Archive for ‘Time Management’ Category

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 by Julie Bestry | No Comments

The concept of time management (as opposed to its practice) is simple: identify your priorities, spell out the tasks to complete, and focus on them for a period of time. When appropriate, transition to other tasks. Done!

But what if “time” is a fuzzy concept for you? Well, you wouldn’t be the first. Not long after returning from NAPO 2017, I took one of Tara McGillicuddy’s superb webinars, ADHD and Punctuality: Even You Can Learn to Be On Time with ADHD Coach Lynne Edris. Although I have an innate sense of the passage of time, possibly from my prior career working in television (where time is, literally, money), the issue of conceptualizing time in order to work productively with it is something that plagues many who seek help with organizing and productivity.

During the webinar, Edris talked about how some of the contributing characteristics of ADHD, including distractibility, impulsiveness, and hyper focus, impact time blindness, as defined by Dr. Russell Barkley.


When you have a strong sense of time, you are aware of what time it is now, how much time you have left (to perform a task, or before you have to change gears and transition to a new task or location), and generally how quickly time appears to be passing. When your sense of time is wonky, your productivity can feel cursed.

I once had a client, a successful engineer, who overestimated how much time some tasks would take (causing him to procrastinate and avoid the labor) and underestimate how long others usually lasted (leading to double-booking as meetings ran long). As a test, I once encouraged him to work for fifteen minutes on a task he’d been avoiding, while I observed him. After eight minutes, he looked up, exasperated, certain that I had lost track of time and that far more than fifteen minutes had elapsed. Nope. Again at twelve minutes, he was sure either I or my timer was off. In terms of engineering, this client was a genius, but he had the conceptual sense of time of a pre-schooler. And he’s not alone.

Of course, none of these factors are unique to those with ADHD. I think we have all experienced time dilation such that ten minutes in the final act of our favorite television show can speed along (darn you, Shonda Rhimes!) while ten minutes while waiting in the “little room” at the doctor’s office, relentlessly bored and denied the ability to people-watch, drags by.

Learning how time works — mapping the representational to the reality — can also be problematic. For example, we know that digital time is harder for children to comprehend than analog time — and this can be the case for some adults, too. Take this anecdote about the author Douglas Adams:

In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another.

It’s just harder to conceptualize — visualize — the passing of time with digital clocks. They’re merely numbers separated by colons. But the analog clock provides a clear visual distinction between moments — and this is the central advantage of one of the most popular time management tools the organizing and productivity industry has ever seen: Time Timer®.

The original Time Timers were plastic, battery-operated, analog countdown clocks. Rather than a minute hand and second hand, Time Timers had red, circular cellophane-like discs that diminished in size (from a maximum of 360° coverage for an hour) until the time was up, and then the red portion disappeared (hiding behind the clock display) and a buzzer went off. Kids (and adults) using the Time Timer were able to get a sense of the “feel” of how time passed.

Paper Doll has covered Time Timer many times, most recently in our detailed coverage of NAPO 2016’s Organizers’ Choice Award Winners. But our friends at Time Timer know that time marches on, and so do they. Let’s look at some new developments on the time front!


Historically, all of the Time Timers (the Plus with the quick-grab handle, the 3″, 8″, and 12″ handle-free versions, and the adorable and brightly colored little Mods) have all had one thing in common: they measured durations of up to 60 minutes. For children, and for anyone who has a general difficulty with visualizing time flowing, this makes sense — the Time Timer emulates how time elapses on a clock face.

The two new versions of the Time Timer look like the traditional (white) Plus with the quick-grab handle, but have two new distinctive features. First, the new versions come in two different durations: 20 minutes and 120 minutes. Second, for the first time, instead of red, the time-elapsed disc is in new colors, robin’s egg blue for the 20-minute timer and purple for the two-hour version.

The 20-minute Time Timer is designed to offer a greater visual impact for shorter tasks like homework blocks and practicing musical instruments, as well as keeping on-task for workplace meeting agenda items. Because it doesn’t emulate the hour-long clock face, it’s definitely better suited for those who understand how time flows, but merely need visual reminders of its passage. I think it’s an attractive addition to the line, but feel Time Timer missed a chance to capitalize on the productivity industry’s love for the Pomodoro Technique and should have created a 25-minute timer.

I can see the 120-minute version of the Time Timer working well for high school and college students taking timed practice tests and for keeping both adults and kids on-task for larger projects.

Both of the new versions run $38.95, use one AA battery, and have a volume control for the “done” tone. Both will be available as of June 2017.


You know you’re at a conference for professional organizers when you hear people squeal in delight from across the room — over a new timer shape! The hubbub of the expo this year was definitely, “Have you seen the Twist?” Chubby Checker would have been impressed!

The first thing you notice is that this new Time Timer is round! As all other versions of the Time Timers could stand on their own, you might wonder how to ensure that you can see the face. Magnets, baby! The external ring is in the classic Time Timer red, while the ring around the face is white, with a grey central section for the time display.

Set this unique timer for up to 90-minute durations by turning the outer ring. Verify the timer digitally, but watch it count down in an analog format — silently, of course, like all other Time Timers. Then stick it on your fridge or filing cabinet for an elegant way to visualize the passage of time.


Fans of Time Timers were delighted a few years ago when the iPhone and Android apps were launched, and the multi-color Time Timer iPad app wasn’t far behind. With all three, you can customize your countdown timers, save and name them for re-use, change colors, create alert options, and more. What was missing was a desktop app — until now.


The Time Timer Desktop App comes in eight languages: English, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s compatible with Mac and Windows, and sells for $19.95.


In addition to a wide variety of timers, apps, and watches loved by most organizers, there’s a special place in Paper Doll‘s heart for one particular Time Time accessory: the Time Timer Dry Erase Board.

This small, desktop-suitable, dry-erase board has a cut-out space perfect for my favorite Time Timer, the Mod (with the Berry cover). Heather Rogers, Time Timer’s VP of Marketing and Operations, illustrates the advantages of the board, which runs $18.95, below.


(Now they just need a magnetic Twist/dry-erase combo!)


Even people who are adept at managing time, in general, can be led astray due to excitement or adrenaline. At my NAPO-Georgia meetings, a modern Time Timer is on display to ensure that speakers maintain focus and keep to the schedule. At a recent committee meeting, we used a classic Time Timer to ensure nobody had to be the bad guy and cut off overenthusiastic participants. Time Timer’s website notes a variety of uses of their products in different realms, including:

At Work

  • Maximize efficiency with LEAN manufacturing principles—time is money!
  • Keep meetings on track at a glance, giving everyone equal time to participate.
  • Creatives: generate ideas more quickly through timed brainstorming.
  • Healthcare: keep schedules moving and effectively manage time spent with patients and clients.
  • Sales: deliver succinct, impressive presentations without the “mental math” of how much time remains.

At School

  • Teach the concept of time and learn to visualize time as a measurement: What does “5 minutes” really mean?
  • Manage transitions in (and out of) the classroom.
  • Transition “ownership,” allowing educators to be children’s ally, not the “enforcer” of the classroom schedule.
  • Keep students calm, focused, and aware of time during practice and while conducting timed standardized tests to satisfy state standards.

At Home

  • Ease and manage daily routines: morning, dinner, cleanup, bath & bedtime.
  • Monitor turns and time for homework, computer use, instrument practice and play time.
  • Manage time-outs: help children calm down and watch frustration fade as the red disk vanishes.
  • Encourage punctuality: when the red disk disappears, we’ll go!
  • Organize: keep track of valuable time and break large, overwhelming projects into small, manageable 10-minute activities.

Do you use a Time Timer? Is there a version you’d like them to make? Share in the comments.

Posted on: March 21st, 2017 by Julie Bestry | 2 Comments

“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

~Lord Chesterfield on multitasking

Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, had lots of bright things to say about productivity:

I recommend you to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves. (productivity and task planning)

Choose your pleasures for yourself, and do not let them be imposed upon you. (productivity, priorities, and joy)

Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness; no laziness; no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. (productivity, priorities, and procrastination)

The dude knew his stuff.

The Myth of Multitasking

Do you perform data entry tasks while on conference calls or answer email while attending workshops? Worse, do you half-listen to your children or staffers or co-workers while flipping through papers? Do you text while you drive? Information and activity overload may lead you to embrace the idea of multitasking to improve efficiency. Don’t give in to the urge.

Multitasking not only fails to make you more productive; it increases all kinds of risks.

From the mid-1990s through the late 2000’s, studies published widely, from NeuroImage and the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and research at the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, and the University of California at Irvine all reported that multitasking wastes time and leads to distraction, errors, and memory lapses. You may think you’re doing double-duty, but your brain is actually “task switching,” jumping back and forth between multiple attention orientations, doing each thing less efficiently and less effectively. Reply to a client email while listening to a teleclass, and you will miss salient details of both.

Giving up the myth of multitasking can be difficult. Intellectually, we may understand task switching, or know that checking social media is unproductive, or texting while driving is dangerous, but your senses try to convince you otherwise. It still feels like doing only one thing is wasting time. The longer you go on trying to do multiple things at once, the harder it will be to bring yourself to focus on anything, whether it’s client concerns, the document you’re writing, or the road ahead of you.

Embrace the following tips to reduce your inclination toward multitasking:

1) Declutter Your Physical Space

Physical clutter overwhelms you even when you are not consciously aware of it. Neuroscientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that disorder in your visual field limits your brain’s ability to process visual stimuli. If you can’t fully focus on just one thing, you’re creating your own attention deficit.

Start by eliminating anything from the “prime real estate” of your immediate work area that can’t help you with what you’re doing. File your papers away except for the folder of documents you’re working on right now. If you’re working on your computer, move your other digital devices to a counter behind you, or even to another room.

2) Declutter Your Digital Workspace

Do you use multiple monitors with different content on each? Remember, the more you see, the less your brain can think about any one thing. Turn off your notifications, those CNN-like Breaking News tickers that tell you that someone has replied to your tweet or that there’s yet another political brouhaha. (The tweets and the news will all still be there when you’re done with your focused work.)

Clear your digital desktop so that instead of dozens (or hundreds) of individual files and documents on your screen, you’ve got a handful of categorized folders and sub-folders. (Or, if you’re less hierarchical and more trusting of search vs. hierarchy than Paper Doll, move everything to one searchable folder.)

Opt for a minimalist desktop. Instead of a complex photo of your last vacation, try a more calming desktop wallpaper from a site like Simple Desktops.

Gizmodo recently published an excellent field guide to Create a Minimalist Desktop to Be Proud Of. You don’t have to go to the ends of the minimalist desktop spectrum, as Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists recently did with his desktop, but do make things easier on your eyes.

This is just a taste of what you can do to increase your digital focus. In future posts, we’ll be talking about ways to hide your browser tabs, blur the focus on any program except the one in which you’re working, and take whatever program you’re using to full-screen.

3) Shush the Distractions In Your Environment

Close your door. Post a sign telling your colleagues you’re taking a page out of Cal Newport’s buzzy productivity book and that you’ll be doing Deep Work for the next 90 minutes. Leave them some pretty sticky notes and a nice Sharpie so they can plaster your door with messages.

Some of us need complete silence. Many of us need white noise. Check out the Paper Doll classic post, 11 Ways to Organize Your Focus With Ambient Noise, to find your sweet spot.

4) Shush the Distractions In Your Head

If you’re worried about your children, your job security, that bump on the back of your arm, or even the project you’re trying to complete, you won’t be able to focus. Anxiety is a shockingly bad productivity tool.

Try Box Breathing, a Navy SEAL technique for calming yourself down with simple breathing, illustrated beautifully below by QuietKit (which also has a nifty Meditation for Beginners program).

When feeling overwhelmed, simply:

Inhale for four seconds as you watch the blue circle expand.
Pause, with your lungs full, for four seconds as the circle stays expanded.
Exhale for four seconds as you watch the circle shrink.
Pause, with your lungs full, for four seconds as the circle stays contracted.

Whether you’re searching for a web-based model, a computer program, or an app for your phone, tablet, or watch, mindfulness solutions abound, including:

5) Schedule Time To Focus

One of the most popular time management methods, The Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, helps multitaskers strengthen their focusing skills and single-tasking muscles. The basic premise is simple: select a task and focus on it, and only it, for 25 minutes. When the timer rings, take a five-minute break before resuming work for another 25 minutes. For every two hours you work, take a longer break.

This method, named for the once-ubiquitous Italian tomato-shaped kitchen timer, encompasses other time management strategies and tools, and has practically become an industry of its own. Download the free e-book to learn how to use the Pomodoro Technique, or buy it in tangible form. You also can purchase an official timer or use the online Pomodoro countdown clock. And, of course, there’s an app for that. (Actually, there are many Pomodoro-based apps and web-based applets, including Focus Booster, Focus Time, the easy-peasy Tomato Timer, and 30/30.)

There’s nothing magical about the block of 25 minutes. It’s short enough to get past the innate tendency to procrastinate, and surely you can do anything for 25 minutes. However, for tasks requiring a greater depth and duration of attention, you need adequate time to make headway. In those situations, try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique.

Turn off your message alerts, send incoming calls straight to voicemail, and set your timer for 45 minutes. When the alarm sounds, take a ten-minute break. Rest your eyes and hydrate after every Pomodoro, and stop for a snack and some human interaction every three hours. Refresh your mind by listening to others without the nagging urge to check email, stock prices, and message updates.

After some practice, you will likely find that your concentration has improved and your thoughts flow more freely when unencumbered by competing demands. It’s a gift to enjoy the present. I bet Lord Chesterfield knew that, too.

Posted on: November 9th, 2015 by Julie Bestry | 2 Comments


As recently as a decade ago, if you said you worked from SoHo, you’d be telling people your office was in lower Manhattan in New York City, South of Houston Street. Now, SoHo is an even more fashionable address — six steps away from the coffee maker and five steps from the front door. The SoHo of the Small Office/Home Office movement means that more and more people, whether entrepreneurial in their own businesses or teleworking for companies owned by others, are cutting their commutes (and their overhead) to work where they live.

If you’ve spent much of your career in traditional workplaces, you know how precarious the balance of interpersonal respect can be. You’ve observed the disrespect shown in shared spaces: the guy who heats up his tuna casserole in the break room, scorches the popcorn, and never makes a fresh pot of a coffee; the gal who pops her gum or taps her pen incessantly; the dude who wears headphones but hums along to his personal soundtrack; and all the people who hover in your doorway to converse as if there were an invisible water cooler drawing them near.

The appeal of a home office can seem revelatory by comparison, but it’s much harder to draw boundaries (for yourself and others) in a home office than a traditional work setting. Free of a taskmaster, it’s easy to sabotage yourself and disrespect the value of your work time. It’s vital to respect your own professionalism by setting firm boundaries, and make certain others respect them as well. Rather than stifling you, these boundaries free you to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams.

If you follow the words of the Queen of Soul and demand a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T (from yourself and others), you’ll be better able to achieve your goals.


Start with the right headspace. Try to awaken and get started at the same time each day. If your day begins by getting others out the door, you can still aim to get yourself “to the office” at a set time. Shower, groom yourself, and get dressed – you may not be on a video call, but you will see yourself in the mirror. Reflect an outward professional attitude and you’ll feel it inwardly.

Delineate the start and end of the workday. Create rituals to make the distinction. Leave the house via the front door and re-enter through a side “office” entrance. Drive to a coffee house, even when there’s perfectly good (and free) coffee in the house, and return with hot java and fresh mojo.

Be just as firm about stopping work and returning to your life and family. End the workday with a closing ritual, whether it’s a field trip to the bank or a call with your accountability buddy to set the next day’s goals.

Differentiate your schedule. Improve workflow by scheduling creative time during high-energy, uninterruptible periods, and plan low-intensity tasks during transition/buffer periods.

Remember to block time for each type of activity. Then, if your schedule goes awry (a flat tire on the way to the bank, a school nurse’s call about a sick child), a lower-priority block on any given day can be bumped or rescheduled to make room for the higher-priority category.

Control how and when you interact with others. Unexpected inbound calls can be a huge distraction. Avoid temptation by letting voicemail screen your calls during your work hours. Return personal calls during personal time. (Yes, you can have personal time during your workday, but if you plan those breaks, you run less of a risk of letting a personal conversation obliterate time you need to be spending on projects.)


Scheduling phone conversations may seem inflexible, but it can help you focus and avoid the tendency to be overly casual about your time. If you can plan for specific conversations, you’ll feel better prepared when talking with prospective clients, strategic partners, vendors, and members of the media. You will boost your self-confidence and your ability to put yourself forward as an expert.

Let technology be your gatekeeper. Social networking and web surfing offer the water cooler chat and novelty that’s missing from a home office, but it’s easy for five minutes of reward time to turn into an all-afternoon distraction. Curtail excess web surfing and block specific time-wasting sites from your browser with programs and extensions like:

Freedom, Self Control (Mac), and Cold Turkey (Windows) work system-wide, so you can’t cheat by selecting a different browser.

If you’re not really sure where or how your online time disappears, Rescue Time can give you a handle on your digital habits.

Know your stimuli style. Some professionals find that “social” white noise aids in focus. If your work is portable, and the atmosphere of a public place isn’t overstimulating, work “off-site” as long as you’re productive. If the visual and olfactory stimulation of a coffee house or park is too intense, stay home and use a white noise app to create more soothing sensory inputs over which you have greater control. Check out some of the options at 11 Ways To Organized Your Focus With Ambient Noise.

Banish clutter. Many of the posts at Paper Doll talk about paper clutter, but organizing your work-related materials is only part of the process of respecting yourself and your space.

Children’s toys and your own hobby paraphernalia are distractions, even if you don’t consciously recognize them as such. Your office needs to put you in a serious, work-oriented mode. That doesn’t mean your surroundings can’t be colorful, decorative and cheery, but your space has to support your work ethic. Consider how you might scale back decorations if you shared your office with a work partner to help you identify where you might pare down the knick-knacks.

Track your successes. Solo work can be isolating. It’s easy to ruminate on shortcomings and give short shrift to small victories. Keep copies of emails of praise, bookmark congratulatory tweets, and save letters of gratitude from clients. Take a bow, and then save it all for the days when you’re feeling low to remind yourself of when you faced a challenge but pushed through!


Respecting yourself is the first step to professional success in the home office, but it’s not always easy to convince others to show you the respect you deserve.

Identify “allowed” interrupters. If your kids are at home when you’re working, assign “key personnel,” and make it a rule that only the babysitter, your spouse, or your eldest child can come to you with “issues.” (Obviously, if the absolute only time you’re able to work is during your toddler’s nap-time or you’re the only grownup home with tiny humans 24/7, all bets are off. Paper Doll salutes you.)

Schedule office hours – If your kids are old enough to not require active supervision, or your spouse or babysitter is present, schedule breaks between work sessions to address concerns and questions. But barring real emergencies (involving blood, smoke, or overflowing washing machines), limit breaks to brief designated periods, like the last ten minutes of each hour.

Think your family can’t handle this because it feels too artificial? Teachers are less prone to allow wheedled exceptions than parents, and children abide by schoolhouse rules every day. Be firm, and teach them how to recognize when things are truly urgent and/or important. Of course, this lesson is easier to impart when the tiny humans are not so tiny (or if your spouse is generally adept at impersonating an adult).

Train family members to be solution-oriented. Just as you’d do with staffers in the office, when your peeps come to you during office hours with problems, expect them to offer alternative solutions. This is quite possibly the best training you can give your kids for succeeding in the professional world.

Make your workspace less inviting. Make a clear demarcation between office and home space, just as you separate the time in your schedule. Your office is adult space; deter your kids from playing on your computer by any means necessary. If your children aren’t old enough to entertain themselves, avoid scheduling your work hours during their active playtime, and supervise them in their play areas, not your workspace. Write, email, and return phone calls during their sleep/nap times, but when they need your attention, give it completely and save work for when you can focus. Multitasking is always detrimental, and kids know when you’re not prioritizing them.

Of course, if it’s your significant other who has trouble being left unattended, dissuade hovering by giving loving a embrace and a specific promise of what you will do together (eat dinner, chat about the insurance bill, snuggle) and when. Then be sure to follow through.


Deal with Gladys Kravitz. If in-person interruptions come from lonely neighbors or chatty pals, you’ll need to do more than strictly employing Caller ID and staying away from the windows. Role-play common interruptions with your accountability buddy until you can react with aplomb.

Organize your defenses with body language. Answer the doorbell with the phone in your hand, as if you’re on a call; if you’re a stickler for honesty, consider your task list and recognize that you might be about to place a call. Right? Of course.

Stand firmly in the doorway, hold your phone and perhaps a file folder, smile apologetically, and explain that you’re in the middle of a work project and are on deadline. Suggest they can call after dinner. Do NOT let the person in unless it’s an emergency. (Gossip isn’t an emergency unless it’s celebrity gossip and you’re a gossip columnist.)

Speak like a professional. Let friends and neighbors know that your office being comfortably situated doesn’t limit how seriously you take your career. Help them see that you are serious. If someone implies your work is a hobby, or that you have more flexibility because you don’t have a “real” job, smile if you must, but speak pointedly about tax deductions, returns-on-investment, and how office space rental pricing would cut into profits. Bore them, if necessary. Worried their feelings will be hurt? Ask yourself if they’d be willing to pay your bills if you didn’t make your revenue target this quarter.

Stick to your guns. Know how to respond when others have stepped on your toes. Whether it’s your mother or your neighbor or your kids, their unwillingness to recognize your business as “real” is merely an excuse for not getting things done. You have to train others to respect your boundaries. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

If you take your business, your priorities, your time, and your space seriously, and lead by example, your family, friends, colleagues, and clients will do so as well.


Portions of this post were taking from my book, 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business.

Posted on: October 31st, 2015 by Julie Bestry | 2 Comments

Organizing Your Writing for NaNoWriMo and More

November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. This annual project/contest gives writers (and aspiring writers) the opportunity to be part of a collective push to focus creative energies on an endeavor they might otherwise put off until “someday” (a date notoriously absent from the calendar).

As the NaNoWriMo site explains, “On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” The official program includes social mechanisms for sharing your progress, and badges for participation, writing, and even “to celebrate the peaks and valleys of your personal creative journey.”


Not a budding novelist? No problem. There are a few different November writing programs for non-fiction, including author/coach Nina Amir’s Write Nonfiction in November, called NaNonFiWriMo. It can be used to write one long non-fiction project, or, as she describes in this article for Writer’s Digest, you could also write 30 blog posts, essays or articles. If you’re a professor or an academic researcher who really needs to publish (and not perish), there’s Academic Writing Month, created by Dr. Charlotte Frost and run through PhD2Published.

The key element of NaNoWriMo and most of its sister programs is that it’s about eliminating all of the things that keep writers — the experienced and aspiring kinds — from actually writing: procrastination, self-criticism, and fear. The writing period in November is just that, for writing — there’s no editing. It’s just about putting your tush in the chair (or, I suppose, your feet in front of the standing desk).

The idea of organizing for a writing project may not seem like an apt comparison to typical organizing jobs. Usually, our goal is to take the chaos of a closet or a desktop and create order. We remove excess, sort the essentials, and group items so they are functional, accessible, and hopefully, somewhat aesthetically pleasing. Applying organizing principles to writing involves similar skills. Yes, the blank piece of paper (or blank screen) is daunting, but think of it as an already-cleared guest room or newly acquired shelving unit. You can clear all the clutter (of characters, plotlines, research, etc.) from your head, and start arranging them in ways that provide order.

This post will look at some strategies for organizing your research and planning resources, overcoming procrastination and writer’s block, and maintaining motivation.


NaNoWriMo has a variety of resources available for fiction writers, including the basics of getting started writing and ideas on the nuts and bolts of the fiction-writing process, covering characters and backstories, plot development and conflict, and setting and world-building. Academic Writing Month has a participant toolkit and an accountability spreadsheet.

Beyond planning to participate in a writing contest or program, you need to plan your writing. Saying you want to “write a book” or even a blog post, without preparation, has little more validity than deciding you want to be an astronaut. Think of it like going on a trip. Whether you use a gas station map or Grandpa’s hand-written directions or Siri’s intriguingly articulated GPS, you need guideposts to make sure you are on the right path. Depending on your writing project, you might start by creating documents to support your work:


  • character breakdown
  • genealogy chart or Venn diagram of relationships between characters
  • major plot points or events
  • list of conflicts and their resolutions
  • list of problems you’ve not yet figured out how to solve


  • major concepts or themes
  • sub-topics
  • hypotheses to be tested or hypothetical questions needing answers
  • brainstormed list of blog, article or chapter titles
  • links or locations of digital or hard-copy references

Make sure this material is easily accessible to you in whatever format you like best. You might prefer to put together a three-ring notebook with dividers and pages for each resource element, so if you need to be mobile and write in different locations, your resources can go with you. If you’re visual and tactile, you might turn a wall, mirror or door into a planning board with Post-It Notes. (Use your digital device to snap a photo each day and keep that information accessible from anywhere.)

Prefer more tech? As someone who thinks linearly, I used Workflowy’s outline format to write 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business. (Read more about Workflowy in the classic Paper Doll post, Don’t Be Listless…Be Listy (And Happy!) With Workflowy.)

Almost every lover of Evernote expounds on the possibilities of writing a book using Evernote. This recent blog post from Digital Inspiration shows how my beloved Trello‘s card system would work for writing a book. The web is full of recommendations for apps for planning and writing for NaNoWriMo:

5 Best Productivity Apps for NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: The Best Writing Apps and Accessories for iPhone and iPad!

The Big Thread of Writers’ Mobile Apps

The Best Apps To Write, Plan & Plot Your NaNoWriMo Novel

Prepare for NaNoWriMo with Evernote


Plan when you are going to write. Have you never, ever been able to go to a 6 a.m. exercise class? Don’t imagine you’ll be any more enticed to leave your warm bed to write. Think about when you are usually the most motivated, most creative, and most clear-thinking, and block time on the calendar as a fixed appointment each day as a firm commitment. Then consider a Plan B time period as a contingency for days when no matter how committed you are, emergencies force you to break your stride. Having a back-up in place means you won’t be tempted to argue with yourself or break the chain.

Do your Hokey Pokey. Assemble your resources before your appointed writing time. Need eleven sharpened Number 2 pencils? Require your coffee in your World’s Best Writer mug? Gotta shake yourself about? Great, but remember to schedule time to accomplish all of your pre-writing rituals so that nothing cuts into your writing time.

Save the environment. Personally, I can’t concentrate when I’m warm, but research shows that knowledge workers are half as productive when the thermostat is set at 68° as at 77°. Know what temperature works best for you.

Watch the ergonomics of your set-up, and avail yourself of the best task lighting so you aren’t dependent on ambient light. Reread my post 11 Ways To Organize Your Focus With Ambient Noise so you can minimize auditory distractions.

Create your theme song. Go through your music collection for songs that inspire you to greatness. Set an alarm to have your cell phone play a motivating anthem a few minutes before your posterior needs to be in the chair. Try the theme from Rocky, Rachel Platten’s Fight Song, Queen’s We Will Rock You, Jon Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life, or whatever puts you in an “I Can Do It” mode.

Make the world go away. Chances are good that you won’t have more than half an hour or an hour to dedicate to writing most days — your family and friends and telemarketers can wait. Close the door, set your instant messaging status to unavailable and set your phone to Do Not Disturb. (Just remember to reverse the process as the final ritual when you’re done writing for the day.)

Write. When the planned time arrives, grab your pen and your keyboard and start writing. Don’t wait for motivation.


I wrote an entire chapter on conquering writer’s block in my book, but I have two favorite tips that always work for me, and my clients report that if they actually sit in the chair instead of making phone calls or surfing the net or doing other busy work, the words will come.

Write to an imaginary pen pal. Sometimes, you know too much about a topic to get a handle on where to start. Begin with “Dear Buddy/Pal/George Clooney, I am trying to write my [article, book, etc.]. It’s generally about [overarching idea]. I’m trying to bring together [list one to five major categories or concerns]. For example…” and then just free-write and talk about the subject. Don’t worry about grammar or fret about logical connections. Just concentrate on creating understanding. Because it’s not the monumental THING (the book, project, etc.) that’s at stake here, but merely telling a random someone about the thing, so that omnipresent fear of failure — what usually keeps our brains in a tizzy — dissipates. And remember, your word count in this email or letter counts towards your 50,000 words!

Do nothing. Seriously. A whole LOT of nothing. Set a timer for 30 minutes (or a 25-minute pomodoro, if that’s your style), and block all distracting stimuli. Face a blank pad or empty screen, but don’t write. You may have to sit on your hands, but do not, under any circumstances, write. You have no idea how slowly time passes when you’re staring at nothing, forbidden to create. Your thoughts may wander a bit, but by the end of the half-hour, your brain will be fairly bursting with ideas and you’ll be chomping at the bit to start writing. If your writing time is severely limited and this option would mean no word count for the day, you can reduce the “nothing” time by half, but the longer you have to sit, squirming, the more likely you’ll break through your block.


NaNoWriMo and related programs are more for the push to get something down on paper without the paralysis of self-analysis or editing, so the focus is on word count (and just doing it) more than anything else. Certainly, not all of your writing projects will be centered on quantity vs. quality, but there’s always something motivating about knowing where you stand in relationship to your goals.

Count your words. Almost all word processing programs have a word count generator. For example, Microsoft Word automatically counts the number of pages and words in your document and displays them on the status bar at the bottom of the workspace.WordCountStatusBarIf you put your cursor at the end of the page, it will show you how many words, total, you’ve written. If you put the cursor at any given point, it will tell you the word count from the beginning (of the document or section) to that point. As you type, the word count will increase; as you erase or self-edit, the word count will decrease. (But you’re supposed to be writing, not editing!)

If you prefer to just have a word count for a particular paragraph or section, highlight that section and right-click (on Mac, Control-Click) to get a word count for that portion only. If you prefer, you can insert the word count in your document. (For Mac, use Insert>Field>Document Information>NumWords.) Similarly, in Google Docs, select Word Count under the Tools menu.

Each type of word processing or writing program will have its own word count generator, so check your help menu. Of course, if you’re using a bare bones program or even a blank email page, you can always copy and paste what you’ve written into a free online word count program like Wordcounter or WordCountTool or WordCounterTool. Just be sure to copy (and not cut) your words, and aim to do your counts after you’ve already spent your allotted time on writing.

Track your word count. As with your choice of writing implement or resource format, how you track is less important than that you do track. Knowing what you’ve done helps motivate what you will do in the future.

Productivity genius Dave Seah created a free template for a downloadable NaNoWriMo Word Counting Calendar. (Dave also makes a 12-month word-counting calendar, so keep your eyes on his inspiring site.)


©2015 Dave Seah, Investigative Designer

Share your word count. Make it your Twitter name for the day. Post it as a Facebook status. Put it in the subject line or signature of your non-work emails.


We tend to be good (sometimes, too good) at fulfilling our obligations to others but fall down on giving our own goals and needs the same respect. If outside pressure and validation motivates you, go with it. (This may not be the time to castigate yourself for how much you care about other people’s opinions.)

Get an accountability buddy. This may be another author, or it just might be a friend or colleague who is uplifting, supportive, and generally has a good sense of stick-to-it-ive-ness. Set an alarm (or ask your buddy to do so) to ensure a daily check-in via phone, text, or email to not only discuss successes, but also challenges. Brainstorm together how you can conquer difficulties.

I once spent days trying to solve a problem with a chapter I was writing. I called my colleague Deb Lee about an unrelated project, but mentioned the cognitive obstacle I was having in finding an angle for the chapter. I’m not sure Deb had a chance to exhale before I started spitting ideas at her, and by the end of the five-minute “conversation,” the problem was solved — without Deb ever getting to say a word. (She’s just THAT good!) Sometimes, when my brain is clogged, I just pull up her photo on the screen and the thoughts flow.

BrandiDebJulieBrandie Kajino, Deb Lee & moi at the NAPO Conference 2011, acting out social media platforms.

Make a public commitment. Use social media to let your friends and colleagues know that you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or a similar writing project. Join the online forums and communities for your writing projects — a quick Googling should find the right group for your particular genre or field.

Most people will cheer you on and provide support. But, as with the Deb example above, sometimes it’s just the idea of someone that gives you what you need.

Use your down time (not your writing time) to embrace support. NaNoWriMo has official coaches tweeting inspiration from the NaNoWriMo Twitter account, and there’s even a recorded video of the prep webinar to give you a boost of motivation.

Post your WHY. Outside motivation is fine, but as with any organizing project, nothing can have lasting success unless the motivation comes from inside. Maybe you want fame and fortune. Perhaps you need publishing citations to ascend the professional ladder. Or it’s possible you just want to know you can do it. All of those reasons are good enough if they are YOUR reasons for doing it.


50,000 words. That sounds like a lot. But 1666 words per day, or maybe a little more if you plan to skip Turkey Day? Well, obviously the Paper Doll blog is non-fiction, but as you may have noticed, my posts tend to run fairly long, and often far exceed that number. This ridiculously long post is 2500 words, and I wrote it in one sitting, counting research!

You can do it. Organize yourself for a fabulous month of writing!

Posted on: December 30th, 2014 by Julie Bestry | 4 Comments


On the cusp of a new year, it’s time to start entering important dates (birthdays, appointments, meetings, vacations, conferences, National Doughnut Day, etc.) into your planning system. Strictly speaking, a calendar is just a chart showing you the days, weeks and months. A planner is a tool for combining your calendar with your task list and other essential information to make your life more productive.

A few years ago, I offered up a less philosophical, more practical, discussion in Paper Doll Pencils You In On Her Calendar: 6 Tips for Planning 2011, with the most apt advice I could possibly give:

Surprised that people still use paper planners? Canadian professional organizer Clare Kumar explains five reasons why paper planners will never go away. Clare mentions the sensory aspects (you can see more at once, customize the look to appeal to your aesthetic preferences, and make your planner feel good), and notes that you can be grid-independent — the availability of electricity, internet and Wi-Fi are non-essential in the workings of a paper planner.

But it was Clare’s note about the nature of handwriting vs. typing that caught my attention. This year, we’ve discussed, at length, the research indicating that handwriting leads to greater learning and recall. Certainly the point of using a planner is that if you write something down, you can stop thinking of it, per se, and start thinking more robustly and contextually about it. Somehow, dragging an email into Outlook to set a meeting, or typing an appointment into your phone, leads to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation for many, but with a tangible paper planner, every time you eyeball your month or your week, you are speedily, comfortingly reminded of the important aspects your life.

Of course, knowing that you want a paper planner is only the beginning. You still have to know the style that’s right for you, and then there are a myriad number of options from which to choose.


While there have always been calendars, planners are a relative modern invention from the 1980’s onward. The Yuppies had their Filofaxes, DayRunners and Franklin Planners. (Disclosure: Paper Doll still uses a Franklin Planner: Classic size, Seasons theme, two-page-a-day version.)

Ring-bound planners have heft — it’s a binder, with pages for monthly, weekly and daily planning. That heft has always meant lots of options — you can pick-and-choose the elements of your planner — but your choices were generally confined to the binder size to which you’d already committed. I can switch to the Franklin Planner Monticello theme or the anniversary edition “Original” in a berry pink that matches the branding of my website, blog and business cards, but I still have to stick with the “Classic” sized planner unless I want to start from scratch.


I direct you to Ana Reinert of The Well-Appointed Desk and her recent six-part series, A Beginner’s Dive Into Ring-Bound Planners:

Ana may consider it a beginner’s dive, but by the time you reach the deep end, you’ll have explored all of the oceans of ring-bound planners.


Book-style planners require serious commitment. There’s generally no customizing, you have to start anew each year, and if your wealth of ideas (and scribblings) exceed the number of available pages, you’re out of luck. However, the features available in many of the modern book-style planners are creative as well as practical, making options possibly outweigh lack of expandability. Three recent alternatives worth considering include:

Evernote Weekly Planner by Moleskine


The Evernote Weekly Planner by Moleskine has a lot in common with its cousin, a notebook we discussed at length in An Organized Hybrid: The Evernote Smart Notebook By Moleskine. This 5″ x 8 1/4″, 144-page, dot-ruled planner is designed so that you can enter information by hand and use your iOS Evernote Camera app to snap a picture of a planner page, categorize the information (with the help of special, colorful “smart stickers” to tag your notes), and sync in Evernote, across all your devices. The hard cover binding has a custom Evernote design, and the interior rear cover has a paper pocket for storing loose items, like business cards or receipts.


Evernote is able to recognize your handwriting, so you can search within captured photos for specific text you’ve entered by hand. You can even check a box in the upper right corner of any particular date on a calendar page, and Evernote will flag that day as a reminder.


The Evernote Weekly Planner by Moleskine runs $34.95, and you get three months of free Evernote Premium included with the purchase.

Passion Planner bills itself as “An appointment calendar, goal setting guide, journal, sketchbook, gratitude log & personal and work to-do lists all in one notebook. Whew.


The black, book-bound, soft-cover binding comes in two sizes: 8 1/2″ x 11″ and 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″. The Passion Planner has a traditional weekly layout, with seven columns for each day of the week, broken down by appointment slots, but fits in a lot of extra space for other areas of life.


But beyond this, of the Passion Planner’s 190 pages, there are annual and monthly overview calendars, a goal-setting guide to aid brainstorming for lifetime, 3-year, 1-year, and one-month goals, and monthly check-in “reflection questions” to gauge progress, consider gratitude and create steps for improvement. There are also 20 additional blank pages and gridded pages for free writing and drawing.


You can see the 2015 Passion Planner in action, page by page. This successful Kickstarter project can be purchased for $30-$40, depending on size, at the Passion Planner site.

Also, if you’re not ready to commit to the Passion Planner, itself, you can print some sample pages to use for free.

Spark Notebook, a Kickstarter project that raised ten times its initial goal, is almost the flip-side of the Passion Planner. If the latter is for right-brained, creative types, Spark Notebook is more for the linear, left-brained among us.

Instead of mind-maps, there are grids and lists, (undated) monthly and weekly goal, project planning and meeting notes pages, 30-day challenges, weekly overviews for time-blocking tasks, lined pages for note-taking, and even perforated blank pages for sharing notes with others. (Of course, this is where a snap with your phone would make more sense.)


You can click to peek inside the Spark Notebook and see page-by-page of how the 5 3/4″ x 8 1/4″ planner works. The planner is 216 acid-free pages with a lay-flat binding, and was priced at $28/each during the Kickstarter campaign.


Wire-bound planners generally use twin-loop wire binding and flexible covers, and are meant to be used for one calendar year and then replaced; any information that needs to be maintained must be hand-copied to the next year’s planner. However, they’re less expensive than binder alternatives and far more lightweight.

Beyond that, because wire-bound planners are minimally customizable, they sometimes have a reputation as tame and impersonal. Book-bound planners are often seen as elegant; ring-bound planners may be sophisticated or sassy, depending on customization. But wire-bound planners tend to remind most people of dentist-office receptionist’s calendars.

Of course, that needn’t be the case. Even when you’re talking about the grand-daddy of wire-bound paper planners, Mead’s At-A-Glance, precision doesn’t have to be boring:

At-A-GlanceSorbet(FYI: At-A-Glance is currently running a 2015 New Year’s special discount: Save 20.15% off online orders using the code SAVE2015, valid 12/31 – 1/5/15.)

Of course, whether you’re looking at name-brand, store-brand or generic planners, the thing to note about most wire-bound planners is that they tend to be for planning appointments and fixed-date events, and less about setting goals, brainstorming projects or doing complex, long-range planning. One exception is the surprisingly little-known, but nonetheless fiercely loved, funnel-based Planner Pads, with space for categorizing project specifics, prioritizing daily activities and scheduling time- and date-specific appointments.


And, if your recollection of Planner Pads is that they are, like most wire-bound planners, fairly black-and-white (literally and figuratively), check out their recent upgrade to brightly colored, seasonal themed planners.



Not everyone is satisfied with a single-universe planner. When I asked my Twitter followers, I was surprised to find how many people, like Unclutterer‘s Erin Doland, were creating their own planners, mixing and matching formats from different environments.

Many DIY-ers like Erin are customizing notebooks to fit their unique needs and styles. Ring-bound planner users have a variety of free options available on the web, like‘s seven sizes of page additions (Executive, Desktop, Travel, Personal, Pocket, Hipster, Mini), with basic monthly, weekly, daily, project and task planning pages, as well as journals, spending logs, Cornell Note-taking pages, and more.

Lately, one of the more common way to adapt a planner is to use a customizable notebook, where you select the cover pieces, page elements and accessories, and join them together with discs that hold the specially-punched paper and elements together, or otherwise employ a unique binding system.

Levenger Punch

Levenger Punch

Ampad Punch

Ampad Punch

The high-end of the scale would be something like the Levenger Circa System, but we’ve also covered more affordable options in past posts, including:

With the cover and binding options in place, you can choose in-system elements, like daily/weekly/monthly calendar pages, project planner refill pages, blank (lined or graph) paper, and so on. Alternatively, you might pick solutions from outside your planner’s universe. Erin, for example, uses the Emergent Task Planner from David Seah’s impressive array of productivity tools.


D*I*Y* Planner also has a huge compendium of template elements for use in ring-bound and disc-bound planners. You may also want to review MakeUseOf‘s recent article, 7 Single-Page Productivity Planners To Organize Your To-Do List for more planning element solutions to add to your calendar/planner. And, of course, any planner page or element created for one format can generally be used for the other with the help of a format-specific hole-punch.


In the end, the best planner for you is the one you’ll pick up, carry with you, and use all the time, day-in and day-out. Only you know whether you need bright colors and mind-mapping pages or serious tones and refined lists. Leather, faux-leather or Hello Kitty pink plastic? Un-dated calendars and blank pages or dated calendars with pre-created themes and prompting language? One universe or a blending of many?

If you use a paper planner, feel free to share in the comments and let us know what works for you. And however you plan your 2015, may it be a happy and healthy one!