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Friday, February 12, 2010

Interview with Charlie Gilkey

Here is my interview with Charlie Gilkey, author of the Productive Flourishing website, time management guru, and creator of the awesome planners I featured earlier this week!

Charlie, first of all thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions, I know Plannerisms readers will be very interested in what you have to say!

First let’s start at the beginning:

Q: When did you first start thinking about productivity issues and how people can manage their time? Was it based on your own needs, or on what you observed around you?

A: Before I just dive right in, I wanted to say thanks for the interview. I'm honored to be "here."

I first started thinking about productivity issues because of how complicated my life was. I was simultaneously working towards completing my Ph.D. (in Philosophy) while being an officer in the Army National Guard, and I was trying to be a husband worth having and finishing the basement in our house. Not only that, I'm naturally polymathic, so there were always things to do.

So, I did what any polymath does: I started reading and learning about productivity systems. I learned a lot that gave me a good foundation in the field, but the material didn't quite get the issues of being a productive creative person. It wasn't just me either - there were a lot of other creative folks who were just as stuck as I was.

Q: I noticed on your website that you are a former GTD user, but “fell off the horse” repeatedly with that system. Did your GTD experience inspire you to create your planners, or was there some other tipping point that caused you to hit the drawing board with your own planner designs?

A: In a roundabout way, yes. What I noticed is that there was a big disconnect between the "runway level" actions that GTD really helps with and the higher vision stuff - in some sense, you can say I'm combining Covey's ideas with Allen's.

The other huge catalyst for me was Dave Seah's planners. He's my design hero, and I always loved his work, but they still didn't quite fit me. So I started making ones that did. It turns out that they fit other people pretty well, too. (He's still the far superior designer, though.)

Q: I know that you do a lot of experimentation with the planner designs, and that some of the planners available to the public have changed designs at least once. How many incarnations have the planners been through so far?

A: Wow, that's hard to say. I'm constantly tweaking spacing, lead text, and elements, so whether that's an incarnation is another matter. That said, the Action Planners have been the ones that have gone through the most revisions - they're where I started, and they evolved as my understanding did.

Later planners were easier since I had a template and I knew what needed to be on the page. For instance, the Freelancer Workweek came out as a draft and people liked it well enough, so I left it alone, except for the aforementioned tweaks.

Q: What things do you take into consideration before changing a planner’s design?

A: I'll use the planners myself for a bit, and my own use cases are pretty instructive. So if I notice an element feels cramped, I'll try to air it out.

A curious designer can break more than he fixes, so I've learned to let things be and see what people want. The biggest driver of change, then, is feedback from users. People are far more likely to send me emails with constructive feedback, and this feedback drives a lot of the tweaks.

Q: You do a great job of listening to your customers and working with them to figure out what they need. In general how many people need to make a particular suggestion before you implement a change in planner design?

A: Thank you for saying so. ;p

If three people all write me and tell me basically the same thing, that lets me know that it's not just an individual issue. The other thing I'll keep in mind is feedback across time - some users are particularly good at reminding me that they asked for something a few months ago, and if they still want it after that long, it's not a "like to have" request.

Q: Who is your main customer base for the planners? What types of people are they and what kind of work do they do?

A: This is hard to say, really, since the planners have been a hit across many types of professions. Broadly speaking, they're great for creative people who need to make their ideas actionable, but they're also great for listers who lose track of the big picture. The planners really are all about integrating the Big Ideas and small actions.

On that note, the Freelancer Workweek is a bit misnamed. At the time, I was thinking about it from the perspective of a freelancer - I've had enough freelancers as clients that I know (and feel) a lot of their challenges and strengths. However, a lot of creative entrepreneurs like them because they're not so time-oriented, but instead help projects at a more global level.

The planners for bloggers are pretty tailored, too. I designed them to solve similar problems when it comes to the global and detailed views and how we get hung up. I don't use them that often, but when I do, they always help.

Q: Are there any surprising types of people who use your planners or people in lines of work that you didn’t expect would use your system?

A: Not that I've heard of, really. The reality is that, given that I'm a small online shop, most of the people who come across them are online denizens in a lot of ways.

Q: Have you heard of people using your planners in surprising ways that you hadn’t thought of?

A: This is similar to the question above. Some, like the blog planners, are fairly tailored, but even then, people have let me know that they used it to plan out newsletter topics. I didn't think of that use case, but it's very similar to post writing, so it didn't really surprise me.

The others are fairly general in how they can be used, so people will write back and say "I'm using them to help me finish my home projects," and I'll immediately see how they can be used that way.

Q: I think many people struggle and search to find the system that will work best for them in their situation. With so many planner options available, do you have any general advice or tips for someone who is searching for the planner system that will work best for them?

A: Here's the deal: there is no perfect planner system. I can't design it for you, and, really, you can't design it for yourself because your needs change all the time. The idea that one-size-fits all when it comes to meaningful action is just a myth.

That said, there are better planners, and what makes them better is if they help you work the way you work. I encourage people to ignore elements on my designs that don't fit them or to repurpose them in a way that supports their momentum. Modifying things this way is a good thing: it shows that you're aware of what you need and what's not working for you, and that you're trying to implement a new solution.

So experimentation is key. As is understanding that some days you won't need the same support that you'll need on other days.

One last thing: the question is not whether you did everything on your list today. It's whether you did what needed to be done in what time and capacity you had available.

Thanks again to Charlie for taking the time to do this interview!!

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