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Disorganized? Don’t blame it on your brain.

Xray image of a human head brain
Xray image of a human head brain

You are not your brain

You were going to clean out that cupboard today, but a TV program came on that you didn’t want to miss. And after all, if you miss this program it may never air again – and you can always clean the cupboard tomorrow.

In the old days we used to call this procrastination – doing what you would rather do now and putting off the more important things until later. But with all of the brain research going on today, it’s now evident that it’s your brain that’s at fault. The brain’s default setting is “to tap the least tiring cognitive process,” according to an article in the December, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind.

We now have legitimate reasons for shirking our responsibilities, rationalizing our errors, and making snap decisions without examining the facts.

With the advent of functional MRIs, and locating the regions of the brain responsible for everything from lack of willpower to angry outbursts, we can pinpoint the blame even further. “It’s the insula or the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” we might claim.

We even have attorneys arguing in court rooms that their clients were not responsible for their crimes since it was some malfunction of a certain region of their brain.

I have over 50 books on the brain in my library – everything from Brain rules to A better brain at any age. What I have concluded personally is that the mind is separate from the brain. You are not your brain; you are your mind. Your brain is simply part of the body – your personal computer, which does your bidding. You can control your brain – unless this most complicated computer in the universe actually breaks down – so get ready to accept responsibility for at least most of your behaviours.

Most of brain books will confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain, and that you are able to reprogram it to develop willpower, resist impulses, overcome procrastination, and strengthen your planning and organizing skills, and so on.

Although most scientists believe the mind itself is simply a part of the brain, my own unscientific mind tells me otherwise. It is the only way that consciousness and immortality make sense to me. It may be linked with or even be another name for soul and/or spirit; but if it is energy, it cannot be destroyed, only changed in form.

My intention here is not to get you to believe in life after death, but merely to warn you not to blame your brain for every lapse in focus or any urge to take the path of least resistance. You may not be your brain; but you are able to control it. As one of those brain books urges, change your brain; change your life.

As an example, there are many ways you can strengthen your executive skills – those brain-based skills that allow you to focus, persist, plan, resist impulses and maintain self-control, among other behaviors. I suggest ways of doing that in one of my latest eBooks, Strengthen your brain’s executive skills, to be published in January, 2016 by Bookboon.com.

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Positivity at work

 

POSITIVE

Positively eliminate the negative

Emotional well-being is when a person consistently reports more positive than negative feelings. And according to research reported in the November/December, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, we become more positive and happier the older we get. In spite of hardships and failing health, something about old age keeps people in good spirits – particularly those passing the 100 mark.

It could be from failing minds, but more likely this positive attitude is from a changing outlook as we grow older and wiser and more able to control our brains. Certainly studies suggest that the positivity and happiness changes over time and is not something that we always possessed or acquired suddenly as we aged.

Also, it was found that seniors who are the most positive also have the sharpest minds – so if you’re young, keep it healthy with both physical and mental exercise. And if you’re old, do likewise. Everyone, regardless of age, should give their positivity a boost whenever possible.

A positive attitude tends to stress-proof your life. It’s important to get sufficient sleep, daily exercise and social support. And it’s equally important to be aware of the good things that happen to you – those positives amid negative events. Be more conscious of the things that go right in your life, and remember that when things look bleak, humor helps. Also, volunteer on a regular basis; by helping others you are also helping yourself.

Use the “stop” method whenever you find yourself having negative thoughts about a future event that may or may not happen. Negativity thinking is more common than you may think. Robert Leahy in his book, The Worry Cure, (Harmony, 2005) claims that 38% of people say they worry every day, and more than 19 million Americans are chronic worriers. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts, immediately say “Stop that!” either aloud or silently to yourself. And then get on with the next item on your “To Do” list.

Action will dissipate worry every time.

You will become more positive and happier the older you get. But why wait when you can enjoy life more right now by accentuating the positive and doing everything you can to eliminate the negative.

If that last line is familiar to you, and the research showing that positivity increases with age is accurate, you are already more positive than most people because it’s based on a song written over 70 years ago.

 

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One more advantage of paper planners

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Planners leave hard copy evidence that you lived

“To do” lists are fine when you’re young, but as you get older you also need the encouragement of “Have done” lists. At least, I do. There is nothing quite as satisfying and motivational as glancing at the myriad of tasks, projects and other accomplishments listed, scheduled, and crossed off on the pages of my past planners.

Even seeing the planner inserts of the past 30 years stacked like books on a bottom shelf of the bookcase, the year marked boldly on the spines, provides an assurance that my life has not been wasted.

If I were to take the time to flip through those pages I would see the evidence of my 20-plus books, over 2000 speeches and workshops, conferences attended, cruises enjoyed, travel booked, meetings attended, and friends, parties and stage plays enjoyed.

If my memory fades, I can always refresh it by looking up that cruise in 1987 or the vacation in Costa Rica in 1991 or that adventure in Mexico in 2015.

Would a digital planner have done the same? Well, aside from the fact that it was not available at the time, the answer would have to be no. Digital records seem to be fleeting, evaporating after a time and unavailable a few years hence.

How many people keep their digital planners intact? And how accessible are they? And what details are recorded there? We don’t live digital lives; we live in real time with real “hard copy” lives, and we should leave footprints of our lives that are not as fragile as footprints on the beach.

After I’ve gone, will my children keep and treasure those planners as I have? Will they reminisce when they see their own adventures in school and sports recorded there? Will they write a biography of their dad based on the entries? Or use some of the information for a eulogy?

Very unlikely. But it doesn’t matter. These planners are a testament to my having lived, loved, worked and played – and achieved something of significance. And hopefully I will have left the world just a tiny bit better because of it.

As I continue to live, I still find them motivational. And I will continue to use them as we enter 2016 – and hopefully beyond.

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Working from home can boost your productivity

Home office

The trend is to a more mobile workforce

People seem to thrive in a work environment where they have clear performance objectives and are allowed more freedom to choose their own work methods, hours and location. A January 11, 2012 Toronto Globe and Mail article cited a survey in which two out of five respondents said they would take a lower paying job if it gave them leeway with respect to mobility, choice of electronic devices and social media access.

There is a trend towards flexibility in both working hours and location. Studies have shown the traditional workstations are only occupied about 50% of the time. One survey of 950 companies revealed that 60% had some unassigned workspace in their company. We have gone from individual offices to cubicles, and now seem to be moving towards the sharing of a desk or a table in the company office – with the majority of our work being accomplished at home or on the road.

According to a November, 2015 issue of Tampa Bay Times, more than 24 million Americans now work from home at least some of the time. And they are reported to be a lot more productive at home, with fewer interruptions, fewer distractions, more comfortable environment, and minimal office politics and less stress from commuting. Paul and Sarah Edwards, in their book, Working from home, indicate that productivity rises 15% to 25% when work is done at home instead of at the office.

There is much time to be saved if commuting to an office can be eliminated. According to the Toronto Board of Trade for instance, getting to and from work in this city consumes an average of 80 minutes.

Mobile applications and conference calls, email etc. now make it easier to work at home and on the road. It’s important to be able to share energy, creativity and brainstorming with others; but it need not be done daily.

A Careerbuilders.ca survey shows that nearly one third of all remote workers spend one hour or less on the job each day when working from home. Whether you are more or less productive working from your home depends on your individual situation. If you ask the telecommuters, 37% say they are more productive at the office, 26% say they are more productive at home, and 37% don’t see any difference.

Distractions seem to be the critical factor. The more significant home distractions, in reducing order of severity, are household chores, TV, errands, children, Internet and pets.

To be productive at home you must structure your day and maintain a work mindset. For example, one survey revealed that about 25% of telecommuters tend to work in their pyjamas. Instead, you should dress for work, keep a normal working routine, have dedicated office space with the necessary office equipment, stay connected with working colleagues, plan your breaks – and occasionally take your work to a coffee shop where there are people. You may find that when you work among others at a coffee shop, you can feed off their energy without being interrupted.

For a discussion on how your working environment can have an impact on both your energy level and your personal productivity, refer to my eBook, Managing your energy, to be published by Bookboon.com, in December, 2015. http://bit.ly/1PQekqV

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The return of the notepad

Priority Pad

A simple notepad on steroids might be all you need

Research shows that things left undone cause stress. And an expanding to do list, which never seems to empty, is a constant reminder of all the things left undone – important or otherwise. This is true whether it is a hardcopy or electronic list.

If we had only today’s work to contend with – and had closure at the end of each day – we wouldn’t experience the anxiety that so many people are experiencing. This is especially true in today’s environment where we seem to have an endless series of things to do.

To add to our woes, prioritizing is more difficult, since priorities often change on a daily basis. It’s virtually impossible to list things in order of priority and have them stay that way.

One executive recently reported online that he had solved this problem by switching back to something he had used as a child – a pen and notepad. He felt it gave him more control than the various apps he had tried. And he can jot down the things he has to do on a daily basis.

Most people seem to experience the same problem. I solved it in my life by developing the Taylor Planner some 30 years ago; but some people feel their jobs are too volatile to actually schedule blocks of time in their planners, electronic or otherwise, and stick to a fixed schedule.

My son, Jason, is one of those people. Besides managing a restaurant and operating a website design business, he also runs the day to day operations of our Taylor in Time partnership. He extended the notebook idea to form a Daily Priority Pad (available in two sizes) which allows him to start each day with a clean slate. It’s a cross between a plain note pad and an actual planning calendar – with space for the day’s priorities, things that must be done that day, appointments, and follow-ups arising from phone calls and email messages and room for notes. It even has a Back Burner section where he can park items that come up during the day that can wait until the next day or later.

I tried using it myself, and it works well. But I had two or three pages going at the same time since I’m in the habit of spreading my total workload throughout the week. So I reverted back to the paper planner. But I can see that this simple planning pad can be more than enough when you also use a handheld device or tablet to organize most of your week.

One thing is certain. Regardless of how much you’re into technology, you can’t get away from using paper – even it involves jotting notes on scraps of paper or sticky notes until you get a chance to record the information into your smartphone or laptop. So you might as well do it in an organized manner, all in one place.

You can take a look at this new Daily Priority Pad at our website, taylorintime.com. You can even watch a brief video that Jason uses to explain how it works – and print off sample pages at our website as well. No sense in fretting about the things you have to do in the future. Take one day at a time.

 

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Can’t say no? Practice the pause

Saying no

Don’t be so quick to say yes. 

People who claim they can’t say no are actually saying no when they say yes; because they can’t do everything. There’s only so much time available. And every time they say yes to something, they’re saying no to something else. And that something else might be time to spend on their family, friends or themselves.

In most cases we don’t say no because it is easier and more rewarding at the moment to say yes. It’s called the “Pleasure Principle”. We tend to avoid pain and seek immediate gratification. When we say yes, we get immediate rewards – we feel good, we make people happy, we are liked, and so on.

It’s the same thing with procrastination. We tend to do what’s pleasant and avoid anything that’s unimportant. When we procrastinate, we put off what we want most in order to do what we want at the moment.

Brain research now offers another reason for our tendency to say yes so quickly. Saying yes is in most cases a knee-jerk reaction. It is an automatic response initiated by the same part of the brain the reacts so readily to interruptions and distractions. But our executive function – located in the reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex – can override this initial impulse if allowed to do so. And you can allow it by simply making up your mind right now that you will pause whenever asked to do something. It may be appropriate in many cases to respond during the pause with “Let me think about it” or “Leave it with me.” Or you may decide to say yes fairly quickly due to the nature of the request. The important thing is the pause that gives your executive function a chance to do its job.

We have known for many years that giving of your time, money or talents is healthy for the giver. It has been linked to lower stress levels, increased physical and emotional health, an enriched sense of purpose and even longevity. But according to research referred to in an article appearing in the November 15, 2015 issue of Tampa Bay Times, even the thought of helping someone helps the giver fight off disease, among other benefits.

A study at Harvard actually showed that such thoughts increased protective antibodies in the people who were considering helping someone. That’s what you are doing during the pause – thinking about helping someone. But the reaction is not reversed if you decide not to.

Practice the pause.

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Getting organized adds meaning to your life

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Get started by developing routines.

Organizing your office and home not only helps you to find things, it helps you to find purpose in life as well. According to recent research reported in the July/August, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, an ordered life lays the groundwork for the pursuit of larger goals, purpose, and significance.

Getting organized, maintaining a tidy office, keeping a daily schedule, having weekly dinners with friends and other routines all add meeting to your life, according to Samantha Heintzelman, a University of Missouri psychologist. Although most people may think routines bring boredom, they bring richness to the mundane, while saving time and mental energy to invest in higher pursuits.

Few people balk at the morning routine of taking a shower, getting dressed, brushing their teeth and so on before starting their day. It’s necessary groundwork upon which to launch their significant activities. Neither should they question the validity of developing routines for planning their day, dispensing with email, making calls, and working on their significant projects in chunks of time throughout the day.

For maximum ongoing productivity and achievement you should first invest the time in organizing your office or work area. Set up your electronic and hard copy file systems, your follow-up system, the location of your inventory and office supplies, the layout of your desk and bookshelves, and so on.

Then choose a good planner that displays all seven days at a glance, segmented into 15-minute or half hour increments from early morning until late evening so you can schedule both work and personal activities.

Develop the habit of scheduling time for the priorities of the day well before the day’s activities begin. Relegate the less important tasks to your To Do list, preferably on the same week-at-a glance planner page.

You also must manage your energy in order to gain control of your time. Routines require less energy, leaving plenty for creativity, decision-making, and the mental demands of your significant projects and tasks. And the tendency to procrastinate is reduced to a minimum.

 

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Work smarter, not harder

Meetings

Delegation is the greatest timesaver available to managers

A school superintendent in Arkansas was accustomed to having the morning newspaper on his desk each morning when he arrived at 7:30.  A lady custodian who had the boring, routine job of keeping a few offices clean and tidy would place it there.  She was a good worker, bright, loyal and until then, unnoticed.  The superintendent asked her if she would like to glance through the paper before putting it on his desk, highlighting any news relating to education.  She accepted eagerly. Her job became more meaningful, and the superintendent saved time by not having to read the entire paper to identify news relevant to his administrative position.  The superintendent also remarked that she does a better job than he did.

Delegation ranges from minor assignments such as the one above, to major decision-making that impacts the success of a program or the reputation of an organization.  It is the process of sharing your job with others and holding those individ­uals responsible for the successful completion of the tasks assigned.

You cannot hold anyone responsible for carrying out an assignment without also delegating the amount of authority needed to carry out the responsibility assigned.  You cannot hold a person responsible for improving the appearance of a newsletter, for instance, without the auth­ority to choose the types, colors, images and layout.  Nor can you assign the responsibility of organ­izing a staff luncheon without the authority to choose the location, menu and seating plan.

The more authority a staff member is given, the less invol­vement is required on the part of the manager, and the greater the burden that is lifted from his/her shoulders.  But the more authority a staff member has, the greater the impact that person has on the success of the company.  Managers must have confidence in the staff in order to risk delegating.

And it is a risk, since the manager must shoulder the blame for a job poorly done even though it may be someone else’s error.  The ultimate responsibility still rests with the manager.

Yet delegation is the greatest time saver available to managers at all levels.  It frees time for more important tasks, allows you to plan more effectively and helps relieve the pressure of too many jobs, too many deadlines and too little time.

Delega­tion actually extends results from what you can do personally to what you can control.  It is also the most effective way of developing staff members.  When you are delegating, you are working smarter, not harder.

We have many reasons for not delegating.  We don’t have time to train others.  They can’t do it as well or as quickly as we can.  We’re afraid they might make mistakes.  But in many cases these reasons are simply excuses.  Sure it will take time to train them.  However, every hour invested now will bring you hundreds of free hours in the future.  It’s unlikely our staff members can do as good a job as we can.  But how about when we started?  We weren’t always as good at our jobs as we are now.  Be willing to accept less at first.  As they become more experienced, their performance will improve.  They’ll make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.  But that’s the price we have to pay in order to free up our time, develop our staff members, and expand our effectiveness.

What jobs should we delegate?  A good starting place is to list all the jobs we do on a recurring basis, no matter how small. They all take time. Then look for those jobs that take the biggest chunks of time.  If they require only a little training, that’s great.  But if you must train, schedule time to do it.  Perhaps a half hour each day or two hours each week would suffice.  Set the time aside and stick to a regular schedule.  Time you spend now will pay big dividends later.

Also, look at those jobs that don’t take much time, but are repeated frequently.  They usually require little training, and all those ten-minute increments add up in the course of a month or a year. You won’t want to delegate critical jobs that could endanger your position; nor jobs that involve confidential informa­tion.  But there are probably many jobs that someone else could do for you.

One of the responsibilities of a manager is to get things done through other people.  A manager plans, organizes, staffs, directs, controls, and innovates.  But a manager does not get bogged down with jobs that someone else can do.

 

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The Best of Both Worlds

paper planner with electronic

paper planner with electronic

How to use a paper planner in combination with an electronic planner (iPhone, iPad, Android etc.)

I mentioned in a previous article that there are at least 5 ways a paper planner is better than an electronic one. Of course there are many ways digital is better than paper but for now let’s look at one example that makes them even better when used together.

I don’t think we have to go into the hundreds of things that an electronic device is amazing at – searching, sharing, connectivity, checking email, setting repeating events, copying and pasting, alarms and reminders etc., etc. on and on. But we need to be honest about one thing, no matter how committed you are to your gadget you still use paper! And in here lies a problem. Let’s look at a couple scenarios and then look at how paper and gadget can work together.

The Telephone

Let’s say you’re on the phone with a client, the client is speaking a mile a minute about what they need from you, obviously you’re making notes of some kind (unless you are relying on your memory, yikes!!). So the big question here is what are you making the notes on? In a lot of cases your planner is your phone so you’re certainly note making note on it! Even the most ardent techies still jot things down on paper, it’s just easier. The problem is what paper are you jotting the notes onto? A scratch pad? Sticky notes? Scraps of paper? And then what? Then you have to transcribe all these notes a second time into your gadget? What a waste of time! Or do you just make a nice neat pile of these scrappy notes and refer to them throughout the day to see if you’ve forgotten anything? Not only is that a waste of time, it’s a completely disorganized way to work. A better way is to have a planner that offers space to write all the important notes of the conversation directly into it. This way you write it once and it’s organized with all your other important information.

Email

Here’s another scenario. You turn on your device and check your email. The first email you open is a note from a client that says “Please send me a detailed estimate later today and call me at 956-242-6887 after you send it.” So there are two important things you need to remember 1) you need to spend an hour creating an estimate and 2) you need to email it and follow up with a phone call.

So how do you deal with this information? Are you actually going to take the time to exit your email program, launch your calendar app and create a new appointment and copy and paste the email into it? Maybe, but I doubt it. More likely you will a) rely on your memory (yikes again!) b) print the email and add it to the other pile of forgotten work c) Mark the email as unread and deal with it later or d) jot the information on a scrap of paper. The most organized option is to have a planner that offers space for this type of information. You simply jot down “estimate for John, call 956-242-6887” and you’re done! Now that important task is in the “real” world and not out of site out of mind. It’s in your planner for today which is opened or visible on your desk.

You can still keep all your appointments in your device with reminders set easily accessible from anywhere by you or your team, but your must do items and all the important information collected during the day is neat and tidy in your task planner sitting on your desk. Your planner acts as a nag, always in sight always in mind, and you’re always organized.

The takeaway from this article is that you DO use paper so just make sure the paper you are using keeps you organized and not scattered and flustered searching for things whether in the real world or the electronic one. The best paper for the job is a planner with dedicated space to capture this type of information. The old grid-style time planners just don’t cut it anymore. Times have changed and so should your planner. Check out the Daily Priority Pad as a great option for merging high tech with paper.

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In praise of paper planners

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A merging of high-tech and high-touch

Hand-held electronic computers can boost productivity immensely. But they are computers, not planners. Don’t throw away the kitchen sink just because you buy a dishwasher.

With a hard copy planner you can see your entire week, complete with scheduled tasks and your “things to do” list at a single glance. Flipping of a page brings you a whole new week of plans, appointments and projects. You can see your activities take shape, become completed and remain visibly intact as permanent trophies to your weekly accomplishments. A hardcopy planner also serves as a journal, reflecting not only your past activities, but your uniqueness – taking on your personality, character, and philosophy. It reveals your habits and style as well as your priorities. Color coding, sticky notes, self-adhesive labels and hand written notes can form a permanent footprint of your presence in this world and the impact you made.

Nobody wants to be left behind in this information age where technology is king; but it’s not a case of either using an electronic handheld device or using a paper planner. They both have their place. You can continue to plan and schedule using a paper planner while using your handheld device for contact information, databases, electronic communications, Internet access, and the dozens of other functions used on a regular basis such as GPS, photography, ebooks, email, banking and Google searches.

As the article titled “The Upgrade Game” in the June, 2015 issue of Scientific American claims, “No tech company would create a product just once, designed perfectly for its task, and just sell the version forever with, making only compatibility tweaks as necessary.”

But that’s exactly what we have done with the Taylor Planner – designed over 30 years ago, and only tweaked as necessary based on feedback from its users. It won’t turn on your TV set, provide directions to the nearest shopping mall or search the Internet. It does one thing only, and does it well – helps you to plan your days and weeks so you get the important things done while keeping your life in balance. No upgrades necessary.

According to the Scientific American article mentioned above, since Word was distributed in the 1980s, they have offered upgraded versions 14 times, and if you bought Photoshop in 1990 and bought all the upgrades, you would have paid over $4,000 by now.

I try not to compare a paper planner with a handheld computer because they are not even in the same league. A paper planner plans, it doesn’t compute. But just be aware that the electronic gadgets will continue to add new features whether you need them or even want them. And eventually your older model won’t even be supported by the newer operating systems. But what really bothers me from a time management perspective is that the planner portion of an electronic device is becoming lost among the myriad of other features.

And what bothers me even more is the truth of the statement made by David Pogue, the anchor columnist for Yahoo Tech, and author of the Scientific American article: “Each time (that you upgrade) you lose a few days of productivity as you learn the new layout.”

Balancing high-tech with high- touch can strengthen our brain-based “executive skills, and technology writer Danny O’Brien, who interviewed top achievers, found one thing in common that may account for their increased productivity. They all used some sort low-tech tool, such as a written “To Do” list or a plain paper pad.

The Caveman Principle, as explained by Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College and City University of New York, says that given a choice between high-tech and high-touch, we opt for high-touch every time. For example, would you rather see a celebrity performer sing at a concert or watch a DVD of the same performance? Or how about a live sporting even vs. a re-run on TV?

In addition to the planner I use a hard copy Telephone & E-mail Log in which to make notes when I talk to people on the telephone or review my email. I find more people are using this as we get further into the digital age – probably because it prevents multitasking while on the telephone, improves concentration, shows co-workers you are actually busy and not available to them, and most important, insures that you don’t forget all the things that require follow-up as you switch from call to call and from one email message to another. And it’s like a breath of fresh air to your overloaded brain.

I’m not advocating a return to paperwork; but I do advocate the merging of high-tech and high-touch. There is no need to apologize for using paperwork when it actually serves you better and improves your efficiency. It’s even more important to have an organized mind than an organized working environment – although they do complement each other.

Some predictions about the future have been proven wrong – such as the “paperless office.” There is actually more paper since the advent of computers. People trust concrete evidence more than they do electrons on a computer screen that disappear when you turn off the screen. That’s probably another reason I still prefer to use a paper planner.

It doesn’t have to be a planner. Some people are being so rapidly bombarded by instant tasks, requests and assignments that they find it literally impossible to schedule much of anything in a planner. For those people we have designed a Priority Planner Pad – a one-page system that accommodates the hectic lifestyle of someone constantly on the move. You can view them both at our website, taylorintime.com.