28 March 2019

Throw-back Thursday - Guest Post - How I use my Personal Filofax for Getting Things Done - David

I'm repeating this guest post from 2014 because it was very popular back in 2014, and I'm sure some people might have missed it first time around. 

Once again thank you to David for sharing in his system in such detail. 

This is the follow-up to my previous post, which detailed my Filofax set-up for Getting Things Done (hereafter referred to by its usual acronym of GTD). I’m sorry this has taken so long to see the light of day despite reminders and requests from members of the community. The honest truth is that I‘ve been experimenting almost continuously for the last four months or so, with different variants of the set-up, different binder sizes, form formats, etc, and in each and every case I’ve found myself back with the set-up I first detailed in November of last year. The only differences are that I’ve since become the very happy owner of a Cavendish with 30mm rings (goodbye, ring capacity issues), and that I’ve altered the sequencing of the sections slightly to make them more intuitive to me. Otherwise, the system is exactly as it was nearly a year ago, and having ‘wandered far and wide’ in search of what are in reality minor improvements, and returned to the system basically unaltered, I’m pretty sure this is the set-up for me.

As promised, this post really isn’t about the set-up at all (you can get that from my November 2013 post), but about how I use it. For the record, however, the sequencing of the sections is now
  1. Notes/In
  2. Diary
  3. Next Actions
  4. Agendas
  5. Projects
  6. Waiting For
  7. Someday/Maybe
  8. Focus and Direction
  9. Reference
  10. Contacts
I’ve combined Project Plans in with Projects to make room for the Focus and Direction section following reading the new GTD Guide to GTD and Paper Planners. I like the GTD system a lot better with the Focus and Direction element included than I did before….. <A sample of the Guide>

So…..what principles do I employ for operating the system, and what routines do I have in place?

Basically there are only three principles which undergird everything I do:-
  1. Capture ‘stuff’ instantly – don’t rely on your memory, it will let you down. Trust me – I’ve learned this the hard way, through everything from missed appointments to overdue tasks.
  2. The right set-up is the one you’re going to use. If you don’t love it, you won’t use it.
  3. Don’t try to make it perfect. The perfect system doesn’t exist.
1. Capture stuff instantly. This is vital for me. As I said in my previous post, everything (and I mean Everything) goes immediately into the system through Notes/In, with no exceptions allowed. If I come across a task, a project I’m about to take on, an item of information or anything else, it gets written in the Notes/In section straight away. I find even a minute’s delay (or less) means I’ve lost the thought I had in my mind. Once it’s recorded here, I know that I’m going to revisit it at the appropriate time (see below) and decide what has to be done, when, and by whom, and then make the decision about where it ‘fits’ within the system as a whole, either as a Project, an Action, a Someday/Maybe or whatever. Incidentally, this is the main reason why I’m still in the Personal format. Gents – can you really imagine yourself whipping out a Cuban zip binder, or something even bigger, in the pub, the gym or a restaurant. Good. Neither can I……ladies, I *know* you (mostly) carry bags for this purpose and others, but just make sure you can see yourself using that Filo in any and all circumstances……
2. The right set-up is the one you’re going to use. I’ve been through some great set-ups that were just too complex and time-consuming (including some GTD variants), some great binders that were just too bulky to carry, and had some great ideas which would really work well except that I’m never going to apply myself enough to ‘lift that weight’ (to quote David Gilmour). For me, this means I need a system that I can use (not over-complicated), will use (not ‘time-hungry’) and enjoy using. My Cavendish and my ‘reserve’ Hampstead (which I still sometimes move back into just for the fun of having it around) are both great binders I’d happily use all day every day (and do).  In terms of paper quality I’ve moved over almost entirely to Raymay Davinci because I can use any of my favourite pens with it. If you enjoy using your system, you’ll use it. If you don’t enjoy it, it will quickly become a chore to keep updated, and no-one likes a chore, do they?! The next stop is neglect and eventually (usually quite quickly) dis-use.
3. Don’t try to make it perfect. A long time ago I sat in a meeting where a wise person lectured us on the dangers of seeking perfection. I wish I’d listened (more). There is ‘perfect’ (which doesn’t exist, by the way) and there is ‘good enough’, which is, well………Good Enough. Real wisdom knows when Good Enough has been attained – and then stopping! (Can you tell I’m lecturing myself here?) I would have spent far less time trying and then abandoning slightly-altered set-ups than I have, and would have been far more productive, if I’d taken that advice earlier.
Ok, so those are the three principles by which I try to operate my system. In addition I’ve adopted a couple of routines which help keep me on track:-
  1. The ‘daily tidy’
  2. The Weekly Review
1. The ‘daily tidy’. Obviously if I’m constantly capturing ‘stuff’ in my Notes/In section, I’m going to have a bunch of loose ends by the time I’m getting towards the end of each day, so I make it a rule to spend 10-15 minutes before I finish the ‘work’ part of my day sorting these through, making decisions, and neatly logging them into the relevant lists within the system (GTD is really just a set of related lists). Anything captured after that goes into the following day’s Notes/In page(s) and gets dealt with the same way. There are no exceptions to this, no excuses, and I don’t consider 10-15 minutes every day too big a price to pay for the security of knowing that all the loose ends are dealt with. The other thing I do during my daily tidy is to set my MITs (Most Important Tasks) for the next day, so that I come to my desk knowing exactly what they are. For more information on the MIT concept, see Leo Babauta’s excellent book ‘Zen To Done. I set a *maximum* of two MITs  each day, and I make sure they get finished first, before I do the ‘small stuff’.
2. The Weekly Review. Obviously I can’t take any credit for the idea of the Weekly Review because it’s an integral part of the GTD system (see David Allen’s books if you need to know more), but I do my Review each week, for about 30-45 minutes, usually in the cafĂ© three doors up from where I live, or another about four miles away (I live in a small village). Doing that gets me away from my desk and from all the things ‘shouting’ to be done, and gives me the time and space I need to concentrate solely on getting my system up to date (if needed) and to brainstorm anything else which needs to be ‘brought on board.
I think it’s really important to have routines and stick to them. If I’m away on business and can’t make my usual Friday Weekly Review for some reason, I either do it on the train (and I’ll admit that writing on a train isn’t easy), or make sure I make time to visit a coffee shop in London (or elsewhere) and get that review sorted. The great thing here is that I have my Cavendish with me all the time, and this is always my response to the standard and rather tired argument I get in favour of digital planning, namely that of ‘single data entry’ which then ‘pops up’ on different digital platforms.

I have Single Data Entry (OK, count the initial note and the ‘proper’ logging as two if you like) and once I enter it, it stays entered. And I don’t have to rely on it maybe/possibly/probably ‘popping up’ elsewhere, because my Filofax is always with me.

Over all I don’t think 15 minutes a day and 30-40 minutes once a week is too much time to spend to keep up-to-date, and I hope you don’t either. Mostly it’s a matter of discipline. Do I want to save the review time for something else and know I’m going to struggle all week to know what my ‘compass’ should be? Probably not. Do I want to know I’ve always got everything with me, all the time, and that I can’t be ‘ambushed’ by new ‘stuff’ because I have a tried and tested system for capturing it and dealing with it later? Probably. No, definitely.

I hope this brief overview is of help to those who have requested it. Once again, I have to stress that this is the system which works for me – yours may be different. I think the important thing is that each of us should not only have a system but should use it consistently. And remember:-

Happy planning!


Thank you David


  1. @David - Thanks for this overview. I don't use GTD myself - as you quite rightly say, it's just a set of related lists, and I have an absolute aversion to anything that gets overhyped, as GTD is - but that aside, I do have a question. You say that your Cavendish is with you at all times. Really? In the bathroom? Under the shower? On the squash court? When doing the gardening? … I'm only being a bit facetious here because making planning mobile is a headache for many of us. A personal format is too small for my office use and too large to take with me to all those unexpected places. Given the fact that I get my best ideas when not at my desk, I carry around an A7 sheet of paper and a pencil - that's the best solution I've come up with yet and I wish I could find a better one. I haven't found a solution yet for noting those ideas I get when under the shower. So, seriously, how do you cope with those times when the Cavendish isn't at hand? Or does that really never occur? Cheers!

    1. Author Anne Lammott, in her book Bird by Bird, shares that she always has an index card and a pen in a pocket to capture ideas. This is simple, inexpensive and portable. Your A7 piece of paper can function just like Anne's index card. To incorporate that with a Filofax, simply punch the card/paper and put it in your binder, or transfer the information from the card/paper to the appropriate section(s).

    2. Hi Unknown

      Thank you for your comments - actually I think you *are* being *quite* facetious, since none of us, so far as I'm aware, can take our Filofaxes into the shower (I'm told many mobile phones are written off this way!), but that's a circumstance we all have to deal with, no matter what our chosen capture method. I don't play squash, but in every other circumstance I can currently think of my Filofax is within arm's reach (I'm in a different binder at the moment). The problem does get worse if you're in A5 (I know from experience), but as you say, carrying either a small notebook or similar is definitely a workaround. I assume you use A5 at your desk? Out of interest, do you take it out to meetings?

      What I've come to realise since I first wrote this post several years ago is that the GTD methodology is just that - a methodology. The tool, whatever that may be, is certainly 'just' a set of related lists, and what appeals to me is the elegant simplicity of those lists and the fact that it's a 'closed' yet infinitely expandable system. However, GTD is a methodology, not just a tool. You may feel that it is over-hyped, but I've found it has afforded me an enormous amount of control and 'mental space' over the years.

    3. Hi David,

      I don't have to attend many meetings, fortunately. My A5 just contains a diary, which I do take with me as required. For meetings I use a Filofax A5 notebook.

      I tend to forget to take my A7 with me often, which can be frustrating when I do get those flashes of inspiration, but as I work from home I don't usually have to drag a lot around with me and a notepad is often within easy reach. As for the shower question - I got myself a write and wipe insert (https://philofaxy.blogspot.com/2019/02/guest-post-philofile-and-accessory.html) which is still in the box but which might end up in the bathroom …. if I can persuade my better half of its utility.

      As for GTD - maybe I'm just jealous that somebody can take something so completely obvious and market it in a way that makes them rich! Quite common these days - that rubs me up the wrong way. I think many systems end up being very similar to GTD because it's a basic framework which can be made to work for most people in most situations, but I never thought it could be possible to end up rich and famous just by explaining to people that they need to make lists. Grrrr. And I hope I didn't offend with my facetious comments in my initial response (nor my anonymity, which is down to some communication bug between Philofaxy and Google on my machines) - I have spent so many years not speaking my mother language that sometimes things don't appear to others as I intend them to be .. :-)


  2. I frequently come back to this post. Really like the idea's. Thank you for reposting it.

    1. I'm glad it's still useful........thank you for your kind words

  3. David's old post is one of my favourite on Philofaxy :)

  4. I come back to this post often. I tend to get caught up making things 'perfect' rather than working my system.