Home > executive functioning, getting started, surviving school > The portable brain (planners and task management)

The portable brain (planners and task management)

Okay, I promised some ideas on planners and how to keep track of assignments.  This got a lot longer than I thought it would… there is a lot of complexity!

As I feared, Little Bird’s middle school has handed out Their Official Agenda Book that they plan to Periodically Check that the kids are using the way they have decided is the One Right Way.  Given that the notebook system they’ve chosen is even worse than I’d feared (I might even need to do another rant!), let’s just say I’m a bit skeptical. Sigh.

I can’t say as I’ve found a bulletproof system for keeping track of tasks (what needs to be done) and time (when it will be done and when it will be completed), but let me at least raise the issues I think need to be considered in the process.

Simplify, simplify. As with the paper-management system, I advise keeping things as simple as possible.  The goal is to have one object that handles all of the task-related information and time-related information in as simple a fashion as possible.  I lovingly call mine my “portable brain.”  If you have two different things, then you’re going to (a) put information in the wrong place or in only one of the places (b) look in the wrong place or in only one of the places and thus miss something you need to know. It needs to be easy to put information into and easy to get information out of.

Paper or plastic? Since you only get one object to play with, you have to decide whether it’s going to be a hardcopy paper calendar (like they hand out at school) or whether you’re going to use an electronic system.  Personally, if you can afford to implement it, I favor the electronic solutions, because they offer some advantages that are hard to duplicate in paper form.

  • If the writer has bad handwriting or doesn’t like to write, typing is likely to be more legible, particularly at smaller font sizes, and most non-writers don’t mind typing as much.  Workaround for paper:  Try preprinting some small stickers with typically-used words (e.g. “test”) and stapling those to the inside cover.
  • Remember that being able to write small also contributes to keeping the whole object small, too (see below).
  • When there are (inevitable) changes in task or time information, they can be changed easily without leaving lots of scribbly mess.
  • Electronic systems can be set to harass remind you of upcoming tasks or deadlines.
  • Electronic systems can back up to a main computer or store the information in the “cloud.”
  • If there are multiple people within a family who might need to look at, add, or change information, electronic systems can be set up to enable this.  (More on this issue below.)
  • You don’t have to deal with discontinuities in time.  Most pre-bound systems that schools hand out and that are  easily available in stores don’t handle this elegantly, and you’re stuck copying some pages as you make the transition from one year to another.

(Note that both paper and electronic systems are likely to be royally messed up by laundering, and both can often be restored by various heroic means.  Choose your poison.  I will say, however, that many disorganized kids (including everyone in my household old enough to need an organizer) do manage to hold onto electronic devices, despite everyone’s fears, so don’t assume that the kid who loses everything will also lose their electronic portable brain.)

If you would like to use a paper system, I’d recommend something like a DayRunner or Franklin Planner, which allows you to customize sheet types and to keep adding new sheets and retiring old sheets as you go.  To reduce costs, try just a regular half-sheet 3-ring binder, for which you can buy refills (check that they’re compatible in hole placement!) or print/chop/hole-punch your own.  (eww, that’s starting to sound like work… will you really do it reliably?  Or will you procrastinate and run off the end of the system?)  If what you find doesn’t come with a zip or other means to close it and protect the pages, try adding an elastic strap or rubber band.

Size: You could, I suppose, use 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, whether purchased or homebrewed, and integrate this right into the front of the traveling zip-binder I describe in this post. However, I usually actually prefer the planner to be a separate item that is small enough and portable enough to be with you on a constant or near-constant basis.  For kids in school, that may not be a show-stopper; the times they get told things that need to get into the binder usually are the times when that zip-binder will be right with them.  For us oldsters, or for older kids who are homeschooling or who do a lot of out-of-school activities, the smallest item you can get the information into reliably and neatly and can keep on your person, without forgetting it’s there and laundering it (sigh) is probably best, because it facilitates efficient idea capture.  Which brings me to…

Capture method: Think your way through a typical week.  What are the kinds of things you need to write down?  Is it just homework, or do you have other activities that also create things you have to do and pulls on your time?  When and under what circumstances do you get information, either from other people or from your own head, that needs to get recorded in the system?  What are the precise kinds of things that need to get entered?  What might interfere with your getting those exact things into the system at those exact moments?

See, I have a Crappy Working Memory ™, which means that if I don’t capture an idea within about ten seconds, it will be gone gone gone.  Within about thirty seconds, I won’t even remember that there was an idea that I was supposed to remember.  So I advise making a personal rule:  “I will not say, ‘I’ll write that down later.'”  (I know, your kids think they’re super and will remember.  Tell them that it’s not an admission of fault or imperfection that they develop and use a system so that they don’t have to waste brain cycles remembering.)

If you aren’t going to have your actual planner ready to hand all the time, what will you have with you that will enable you to capture information that needs to get into the planner?    Some ideas on this front:

  • Email can make a good capture site and a good way for members of a family to send each other information, but only if you then also take the oath that you will immediately transcribe any information found in your inbox into the proper place later, or create a folder (better: one with an automatic sort-int0-this-folder rule!) that is only for these to-be-captured items, that you then empty regularly (see below).  Otherwise, your inbox will fill up too fast with stuff that doesn’t need to be in the capture  box and stuff will get lost.
  • There is a paid-but-not-expensive service called www.jott.com.  You basically register a phone and an email.  You call their number from the phone (they have an iPhone app, too, of course), say your voice memo, and it gets transcribed and sent to you in an email.  It’s not perfect, but it’s nice for situations where writing doesn’t work well (like, say, if you’re driving).  Remember, though, that in most situations in which you could make a phone call or send an email, if your electronic device were also your portable brain, then you wouldn’t need to use this.
  • A low-tech concept, particularly useful if your planner system is too large to be on your person all the time, is to have an index card jotter (here’s an example) to scribble things in.
  • I know this might sound silly, but if your capture system requires a writing implement, then you need a writing implement attached to it, so no time is wasted searching.

But remember that you now have a two-step process.  You need to set up some kind of regular routine that will remind you to empty that capture-box into the actual planner.  Think about how often this needs to happen in order to be useful (if your deadlines tend to be only a few days after you find out about them, then a weekly process is too slow!), and how you will make sure that you don’t forget to do it.  Consider putting a repeating appointment on your calendar, or a repeating task on your task-list, and setting your system to nag remind you to do it.

Loose slips sink ships. There is a tendency to let a handout or flyer or or appointment card email stand in for the event or assignment, to hold onto the paper that someone else gave you and to say, “Oh, I’ll enter that into the system later.”  (Yeah, right.) But if you’re not entering it immediately, it needs to actually physically be put in the capture inbox, and it must get emptied into the real system with everything else.

To avoid the problem, I make it my personal goal to get rid of those pieces of paper as soon as possible by entering the relevant information into my system.  Literally, I say, “No, please don’t give me a reminder card, let me just write the appointment down right now.” (Permission slips and forms, where someone else wants the sheet of paper back, are not assignment sheets — they go into the hot-folder system in the binder, silly!)

Home sweet home. Whatever you choose, losing it will be a time-wasting and anxiety-provoking crisis.  So think about the routines you create for its movement.  Does it need to have a special place of honor on your bedside table?  A specific pocket in your purse or backpack?  Do you always wear the same type of jeans (or whatever), such that it could always live in your pocket?  Just like you need one object, it needs to have the fewest possible places where it could be.  If you ever spot it outside one of those places, it needs to get put back in one of its permissible “homes” right away.

A family affair.  Organizing tasks and time is a lifelong skill.  Everyone in the family needs to model the skills that you want your kid to develop.  Plus, most families have a raft of out-of-schooling activities and other pulls on their time.  In order to prevent the crises when events collide, it really does help to have a system that everyone can use.  In our family, we manage time with Google calendars — we have one for the kids (they might end up with one each when they get older), one for the parents’ public information, and one for each parent’s private information.  (My family needs to know that on a certain day between certain times, I am seeing clients and am therefore unavailable.  They neither need to know nor care which clients I’m seeing each hour.)  The nice thing about this system is that any member of the family can make changes which then everyone can see, and any member of the family can create an appointment for anyone else — I can let Little Bird know that we have company coming on a certain evening, so she can’t count on homework help then, for example.

Similarly, we have a family set of task lists — since we’re an iPhone / iPod Touch family, we use an app called GeeTasks that interfaces with Google Tasks.  Each of us creates the tasks we need, but anyone can edit any list.  Very useful for groceries and errands, too!   It can handle some level of hierarchy, although for most complex tasks, I think it’s okay to maintain the separate assignment sheet the teacher handed out, or the separate outline you created for yourself in something like OmniOutliner or FreeMind (more on that below).

The low-tech version, of course, is the Official Family Calendar, located at some central place in the household (usually the kitchen).  You can use an ordinary monthly calendar, or whatever other calendar system is both easy for everyone to write in and easy for everyone to check.  A whiteboard that shows two months is okay, but I tend to prefer systems that allow the entry of information arbitrarily far into the future and don’t require periodic recopying.  If you like that size/form factor, try using a large desktop monthly-organizer pad pinned to a corkboard.  The problem I have with this system is that it’s usually hard for kids to write in these, just because they’re not in the kitchen when most of the information they need to write down is given to them.  So they need to capture those ideas — essentially, creating an assignment for themselves to write the information into the family calendar.  Again, I tend to be skeptical of two-step systems, but they’re better than an implied system where one of the steps is inevitably going to be, “Forget to enter the information where it actually needs to go.”  If you have a system like this, consider also implementing a regular adult task that involves sitting down with the kid and extracting the relevant information from the kid’s planner.  (Yeah, I’m not enthusiastic about that, either.)

For whichever version, teach kids to write down all of the pulls on their time.  Sports, music, arts, classes, practice times, religious services, family dinners, parties, company, hang-out-with-friends, TV shows you can’t bear to miss, whatever it is that you spend time on, if you’re going to want to spend time on it and you’re not going to want to do homework during that time, it’s a good idea to put it in the calendar.  Obviously, some things might have to get moved or deleted if there is too much homework.  But the goal is to avoid those last-minute crises where the Science Fair project and the cousin’s wedding come into sharp conflict.

A word about school-based online systems: These are nice things to have, as a backup for when some information escapes the best efforts to corral it, and as a way for adults who are helping a kid to know the answer to the question, “What do you have for homework tonight?” before they ask it.  Having them is better than not having them.  But they cannot substitute for having your own planner, for several reasons.

  • Teachers are, um, not always entirely reliable about writing in them.  If I had a buck every time one of my slippery-fish kiddos with ADHD said, “Oh, I didn’t think we really had to do that assignment, because she didn’t put it up on the website,” or, “I can’t do it because I didn’t write down what the teacher said because I thought they were supposed to put it up on the website so now I don’t quite know what it is I have to do,” I’d be rich.  Kids need to know the rule:  It is your job to get the assignment written down, even if your teacher screws up and doesn’t write it on the website.  You will be marked down, and it will be your fault, and I will have no sympathy.  (Personally, I have a comic-villain evil laugh that I reserve for such situations.)
  • Using them requires that you check in several different places in order to find out what you have to do.
  • They don’t include the information for anything not related to school.

Task focus vs. time focus: This is complicated.  To-do lists are good for managing tasks, while calendars are good for managing time.  The two aren’t the same thing, but they’re intertwined.  In fact, I think this is the single most tricky and dangerous aspect of system design, and one on which I have the fewest specific suggestions.  Think about what information you need to have available to you, and under what circumstances you need to have it, what you want it to do to tell you about it.

Most kids are not appointment-driven; rather, they are project-driven (for adults, it depends a lot on the type of job you have).  Now think about most appointment books: they show you your day in terms of half-hour blocks.  Is that the information kids need?  Nope.  In fact, the only nice thing I can say about most planner books provided by the school is that they tend to be organized by subject, rather than by time.  You can mimic one, sans the huge amounts of chartjunk usually found in kid-oriented ones, and with enough lines for the different “subjects” in kids’ real lives, if you buy a teachers’ planner, except that teachers are often assumed not to need to plan anything on the weekends.  Sigh.  You can design and print your own pages pretty easily in any word-processing software, if you prefer.

You want it when? Most folks never even think about this issue… On which day in the planner do you write your homework?

  • The day it was assigned? That’s what most teachers tell kids to do, but it’s probably the least useful time to write something — it’s going to vanish into the “this-already-happened” ether much too quickly.
  • The day it’s due? That’s what most grownups tend to do with major projects.  The danger point here is that you aren’t going to be reminded of the task until the last minute.  This practice tends to support procrastination.  Not that you shouldn’t include a note on the day something is due (after all, it will help you remember to hand it in!), but that’s rarely sufficient.  I recommend also writing tasks on…
  • The day you’re going to work on it. Interesting idea, eh?  Plan a time to work on it, so that when you sit down to work on any given day, you have an agenda in front of you.  Good for avoiding collisions and encouraging kids to work on things before the last minute.

Planning work time also requires kids to predict how long they think a task or subtask will take… and thus provides a good opportunity for them to also track how long something actually took, so that they can become more accurate predictors in the future.  I suggest that kids plan in liberal amounts of “slush time,” planning a set of benchmarks that keeps them comfortably ahead of schedule, to deal with the inevitable complexities and delays that arise.

Of course, sometimes that planning is itself a nontrivial task — in fact, it’s the first task in the assignment, and should probably be done as soon as possible.  So teach them to write an assignment for, e.g.,  “Schedule time to work on book report,” the day the book report is assigned.  Kids are likely to need a lot of guidance in the process of breaking down tasks, keeping track of subtasks, redoing the schedule when things don’t work out the way they planned, and generally keeping any complex project on track (beyond the scope of this already-very-long post).

Extensive assignment sheets (for major projects) usually belong in page protectors (each page in its own, please, so that you can read them easily, don’t stuff a multi-page stapled thing into something that will require you to take it out to read the inside pages!), placed in the rings at the beginning of the relevant section of the binder.  Personally, since I type rapidly, I often take the time to simply retype those sheets into my computer (or get an electronic copy from the teacher or the website), which eliminates concerns about losing them.  Teach kids the habit of rechecking the assignment sheet as they go, rather than trying to remember what the teacher expected and when any intermediate due dates might have been.

Routine Maintenance: You need to create structures and routines for when you look at the planner and what you do with it — every night before bed to preview the next day?  Every day before you leave school to make sure you’ve gotten the right items from your locker?  Every single time someone asks you to commit to doing something on a specific date?  Every week to check the status of ongoing projects?  Every month to offload old pages and make sure you have new blank ones?  Do you need to create “ticklers” to remind you of things that you’ve put off far into the future?

If you have an electronic system, think about how you are going to use reminders intelligently.   What will you need to be reminded about?  When will you need to be reminded about it?  How you would like that reminder to happen?  Alarms may be useful, but not if you’re just going to snooze them or ignore them — think about what moment you’d like a reminder to come such that you will actually do the thing before forgetting about it (we call these “point-of-performance” reminders).

Whoof!  That’s a lot of stuff to think about and chew on.  Partly because both technology and paper products change so quickly, it’s easy to get mired into trying to design a single best system, or to invest a lot of money and effort setting up something that seems cool only to have it collapse under its own weight.  The key is to get something that you can get all of your information into (so that you can trust that everything you need to know is in there), and get all of your information out of… reliably and simply.   Don’t overcomplexificate things.  See what works and where the bugs are, solve the problems and improve the system over time.

  1. LizPf
    September 12, 2010 at 11:41 am

    As I’ve said elsewhere, Ocelot uses Remember the Milk, a web-based task manager with both full off-line ability and the ability to shate task lists (with parents, teachers, etc.)

    If you are interested in a paper system, check out diyplanner.com They have a vast repository of planner templates (including software to customize a planner), for printing and putting in the binder system of your choice, all free. It’s easy for a paper geek to get lost at the site, but there is truly useful stuff there.

    • September 12, 2010 at 10:17 pm

      Liz, thanks for the links! I haven’t tried Remember the Milk (when I find something that works for me I don’t want to mess with it, and I’m not technogeeky enough to enjoy staying on top of everything that is available), but perhaps other users will find that a good thing to experiment with.

      Especially thanks for the link to diyplanner.com (which I will point out is a free set of customizable printable templates). I was checking my previous link for commercially-available small runs of customizable planners, but found that they had sharply reduced their offerings to the point of no longer being useful, so I didn’t have a link. I’ll update the article to include a link to the DIY site. I also commend to folks this article from their site, which has a lot of generally useful information to consider when setting up these things: http://diyplanner.com/templates/official/beginner.

  2. September 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    My son hates planners and prefers to design his own systems.

    His current one: a 1″x1″ pad of PostIt notes. He writes down assignments on it and crosses them off when done. He plans to use one PostIt note a week. So far it is working for him. (But he’s in high school now, where the homework load is about 1/5th the middle school load and much less difficult to manage.)

    • September 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm

      Grin. I like working with kids around designing and testing their own systems — that provides more opportunities for helping them develop executive functions than simply telling them what to do. Plus, it reduces the likelihood that they dig their heels in and try to prove us wrong. I think I should write a post on that topic.

      Believe it or not, the Post-it note system (equivalent to any system where you just maintain a single hard-copy task list) is not as bad as you might think, if you have a single place where you’ll be every single time you need to look at it or if you have a consistent page in your binder where it will always be. I use precisely that system to keep track of the constantly-changing panoply of stupid-but-necessary paperwork at my postdoc site (e.g., “Jane treatment plan 9/14”), which otherwise would metastasize onto my main task list and overwhelm it. I only do that paperwork while I’m at the clinic, so I don’t want to know about it at other times. One pitfall there is that Post-it glue is not as sticky as one might hope, so if he overflows onto (gasp) two Post-it notes, the first one might literally blow away. Corkboards help. Or bigger Post-its (I have a long skinny pad designed for grocery or to-do lists). Another pitfall is that it often requires one to recopy from one note to another, as old stuff gets crossed off but the entire paper isn’t done. I’ve been toying with making that its own GeeTasks list, balancing the recopy issue with the fact that with the ease-of-use issue (that I don’t need to take out my phone to look at the list). Always a work-in-progress.

  3. September 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    I really really love this one!!! I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to let my organisationally challenged ds (last year in highschool) have a read of it… I have been meaning to look into upgrading the phone he has, to one that can do a bit more. He’s going to be a happy fellow! I think I am going to write a blog about your blogpost, as is such an important subject and begs to be shared.

    (Interestingly enough, you are the only person I know so far who has the same WP design that my blog does ;-D ;-D…. )

    Yours in Gifted and 2E >^-^<

  4. September 12, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Here is a link to my blogpost, mentioning this article: I hope you like it.. now.. we are off to look at “Portable Brains” for a young scholar… ;-D


  5. September 13, 2010 at 12:12 am

    Where have you been all of my life? lol I wish you were about 15 years older – yes, I know … you don’t! For the past 10 years, the only advice our school district gave us (year after year after year) was ‘colored folders’! Every year, I would say, “There’s got to be something more” and the reply was always the same … ‘colored folders’. But if you couldn’t remember one black folder, how could you remember ten different colored ones? Now ds is a senior and still disorganized. Electronic devices of any ilk are banned and probably will be for the next twenty years. Hopefully, college will be a new beginning.

  6. September 13, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Lisa, the colored-folder thing is one of the stupider methods on the planet, unless you really do have specific discrete small-scale projects that get done and gone, in which case it’s better to use a containment device that has better containment of the papers (see my posting on “Pile Containment Devices). An accordion file is at least a little less stupid, but for most school kids, I suggest the binder (see the posting on “Do not multiply entities needlessly”).

    As far as the banned electronic devices (and even more annoying, the banned backpacks!), sometimes you can get somewhere by talking to guidance counselor types and/or by trying to get a 504 plan or informal accommodation plan to allow the use of a normally-banned electronic device. This only works if the kid is willing to promise (and to keep the promise) to use the device only in its approved fashion. That is, no texting, no calling, no games, etc. But any time you give a kid an electronic device, you have to have to have that same conversation. It is a tool, not a toy, and if they cannot handle an adult tool in an adult fashion, then they cannot use it.

  7. Allan
    September 13, 2010 at 2:51 am

    One suggestion that works for me that would work well for any boy and about half of the girls: Have a set place for everything you need in your pockets. My left front pocket has kleenex, my day planner, and all of my keys. My right front pocket has my wallet (a rather childish one that includes a coin purse and all card-sized things with a rubber band around it), my cell phone, and any paperwork I receive from stores that I deem subcritical (receipts from restaurants or stores, printout from my ATM, etc). Paperwork I need to do something with (that receipt that needs to be turned in to the secretary at school) goes in a back pocket. Then I have the other back pocket for whatever is the special need that day.

    Then, at night, I put the pants on the floor. In the morning, it all goes into the new pair of pants before I put them on–old right pocket to new right pocket, etc. For middle and high school boys who wear pants multiple days in a row, this is even easier (I have had some adult females tell me they wear pants for an entire week in a row, but that’s rarer).

    Doesn’t work with girls who wear skirts or pants without pockets. But most of the non-cheerleaders I teach will wear blue jeans every day, so it would work just as well for those girls.

    The expander is the front smaller pocket of the backpack. So, when I took a backpack to work every day (all the way up to the present job, when I had to expand to a minisuitcase), I had an extended pocket. And the backpack was generally with me 24-7. So that would work for girls.

  8. Grinity
    September 14, 2010 at 3:01 am

    I love this post. Yippee! I also love organizational tools. My latest portible brain is http://www.amazon.com/C-Line-Biodegradable-Assorted-Colors-48335/dp/B002UKOKRW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=office-products&qid=1284401843&sr=8-1

    with index cards.
    I have sections for ‘at work’ ‘at home’ ‘in cyberspace’ ‘about town’ and ‘waiting for’ a la David Allen in Getting things done.

    I also use my cellphone’s ‘notes’ section for capturing on the go. Is it working? So-So.

    I will say that I’m also using the cellphone’s notes to make remarks about where the car is parked, and that’s working wonderfully.


  9. September 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    @Grinty – you know what my husband, who is not visually-spatially gifted the way I am (I literally can just *tell* which way my car is…I also can almost always point north, as my brain just likes to keep track of that sort of thing lest I suddenly float off the earth for lack of knowing which way is north…) does to keep track of his car location? He takes a picture with his cell phone’s camera. He didn’t know he needed the smart phone he has (iPhone) until he had it and started using it, and then all sorts of ways to use it like this have popped up. When he parks at the airport, he’ll photograph what it looks like from the elevator bank pointing TOWARD where he’s parked, then also he’ll photograph the visual thing in the elevator bank that says what floor he’s parked on (I think it’s a sports-team motif…)

    Meanwhile, thanks again Aimee for the great blog post. Love your stuff and was glad to see the Hoagie’s link to Les’ blog that led me back here, as I’d just done some organizing of my DIGITAL life (google reader!) and hadn’t gotten down my old system (poorly organized set of bookmarks and rss feeds) to find the link to your blog.

    We’re trying out the binder system on my gifted but visual-spatial and thus appearing scatterbrained 9 year old. So far, so good. Next year (5th grade) is middle school in our school, so I am eager to test out and settle on one system that will work for him this year so he starts things off right next year when the workload jumps again.

    One good thing this year is that the day planners from school are organized in a much more sensible way (subjects down left side, days along the top) rather than just being one not-very-large box to write down whatever assignments, now he can at least order them by subject AND day due (we just had the conversation about “where to write in the work” on the day planner page for things that are ongoing – like every thursday’s vocab test.)

  10. Barbara
    September 15, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Aimee, great post with useful information. My favorite system has been my Blackberry with outlook. I would enter reminders as events and set multiple reminders. I’ve never missed a meeting or appointment. I’m now trying google and yahoo shared calendars with J and seeing if those will work for him.I love saving information electronically,I feel it’s much less likely to be lost or misplaced.Thanks for sharing.

  1. September 12, 2010 at 10:14 pm

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