Beginning Steps: Evolution of Productivity Systems

Mondays are productivity days at SimpleProductivity blog.

Photo by the Italian voice

Someone recently approached me and confessed he was confused by all the productivity systems and terms out there. “I want to be more organized and productive, but I don’t know where to start! There are so many systems, I can’t even tell one from another!” So this is the first in an intermittent series of posts on getting started being more productive. Today I’ll talk about the various systems and abbreviations out there.

This is not meant to be a complete history of planners; nor is it meant to overwhelm you. It is simply a compilation of what the various systems have brought to the table.

In The Beginning…

Before the widespread use of computers and personal electronics, most planners were paper. You would have a binder, in your choice of sizes, which you would be given a calendar, some room to write tasks, and a phone directory.

The idea behind these planners were that everything should be written down and kept in one place that you would have access to at all times. You would never be without the information you needed, because it was all in your binder.

Major manufacturers of these types of planners were Day-Timer, Franklin, Filofax and Day Runner.

The Advent of Methodology Classes

When these planners became widespread, the manufacturers started offering classes and methodologies to help people get the most out of the planners. Some included them in “how to use our product” pamphlets they sent with each order. Others offered classes that whole offices were sent to in order to increase their productivity.

Some planners adopted methodologies from other sources. When Stephen Covey released The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Day-Timer offered a series of pages to help you implement his ideas. Eventually he found a home with the Franklin company, which became the Franklin Covey planners.

The point of these methods were to get you to make the most of your planners; to actually help you use them for planning, rather than just keeping track of what you needed to get done.


Around this time, software use became more prevalent. Outlook and Lotus Notes were the big players on the email/scheduling scene, and people found themselves able to update their calendars quickly. It came with a cost, though, and people would spend hours writing down the changes from their electronic systems into their planners.

Two branches sprung from this: printing updates from these systems for your planner, and personal electronics that would work with the systems to keep everything up to date.

Some planner manufacturers, like Day-Timer, offered software that not only gave you an electronic component, but also allowed you to print updated pages for your planner. Other software allowed you to sync your electronic system and your personal electronics, giving freedom from rewriting.

The Return to Paper

After several years of electronic mania, some people went back to paper. It suited them better for the way they worked, and allowed them to fill their planners with the pages they needed.

People began to want more customization. Additional pages, specific to the type of work one was doing, were designed and added into paper planners. The D*I*Y Planner site gave people a place to download pages for printing.

Around this time the Hipster PDA came into being: a set of index cards that functioned just like a full sized planner. Some modified Moleskine notebooks to be their planners.

The Systems Emerge

David Allen released his Getting Things Done in 2002, and with it came a wave of productivity methodologies. GTD gave people a way to uncomplicate their lives.

Mark Forster came onto the scene with Get Everything Done, then released Do It Tomorrow (DIT). He has continued to evolve his systems, and followed it up with AutoFocus and SuperAutoFocus, the details of which can be found at his blog,

So what does one do with the overwhelming choices for a planner and/or system? Stay tuned. The next article in the series will start boiling down the component parts so you can find a system that works for you.

Photo by the Italian voice


  1. Lydian Belknap says

    I finished this article and found it helpful–but where do I go from here? Where so I find your next article? (It is probably self-evident somewhere but I couldn’t find it. Thanks.

    • LJ Earnest says

      It is not self-evident because I haven’t written it yet. :) Stay tuned! More will be coming in the next few weeks.

  2. says

    Thanks for the blog post. I look forward to reading about your evolution.

    I have my own little blog ( focused simply on getting productive using technology, specifically the iPad. I have had a very similar evolution jumping between different systems. What I have settled on is an adapted version of GTD using Evernote and Outlook. It is working for me now, but my processes are always evolving.

    Can’t wait to read your next post!