If you haven’t yet encountered Michael Hyatt, you need to let him into your life.
To my mind he is the best of all the online productivity gurus (and there are a lot of them about). He was Chairman and CEO at the publishers Thomas Nelson, and when he left, set up a blog and subsequent company, to help people become more focussed at work and at home. I came across him years ago, and used his book Platform to help me start this blog. His one of the very few (very, very few) podcasts I listen to.
Why do I call him ‘the best’? Several reasons.
First, he happily owns up to being a Christian. That doesn’t mean that his stuff is sprinkled with bible verses, nor does it mean it’s the best, but it does mean that it is explicitly congruent with a Christian world-view, and at various key points, in his examples he shows you how it affects his methods and goals. That is a striking contrast to the kind of vague secular buddhism in the otherwise-excellent David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), the Mormon worldview of Stephen Covey, or various ‘Be Your Best’ type resources. It means I let my guard down with Michael Hyatt in the same way that I do with Matt Perman’s What’s best next? These are brothers who help me.
Second, (like Perman, and Allen) he is ruthlessly simple and practical. The goal is not to get us to get more done from a longer do-list, but to get the right things done, with a sense of control. This what Peter Drucker told us we needed to do, decades ago, and we keep on rediscovering it.
Third, unlike the others, he has produced a series of long-form tools to help us do this. He has written various books and courses (that is his business after all), but I particularly recommend a book called Living Forward. People rave about his online course, Best Year Ever, but that’s outside most pastors’ spending power. The book, though, you can afford, and you will need something like it to help identify your long term goals, personal, relational, professional, and so on. Can you abuse it selfishly? Yup, but it can also be a gospel focussed resource.
But his most recent product is a new edition of his Full Focus Planner, and this is what has prompted this updated review.
This is the third generation of physical tools I have invested in: the first was an old-school Filofax, which was useful, but didn’t really have a system to help me achieve things. I needed help.
The second was a much fuller and bulkier type of ring binder, from TMI (Time Manager International) I used this for several years, quite happily, but stopped – I think because much of what it provided was quite fine detail, and I then had a new tool in a smartphone, syncing across devices and with all that functionality we now take for granted. I no longer needed to take my contacts with me wherever I went. I was also working in a team context, where other people needed to see (and occasionally change) my diary. There was also a sense that in the TMI I was carrying everything. GTD made me simplify. And with Evernote on my phone I can carry everything anywhere anyway. I don’t need a portable filing cabinet.
But GTD also encourages you to get the tools (or toys) you need to do the job, and the
reason I signed up for Hyatt’s planner was because I realised I still needed a tool above the level of a diary, to help me plan better. And where GTD and Perman told me that’s what I should look for, Hyatt is the one who’s made it happen. And not just produced the planner, but a series of instructional videos, and a dedicated Facebook group, in which he is an active contributor.
The first impression, from the moment you see the box, is that this is a high-end product.
Physically, this is larger than a Moleskine or Leuchtturmm1917 (which is what I currently use for preaching notes), and I guess that decision was made because of the design of the pages. It doesn’t feel too big, though, and this third edition has gone on a compromise diet: the paper is thinner, and yet there’s been more put in. Two marker ribbons, blue and orange, an internal wallet, and an elasticated band to hold it firmly closed, complete the familiar look. There’s no place for a pen, but various suggestions have included tucking it inside the ribbon (which I do), or buying Moleskine’s clever clip-on pen, or Leuchtturmm’s clever pen-holder. The pages are thick and creamy, and this edition uses better paper which is thinner and just as opaque, and it handles ink and pencil well. Numerous users are recommending Frixion pens and highlighters, which are erasable, and the paper stands up to that hard rubbing very well. I usually use a pencil.
Inside the Planner itself, once you get beyond the Introduction, there are now nine sections, and in my view they provide the near-perfect solution. Note: all the internal images below are taken from the company’s website here: I did this so I did not reveal any more of their copyright designs than they are willing to make freely available outside any paywall.
Third edition: because this is a new edition of a previous product, much of what follows stays the same. But it’s worth noting that every single element has been rethought: font, lines, icons, whitespace, page markers, so that even where the words remain the same, the experience is better. I love its new look, the clarity and lack of clutter. And the Hyatt team have been exemplary in the way they have involved so many of their customers in the design process. I have never seen any company engage us this way, and the result is a product with a big and justifiable fan-base. It has moved even closer to being the near-perfect solution, and no competitor I have seen comes close to being second.
The near-perfect solution.
1.A summary page for your ten annual goals (any more, says Hyatt, and you’ll lose control and motivation). This summary page makes it easy to skim-read, and he suggests you review this daily. Each quarter he suggests you focus on no more than three; he talks about how to construct a suitable goal in the videos which support the planner and in his other products.
2. A more detailed page for each of those goals, to give the reasons, motivations, kind of goal, next big steps, and rewards. Remember, he is already recommending you use some planning system for longer-term goals, and this just distills them. This is part of a regular annual review (see Perman or Allen, for example)
These two goal sections are the first engine which help you decide what you intend to focus on.
UPDATE: The latest edition has introduced further changes to this section, all to the good. The most important is to invite you to distinguish Achievement Goals from Habit Goals, with the different supports they need. Habit goals receive a daily ‘streak tracker’, Achievement goals get targets and deadlines. These are now both on the same, combined page.
3. A rolling 18 month overview, to give a picture of the main building blocks of your time-flow. It is not meant to be a detailed diary, but a proactive plan, with space for notes.
The third edition has combined the best of the previous two editions: there is a double page spread for each of the three upcoming months, and then rolling quarters for each of the subsequent twelve, three months per page. These are both for ‘big rocks’ planning, and I really do find it helpful to see a wide context which I’m considering an outside commitment.
4. A double page spread for your daily rituals. Again, Hyatt is keen to encourage simple decent habits that start your morning, end your day, and a second set to bracket your working day. A reasonable time allocation means that you know (ideally, again) when exercise, Quiet times etc, fit in. They’ve been slightly re-ordered in this edition – a good change.
As a pastor, I have tweaked this slightly, because Sunday is a different kind of working day to the rest of them, and needs a different set of rituals to get going. Emails play little if any part of Sunday morning, for instance, and I have no time to read or to exercise. On the other hand, reviewing my sermon is a must.
I found this an enormously helpful exercise, because it means I can be intentional about little things, and not to try to remember them. It also means that I have decided on my ideals when I am at my best, and that helps me to achieve, say, ‘inbox-zero’ when I’m tired.
5. A double page spread for your ideal week. No week is ever ideal, of course, but this helps you map out what your different days look like (Hyatt encourages us to ‘theme’ days), and to put in adequate time for rest, exercise and so on. It starts at 5am, and finishes at 9pm, and although I have meetings that go on after 9, I rarely start one after that, so this structure is ideal. Colour, highlighters and so on all work here, and remember that this is not set in stone — next quarter you can redesign your week for a different season, like the kids being back at school.
(nerd alert – this edition has therefore reversed the order of the daily rituals and ideal week; that makes sense)
6. And then we hit the daily pages, a double page spread for each day, undated, for the whole quarter.
Each day enables you to identify the main three things you need to do, a place for all the other tasks that come up, a schedule for the day, and space for notes. There’s some other stuff around the edges which is useful, like the theme for the day, some tick-boxes for the rituals, tracking where you are in the quarter, and so forth. This is where the Planner is that bit more helpful than even TMI – it doesn’t just give you space for task lists, but encourages you to focus on the main three. Little prompts do this throughout. There are also motivational quotes at the top – mostly they work, occasionally they strike this Brit as a bit cheesy. But that’s just taste, and no-one makes you read them. And they’ve been rethought for this edition, too.
But then we hit the next two engines, and they are mighty powerful.
The changes here are mostly in design. The new pages are much cleaner, less cluttered, and have more space to write. There’s the occasional extra element as well, but nothing fundamentally different in intent from the previous model. It’s just – nicer.
7. Every seven days there is a guided, double-page Weekly Preview. If you’re familiar with Allen or Perman, this is where it all happens. You deliberately look back on all your events, communications, projects and paperwork, get everything up-to-date, tie up loose ends, review your goals, and carefully plan how the next week will be spent. Hyatt also encourages to learn lessons from the way things went, and adjust our behaviours accordingly. Critically, we identify the next Big Three for the following week. Those Weekly Threes are the identifiable action steps on the way to your annual goals, while the Daily Big Three are the easy mile-markers..
We’re also encouraged here to design our time off. Hyatt encourages us to think through sleep, eat, move, connect, play, reflect, and unplug (he explains these) and how you are going to guard your rest. I found this very odd at first, but I’ve learnt now to start doing it for the following week, and plan my day off more thoughtfully. It’s worked so far!
I have never encountered a planner of any sort that includes the weekly preview, let alone planning your rest time. (UPDATE The new edition combines the Weekly Preview and planning your Weekend – sensible. And, yes, we now do a ‘Preview’ rather than a ‘Review’. There’s also more blank space.)
Those two ribbons come in useful here as you head into your week — one marks the day you are in, the other marks your Weekly Preview and next Big three.
The Planner cycles like this through the weeks until you reach the fourth and final engine:
8. The Quarterly Preview. Like GTD and Perman, Hyatt insists we diarise this, and take a decent half-day or more to review how the time has gone, against the goals set. Doing this properly takes time, but it’s seriously worth the investment. Uniquely, this Planner puts the tool to do that, actually inside the diary section.
9. And finally there are some notes pages, increased in this edition, and now including places for sketches as well as writing and an index for you to create. I have found the index to be really valuable, and means these planners are kept rather than thrown away.
All in all, a neat and pretty package. Only one thing is missing from previous editions: at the very beginning there was a single page for the ‘weekly big three’ meant as a one-off, single-use page as you transfer data between planners each quarter. I confess to missing that (I hacked it with a Post-It), but considering all the incremental gains in this third edition (Hyatt lists eleven, I think), this is a small loss.
But, but, but
The first question is how this works in a largely digital working setting. For instance, do you run your diary in the Planner, or in Outlook/iCal? I think the answer is both: it is slightly redundant, but I’m finding it easier to be proactive with my diary using a pen, and then putting it in the system. There really is something simpler and more memorable about a physical object with handwriting, where there is relevant space for notes of meetings etc. And taking notes when you’re talking to someone looks like you’re engaged when you write in a book, and a bit distracted on a phone. I’ve use a small Moleskine at church for that reason. Anything important can be snapped and searched for in Evernote.
Above all, a physical planner is way less distracting than any online experience. You can, to win a word, focus.
For big projects, nothing beats software like ToDoist or Asana – but again, I find that writing my tasks in my planner makes me ‘own’ the responsibility more.
The second question is the shape of the week. It is still designed for someone working Monday to Friday, with a weekend. Now most people can have that pattern, but it is quite striking on the Facebook site how many users do not, and that includes many pastors – who now have a dedicated group. The hiccup is that each day, while blank on the date, does give the day of the week. I prefer to do my weekly review on Thursday, late afternoon, and it is the one point where I physically fight against the planner’s design. With Tippex.
UPDATE I had hoped the team was considering redesigning the pages so that the day is left off, which would be my preferred ideal. That hasn’t happened. So I’m still going to rewrite the days physically, so it works with my week’s rhythms, rather than most people’s.
Various people have suggested adding monthly sub-goals, or six week goals, but I think that would be overkill — there is space for that in each goal’s page, and they just get transferred across. You can mark with an asterisk the ones you really need to ‘sprint.’
I’ve tucked a Tile in the back pocket, so I can track the planner if it gets lost.
I am, I admit, an eager fan of this. I have never before come across a single package which so clearly and simply has the ability to make me productive and clear headed at the same time, without overwhelming me with the need to maintain it. And this third edition is gorgeous.
You can order the Planner here: this saves you $10, but it is an affiliate link, and using it helps me to keep affording it!