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Tools of The Effective Developer: Personal Planning

In the first post of this series I stated that the best tools, the ones that make developers efficient, are the habits that they possess. The habit I referred to in that post was the habit of keeping personal logs. In this post I will tell you about another habit that helps me in my daily work: The habit of personal planning.

When I come to work, the first thing I do after catching up on the e-mails, is grabbing a pen and notebook and start listing today’s tasks. When I’m done listing the ones that are in my head, I turn to my work log and my calendar in search for more things to be done. At this point I usually have a big unordered list of tasks with various degree of importance. It’s always more than enough for one days work so I start prioritizing.

In order to prioritize I rip out the page of my notebook to start a new list. Then I bring the tasks back to the notebook in order of importance. This time I draw a small square in front of every item, turning them into a proper todo-list. When finished I can start the real work, taking on the tasks one by one.

The planning usually takes around ten minutes to do and is worth every second. There are three main reasons for me to do it, listed here in order of importance:

  1. It helps me do the right things in the right order, making me better focused and more effective.
  2. Because of the importance of closure. When I finish a task, the ceremony of checking the square makes me feel good and brings me energy to take on the next task.
  3. It helps me remember what I’ve done during the day. This comes in handy when it’s time to update my work log.

I have tried several applications to help me in my planning, applications like Notepad, Microsoft Outlook and iGoogle’s todo-list. None of them could, in my opinion, compete with the good old pen and paper, so that is what I recommend using. But remember: it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the habit.


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  1. Arend
    September 5th, 2007 at 19:49 | #1

    Great! Habits first! Paper & pen: powerful simplicity. But tedious repeat every day.
    So still looking for the magic tool to do this job for me.

  2. September 5th, 2007 at 20:47 | #2

    *laughing out loud* Yeah, it sucks doesn’t it 🙂

  3. Jeroen
    September 8th, 2007 at 13:02 | #3

    I agree, a proper todo list is a good habit.

    I don’t make them in the morning, though. I create them at the end of my day for my next workday. This brings the following advantages:

    1) everything is still fresh in your mind, so not hard times remembering
    2) you can let go of your thoughts and enjoy your evening 🙂
    3) it seems that it’s easier for me to create the list in the evening rather than in the morning, saving me time in general.



  4. Rick Lively
    September 8th, 2007 at 13:38 | #4

    Have you considered using a Wiki?

    Creating the list and then creating the details/solution by clicking on each item is a nice way to work through the list. My current favorite it d3 (a tiddlywiki), it is one html file that runs completely local on my hard disk.

    Paper is nice, but I like to have the search capabilities of a computer file…

  5. September 8th, 2007 at 16:32 | #5

    Jeroen: Your approach has definitely advantages. I also keep a work log, and that is usually what I do at the end of the work day. It could be a good idea to start the todo-list at that time as well. There is a risk that additional items come up during the night, in the form of emails probably, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. I shall try your approach for a couple of days and see if that works for me as well.

    Rick: I have used Wiki:s, but never for my todo-list. I like having papers, they tend to get my attention while lying close to the keyboard. I have never tried a lightweight kind of wiki though. One html file, I like the sound of that. Thanks for the tip.

  6. Jeroen
    September 9th, 2007 at 17:48 | #6

    Great, let me know how it turns out for you!

  7. September 10th, 2007 at 14:55 | #7

    I’m using a Tiddlywiki too. I even wrote a small extension, that let’s me tick off finished tasks by a simple click. Paper just doesn’t work for me. It’s too static, since a lot of tasks, with higher priorities seem to pop up during the day, and the paperlist turn’s into an unreadable mess …

    Advantage with the wiki approach: It also allows you to easily copy today’s unfinished tasks to the next 🙂

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