Digital vs Physical Planner: Which one should you use?

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Hi dear reader, this is Priya Nain, one of the productivity writers here at Sunsama 👋

As a student, my entire life could fit in my passion planner. Every day, I would fit my schedule into one page. Over time, became a handwritten history of everything I'd done, places I went to, and experiences I had.

Writing down my tasks on paper gave me a tangible and distraction-free view of what I wanted to focus on for a particular day. It helped me resist the urge to overload my day & I approach planning with more mindfulness. I prioritized my tasks better because of the spatial cue that a page offers when you start writing at the very bottom of it. Research suggests that writing things down by hand helps you retain information better. The ritual and process of just re-writing my daily tasks helped me set my intention.

There was definitely some kind of satisfaction in seeing the ink roll onto a fresh sheet of paper. Crossing-off a completed task sparked joy in a way that even the most beautifully designed apps can't.

This approach worked well in university because there was a predictable cadence to the work I needed to get done. I didn't have to share my schedule with others except during team projects. Life was simple, and so was the work I did.

But I ditched the paper…

The paper planner wasn't enough when I started my first job. Even my friends noticed that my planning system wasn’t working when it took me days of “planning” to finally do a hangout session with them. Yikes!

My old chat with a colleague

Paper journals are a lot of work to maintain and they didn’t jive with my new dynamic responsibilities at work and I was falling behind. I spent a lot of time each day going through the housekeeping and notation system. I tried other journals like the Bullet Journal, Passion Planner, and Power Planner but I still couldn’t get a comprehensive and realistic view of my day.

Now that I was working, my days looked very different. I had more meetings, that often got reshuffled. I was getting questions and requests in my email and Slack that could take significant time and effort to reply to. And most of my big daily now lived in other project management tools like Jira and Asana. And unlike when I was a student, I had more work to do each day than I could ever get done. I needed a system that would help me realistically plan a day of tasks from all my different sources.

I decided to add a digital planner to my toolkit when my work became primarily digital. My task list is now available on all my devices, it’s synchronized with my calendars, and I can pull in tasks from all my different project management tools.

The nature of my work and lifestyle makes a digital planner a practical choice for me. But that doesn't mean it's the best choice for you too.

Productivity forums and experts love to have an opinion about whether paper planning or digital planning is best. It’s a futile exercise. What matter is what solution fits your life, your work, and your personality. I want to share how I thought about the transition from paper to digital in case you are considering making the switch.

For the purposes of this post, digital planners include things like online calendars, productivity apps, and programs, while paper planners include notebooks, desk calendars, hand-written lists, and bullet journals.

I recommend using a paper planner if you:

  • Remember things better by hand-writing them
  • Don't want to deal with learning a new interface
  • Are worried that a tool might shut down tomorrow and you would be left high & dry without a history of your past task list
  • Get distracted when using online tools to manage your tasks
  • Like scrapbooking / journaling in your planner
  • Don't collaborate much with other people to get work done
  • Don't have as many meetings that you need reminders
  • Have a daily, predictable routine with almost the same tasks
  • Snooze the tasks in a digital planner & ultimately forget them
  • Don't want to depend on the internet to run an app and plan your day

I recommend using a digital planner if you:

  • Rely on your planner throughout the day and take it with you everywhere you go
  • Collaborate with others (check on their schedule to book meetings, assigns tasks, etc.)
  • Don't own a printer (or don't want to buy one)
  • Have tasks spread out across different applications
  • Have tasks that get carried over to the next day
  • Need to search for task history all the time & can't tolerate the flickering it might require if you use a notebook
  • Have repeated tasks (e.g. check reports every morning from 9-10 am)
  • Feel there's more than you can possibly do and you need to quickly understand your daily workload.
  • Need to understand where you are spending your time and energy each week (to share with managers, and clients, or to improve on your own time utilization)
  • Have most of your work documented and discussed digitally (email, Slack, project management tools)
  • Need reminders to actually go through your daily planning
  • Last of all, if you really can't read your handwriting

A Simple Hybrid System

I love the simplicity of using a paper planner and the versatility of a digital planner. And I can see the value of both. My set of tools for planning now include —

  • Sunsama app: This is my digital planner. I put all my personal & work-related tasks here and drag a few from Trello. I then categorize them according to channels & move them around in the sequence of priority.
  • Google Calendar: After prioritizing my tasks, I timeblock my calendar inside of Sunsama & anything that doesn't fit gets shifted to the next day. All the tasks that I timebox in Sunsama show up right on my Google Calendar. And any meeting that's in Google Calendar gets added to my "Today" list in Sunsama.
  • Basic Paper Notebook: I still use a paper journal for keeping track of big ideas, long-term goals, brainstorming sessions, and personal tasks. So when I want to focus on vision setting, free-thinking, or personal life, I'm not overwhelmed by a planner full of tasks that are due. Having different places for different objectives has helped set boundaries.

Think about the purpose of planning in your life — Do you want to prioritize better? Do you want to see where you spend your time or stay on top of deadlines? Do you have many meetings to schedule — and choose what will help you do your work in the best way.

Sometimes it takes a little experiment to figure out what works best. So why don't you try Sunsama? It’s free for the first 14 days, and you don't need a credit card to sign up.

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