How Good Can a Paper System Be?

I received an interesting email from a reader of 2Time site who felt a bit put off at my comments about paper systems.

She mentioned that in my video on “Permanently Fixing the Weekly Review” I said (in passing) that paper systems are from the 1950’s.  Well, of course, all paper systems are from the pre-1990s, because that’s just about all we had back then to work with!

But I have never addressed the main point she’s inquiring into — can a paper-based system be every bit as good as one that’s electronic?  Her last question was the most pointed:

If we truly believe in the “know the basics and make it your own” philosophy, then we must allow people to use the tools that speak to who they are. There cannot be a wrong way.

I humbly agree!  In fact, I do all my manual capturing on paper.  I also use a Palm PDA – they sit beside each other in a portable wallet that I carry everywhere.

However, using the 11 Habits as a tool for analyzing a time management system that uses only paper reveals that there is a limit to the number of time demands that can be handled using only paper.  Let’s look at each of the fundamentals and see why a paper system prevents a user from reaching the higher belts in some disciplines, and why.

(As you read this, bear in mind that the 2Time belt system is just something I made up… it’s not written in stone anyplace.  If you’d like to see a short summary of each of the fundamentals, simply do a search on this blog for the relevant keywords in bold and you’ll find my very first definitions.)

Capturing:  At the moment I prefer to use paper because it has the following characteristics…

  • it’s cheap
  • requires no charging
  • it can get wet or hot
  • it’s quick to use – I can write faster than I can type, or have my handwriting recognized

On the other hand, it also offers no backup capabilities, which actually helps me because it leads me to Empty more frequently.

When it comes to automatic capture points, however, those that are electronic win hands-down.  For example, at some point soon, letters and bills will be replaced by email entirely.

In the future, I fully expect that tools like LiveScribe will become easier to use, and that we’ll have paper and electronic combinations that give us some of the benefits of both media.

In 2Time terms, it’s possible to become a Green Belt in Capturing using either paper or electronic tools.

Emptying:  I think it’s equally easy to empty a paper capture point as it is to empty an electronic capture point.  However, there is something that feels good about  crossing an item off my pad that deleting doesn’t quite match.

Apart from that, most professionals’ time demands arrive via email and having a paper capture point alongside an electronic email Inbox is a little cumbersome as one needs to move between two different media.

But these are minor differences.  The act of Emptying can be mastered if only paper tools are used, so there is little difference between the two.

Tossing:  There are only some minor differences between Tossing using paper or electronic tools.  Green Belts are achievable regardless of the medium.

Acting Now:  Once again, there are very minor differences between the two media in this particular fundamental.

Storing:  The discipline/fundamental of storing is defined as indexing information that’s needed in the future so that it’s easy to find at the precise moment of need.  This is one fundamental that paper proves to be a limiting factor.

Important information that most professionals need in the future include:

  • contact information
  • saved messages
  • saved files
  • passwords
  • due dates

The problem with using a paper storage system is that it’s

  • bulky
  • liable to damage from extreme wet, heat, pilferage, hurricanes, tsunami’s, earthquakes, cyclones, vermin, etc.
  • costly to the bottom line and to the environment
  • difficult to make backups

In 2Time terms, it’s not possible to progress to the Green Belt stage without using electronic tools.  To put it another way, someone who uses electronic tools can effectively executive this fundamental for a greater number of items.

For example, trying to store passwords is a problem for anyone who has a great number of them, and tries to manage them using paper only.  Once they upgrade to an electronic storage system with automatic backups, and master the new habits needed, they become more effective.

Scheduling: This fundamental is one that clearly separates paper from electronic users in terms of the number of scheduled items they are able to manage.

A quick glance at the detailed posts on Scheduling reveals that it’s not possible to manage a complex, dynamic schedule on paper.    Again, this is strictly a matter of volume.

Users that want to manage a great number of time demands have greater success using a complete and dynamic schedule, alongside short lists.  This isn’t a problem at White and Yellow belts, where the number of time demands is low.  However, as the number increases, and it becomes harder to handle a mental schedule, then the techniques at Orange and Green Belt levels become necessary.

A dynamic schedule, by the way, is one that can be changed on the fly, when needed.  The power of portable electronic PDA’s and smartphones is that a schedule can be carried and accessed quickly.  Laptops aren’t quite as accessible, of course.

An electronic schedule can also be duplicated and synchronized in real time across multiple platforms, which makes it easy to recover from a catastrophic event.

Listing: The problems with paper-based Scheduling are similar to those of paper-based Listing.  With electronic lists come the safety of having good backups, easy updates from any geographic location plus platform synchronization.

At the White and Yellow Belt levels, where Listing is a prominent activity, using paper lists is risky because of the lack of backups.

Interrupting, Switching, Warning and Reviewing:  These Advanced fundamentals are tool independent — they don’t have much to do with using paper or something electronic.

As I performed the above analysis for the first time for this article, I realized that I should reinforce some of the important ideas behind Time Management 2.0, to explain why I created a system that requires electronic tools at the higher Belts.

  1. No-one needs to be at any particular Belt in time management.  My only recommendation is professionals should choose the Belt that fits their “style,” and allows them to manage their chosen volume of daily time demands.
  2. White Belts are not inferior or superior to Green Belts, any more than a huge pipe is better than a small pipe.  They are simply designed for different purposes.  At the same time, choosing the wrong pipe cam lead to chaos.  When it comes to a particular skill in any fundamentals, it’s important that the selection be made carefully, and in keeping with key metrics like “the number of emails I receive each day.”

There is a common belief that a time management system should be tool-neutral.  I think that a modern system includes one’s “choice” of:

  • habits
  • gadgets
  • software

Each person assembles a system that matches their life needs, and as such, the choice of gadget (which might range from a Franklin Planner to an Android) is very important.  I certainly am dealing with this issue as I plan my next upgrade to a Blackberry, as it will make some habits harder to execute, and others easier, simply because of its design.

Bottom Line:  as we upgrade and tinker with our time management systems we are free to use what we will, but there are “hard” consequences to our choices that we must account for, and simply can’t ignore.

P.S. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  The great thing about writing a blog is that I’m not stuck with what I created even last week!