the role for an app or piece of technology and actually limit that role to what it is.

For example, I only use Slack for communication that is non-urgent but important, and I don’t use it for anything else, basically ever. The reason that’s important is because I do not have Slack notifications on my phone, because I don’t want to get notified at 6:00 p.m. when I’m at dinner about something that doesn’t need my attention until tomorrow morning. If something is on fire and they need to get ahold of me, they have my cell.

I realize I’m kind of dipping into our next tip, our third tip, so maybe we should just go there, and then we can give people a picture of our own lives and kind of elaborate on this. The third tip is create boundaries around your tech and tech use. That’s a little bit of what we said a moment ago around Slack, which is like, “Hey, this is only going to be used for this purpose,” but with this next tip about creating boundaries, it’s not just purpose we’re defining; we’re also defining our own personal use of that purpose.

To extend this example of Slack further, that would be like, “Hey, I’m going to check Slack in my workday startup time, I’m going to check it in my workday shutdown time, and I’ll check it really quickly after lunch, and then I’m going to close the app, because it doesn’t serve a purpose when I’m supposed to be having sales calls or deep work time or working on a project. It’s just a really annoying red dot blinking at me that’s a distraction.”

Courtney: Right. That’s a really good example. I’ll give another example of a boundary for us that I think a lot of people listening will relate to. We use email only for external communication, and we use Slack for all internal communication. Every once in a while, I’ll get an email… Usually it’s when a newer team member has onboarded, and they’ll send an email to our internal staff, and we’ll just politely say, “Hey, we use this only for external. For internal…”

Blake: Yeah. “Pack up your things. It was great having you.”

Courtney: It is so helpful to have boundaries, both time and how you use them. You’ve already given some really great examples of that.

Blake: One of our all-star clients… His name is Roy. He has taken our system, the pen and paper and tech hybrid use, and just crushed it. Like myself, he’s in sales primarily. The first year using our system, he doubled his output in terms of revenue generated but took a lot of hours and, more importantly, a lot of stress off himself in the process. We got breakfast a couple of months ago, and out on the table he has two phones.

He said, “Blake, some people will just think this is ridiculous, but the more high-achieving I get, the more I recognize the importance of creating boundaries around my tech. I don’t give my personal number to clients anymore. I created a different number, and the apps that are on that work phone aren’t on my personal phone. So when I decide I’m done with work, the phone goes away, and only my friends and family can get in touch with me, and the apps I use are more for personal use on this phone.”

Some of you are like, “Boy, I can’t have two phones” or “That seems ridiculous,” but I think sometimes that’s extremely helpful. The clearer the boundaries are and the more you can… Having two phones, if you think about it, is a form of automation. You’re automating the decision fatigue of “Ooh, should I check in on my email or check in on Slack?” You’re like, “Nope. It’s on a different phone altogether.”

Courtney: I can even give an example of this. I actually still had Slack on my phone up until I think a year ago. I think we had an executive team lunch, and I said something about checking Slack on my phone, and Megan Miller was like, “Wait. You have Slack on your phone?” I was like, “Yeah, I do.” I was like, “I don’t have notifications turned on, but sometimes if I’m sitting somewhere, I’ll just check in.”

She was like, “You should really consider removing that from your phone altogether. Really, is that one minute you’re sitting waiting for something, waiting for a prescription to be filled… Is that really moving you forward on anything really important?” I was like, “No. No, it’s not.” So from that point forward, I took that off. That was kind of the last hold I had, and it has been so helpful. So, I think this is so important. That boundary opened up a whole new range of possibilities, a whole new range of being present with the thing I’m supposed to be present for, or just time to think.

Obviously, these tips are helpful, and I’ll just cover them really quickly: clarify your needs, build from the bottom up, and create boundaries around your tech use. When we got started talking about this episode, we realized that probably what’s going to be most helpful for everybody listening is for us to share how this looks for us, because it’s going to look different for everybody. We want to kind of put some meat on this discussion. So, Verbs, do you want to share how you use your tech stack with your planner?

Verbs: Yeah. I can indeed. For context, previous to coming to this team and joining this team and using a planner… I might have been in that first initial group of people who ordered the planner. I remember when I got it in the mail I was totally confused, because I was trying to figure out “Okay. What do I do with the planner? Do I write stuff in it?” Previous to that, somehow I convinced myself I could hold most of what I had to do in my head unless it was a super busy week. Then I would write a task list, just jot something down on a yellow legal pad or something like that.

Courtney: And how did that go for you, that holding it all in your head?

Verbs: It didn’t work well. I found myself stressed already and then trying to remember all of these things or forgetting something that was supposed to happen. But not only that. I was allowing our project management system at the time (I think we were using Basecamp)… I was allowing that to determine my day when I came in in the morning times, because there were a bunch of requests that were coming in on top of my little tasks I dropped on the legal pad.

Coming into the Full Focus System, the thing I most appreciated was there is a way where you do have a hybrid option, so you’re not trying to transfer all of your digital tasks into a paper planner every single day, but just figuring out what that balance may look like. Now it’s me pretty much dragging whatever might be an Asana task, as far as our team’s projects, considering those things…

As of right now, our team is working better with Slack and Asana and using that plugin to where the two talk to each other, so if it’s a task that gets assigned, you can assign it in Slack and it goes straight to Asana. That way you’re eliminating one other place to look. I pretty much pull those things into my planner, as well as anything from Google Calendar that I need to consider for the week.

So, my stack is pretty light. I like it that way to where I know I have these two or three places I need to look at to account for everything that needs to get done in the course of a week. The things outside of work I’m also jotting down, you know, personal and family things that are important as well that make it into my Daily Big 3 or at least my task list for that day.

Courtney: That’s awesome. Blake, what about you?

Blake: I use digital tools primarily for two purposes. One is collection. Meaning, “Alexa, add maple syrup to my Kroger list,” you know, when I realize I need more maple syrup, because you know I eat a lot of pancakes.

Courtney: You know everybody who’s listening to this podcast in a room with an Alexa just got maple syrup added to their list.

Blake: I know. They probably need some.

Courtney: Do something better for them, though. It’s like, “Alexa, order a new MacBook Pro.” Come on. Help the people out.

Verbs: And you just did it.

Courtney: Oh, sorry. There goes my Alexa.

Blake: Oh my gosh. That’s hilarious.

Courtney: Oh, she’s asking me what size I want.

Blake: Go big, Courtney.

Verbs: Go for the 15-inch.

Courtney: It’s 1,900-something dollars.

Alexa: You can say “Right now” or “Next.”

Courtney: Oh, just cancel.

Verbs: Add to cart. Add to cart, Alexa. Alexa, add it to the cart.

Blake: So, Courtney just spent $1,200 here on the podcast. That’s great.

Courtney: Oh gosh!

Verbs: Just like that.

Courtney: I’m improving my tech stack, guys.

Blake: So, for collection. It’s like the classic… You don’t remember you need batteries in the remote when you’re at the store. You remember it when you’re clicking the remote. To me, I’m not going to… Some people may do this. I’m just not going to carry around my planner when I go grocery shopping, so it’s not practical to have collection be completely paper based for me, although sometimes I will jot down something if it’s meeting notes or that sort of thing. I’ll review that in a daily review setting.

But usually I’m collecting stuff. Not everything is important, but I want to, as Verbs said, get it out of my head. I always loved what David Allen said about this. He said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” That has been a helpful principle as I’ve navigated this. So, collection. Also reference. I mentioned the CRM. That’s really just a reference tool. “Hey, Joe Schmoe. Where is he at? Oh, okay. He has scheduled a call from me next week, so I don’t really need to think about that.” Or even my calendar. That’s a point of reference. What do I have going on this week? Looking that up is helpful.

Where my planner comes into play (and I’ll say planner/pen and paper in general) is when I want to slow down my brain and narrow my focus. When you narrow your focus, you increase your effectiveness. I want to slow down my brain and increase my effectiveness when I’m thinking strategy or trying to process my week, so I love the Weekly Preview to process lessons I’m learning. If I’m casting vision for something, I take out a big notebook and just start drawing, because I want the slowness and the “analogness.” For some reason, my brain likes that.

Then for daily execution, it’s through the planner. I’ll look at my CRM. I’ll look at my personal task list manager. I use an app called Things for that. I’ll look at those lists, but I won’t write it all down in my planner. I’ll decide “What’s my Big 3 for today? What are the main agenda items today?” That’s what goes in my planner, and I leave that open. Then I close those other things and use my planner to execute on those things. Plus, let’s be honest. Clicking a virtual check mark is not nearly as satisfying as drawing a check mark. Am I right?

Verbs: That is true.

Courtney: That is true. Well, I will just add a little bit. Mine is similar but slightly different. I would say I use my planner for daily execution. I collect things there anytime it’s during the work hours. It really is my central source for tasks that come up through the day. Obviously, I’m using it to help me prioritize and figure out what my Daily Big 3 is going to be for the day.

We also, just like Verbs talked about… I use Asana for project management. That has a lot of tasks for me. Some things are being assigned to me. Some things are just things I need to do that are part of a much larger picture. There are some really minute tasks in there. I don’t always move them into my planner. If I just need to review a paragraph of copy for somebody on our team, I’m not going to move that in, but if it’s a major project, like, “Hey, I need to write a new strategy for this initiative we’re going to be doing in 2021,” I’m going to write that in my planner.

Obviously, I use Slack (we’ve talked about that a lot) for internal communication. The majority of my time is spent in Slack and Asana. I know we talked about this earlier about create boundaries around your tech use. Our team, the marketing team… We are really strict about using Slack for internal communication, but if you’re going to ask somebody to do something for you, it needs to go into our project management tool.

We actually have a saying, “If it’s not in Asana, consider it not done.” It’s not going to get done, because it’s so easy to lose things there in Slack. So, those things are where I’m looking for things that are going to be put into my planner, but as far as daily execution, I’m working solely out of my planner. Just like Blake, it’s open on my desk. I’m taking notes there. I’m adding ideas or thoughts that come up through the day. So that’s how I use the hybrid system.

Blake: I love that. I think it’s great, because you’ve narrowed the purposes of those digital tools even more for your team. I think the outcome of that is people are less stressed. There’s kind of a subtle… When we started recording, Courtney had her white noise machine on, because she has the kiddos and was trying to block that out. That, I feel like, is a little bit…

When you have too many digital tools running and their purpose is a little bit unclear, it’s almost like having a white noise machine of “There could be something happening that maybe I need to check,” so you kind of go through your day with a little bit of franticness. You never feel totally clear and totally focused. So, that’s the power of defining how you, specifically, want to use a hybrid system. Use your emotions as a feedback.

Some people are like, “Man! Why would I have this whole planner? I can get all this done when I have it digital.” I’m like, “Maybe you can, but I know I sleep better at night when I check things off by hand.” Listen. If you sleep great and you feel totally at peace how you want to feel, then by all means, but studies have proven pretty definitively that your brain likes pen and paper for certain things. That’s why we recommend including that in your system.

Verbs: We hope you found those tips helpful. The good news is you don’t have to feel stuck in a productivity system that’s undermining your productivity. Create a hybrid system that works by clarifying your needs, building your system from the bottom up, and creating boundaries around the tech you use. Thank you for joining us on Focus on This. This is the most productive podcast on the whole entire Internet, so please share it with your friends. We’ll be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

All: Stay focused!