Tu Ha An - Dreamlike & Multicultural Illustration

The Present Day planner – My secret weapon for creative productivity

Edited by my beloved friend K.L., and by Jo, my chief editor

It is a weapon, because its power is mind-blowing.

It is a secret, because its author took 5 years to design it in secret.

This article is accompanied by a video (in French with English subtitles).

Let me give you a head-up, this article is not sponsored. And it is absolutely not because the author of this planner is both my idol and my boss that I am advertising this secret weapon.

I am the one who designed it, starting 9 months ago!

Chi Nguyen, Ph.D, the author of this weapon

Table of contents

Here is the table of contents, to facilitate your reading, rereading, and future research:

What makes this planner/weapon powerful?

My eternal problems

If you ask anyone around me to define me with one term, they will all agree on one same thing: WORKAHOLIC! 

From the age of 15 until last year, three issues haunted me:

  • I had a tendency to work to the point of exhaustion. I already had 3 solid burnouts in my unwanted collection.
  • I was working a lot, but not all that efficiently. You can read the article 45 hours for 2 blog posts or watch the video [hiab2] Making a movie ALONE and discover that it took me 23 hours of shooting and 42 hours of editing for a 5 minutes short movie.
  • I was an absent friend, an absent daughter, an absent partner.

What The Present Day planner brought me

Last year, I started working on the design of this planner and was testing this tool for the past 9 months, from its initial raw version to the final prototype.

And during that 9 months:

  • In addition to maintaining the rhythm of 2 blog posts in 3 languages per month, in December 2022, I released the special series Illustrator: the profession with 5 articles in 1 month, always in the 3 languages, and 3 times longer than the usual articles.
  • I came back to my YouTube channel, and the video I made for April just became one of the finalists of the annual Pouces d’Or contest.
  • I became an entrepreneur / employee of the cooperative CAE Bourgogne. My illustrations were exhibited for the first time at Trà Art Paris. And most importantly, I finished designing The Present Day planner, this ideal tool to manage our time and keep the balance between our professional and personal lives!

My secret weapon is indeed The Present Day planner, the new tool designed by Chi Nguyen. She is an author, university professor and founder of The Present Writer.

Here is the video dedicated to The Present Day planner, made by its creator:

Why The Present Day planner is a special weapon?

Because it is beautiful! But hey, everyone agrees that my opinion is definitely not objective! 😂

From my experience, this tool is powerful for 5 reasons:

  1. It is the perfect match between the clarity of a to-do list and the flexibility of a bullet journal ;
  2. The effectiveness of the integrated methods is scientifically proven ;
  3. This planner helps increase our productivity while reducing our guilt and avoiding burnout;
  4. This tool encompasses our professional AND personal life, all while being minimalist;
  5. This planner helps us to objectively measure our progress. This point is crucially important if you do creative work where improvement is difficult to measure.

I won’t do a “product presentation” like on TV shopping to prove all these points but let me take you for a week in my life as an illustrator, to see:

  • How effective this planner has been to me,
  • How I adapt this tool to different types of activities in a creative job, 
  • My tips for maximizing productivity.

I will go straightforward to you about limitations of this tool and my solutions as well!

Monthly planning: always start with the destination

The Monthly planning page gives us an overview of the month.

Photographe : Antoine Martel

Monday, May 1st, 2023

By the time I decided to document my working week, it was the beginning of May. Just the perfect time to fill out the Monthly planning page together!

This double page contains a classic calendar where we can mark the events of the month.

I filled it in beforehand with birthdays, and the 2 important dates of the month: the 5th and the 15th, because those are the days when I publish a new article on my blog.

What makes this planner special is it was designed with the theme of the month and the place to set three goals for the month. These elements give us the direction, the course to keep and not getting distracted.

I revisit this page almost every day to remind myself of my goals, to prepare for upcoming events, and to update it with meetings, appointments, travel schedules …

Weekly planning: the page that allowed me to make peace with the An of the past

Photographe : Antoine Martel

Before I became known for being a workaholic, throughout my school years, I was considered a slacker. 

I thought I was lazy and hated myself, until I realized that I was actually a workaholic even back then. However, I spent most of my days on creative projects (often in secret) while putting off schoolwork until the last minute.

The problem here is I was working a lot, but not on the right task at the right time.

And the Weekly planning page of this planner gives the keys to solve this problem.

Weekly notes

Even before the week starts, sometimes my Notes page next to the Weekly planning is already filled with a few items. The reason is on the week prior, whenever there is a task to plan for the next week, or a task that gets pushed back, I’d mark it directly on the Weekly notes page for the following week.

We are going to plan my week from May 1st to May 7th 2023.

I start by completing the list of all the tasks that I want to accomplish during the week.

To make the schedule realistic, I also make a quick estimate of how much time each task will take and count them in “pomodoro” (I will talk about this in detail as soon as we move on to the daily use of the planner). My go-to is to stay under 50 pomodoros each week, so on average 10 pomodoros per weekday.

Here we have 51 pomodoros, just the perfect amount for a normal week. However, Monday May 1st is a holiday when I don’t work, which means we only have 4 days to finish these tasks. Therefore I decide to remove one task from the list and schedule it for next week. 

Once the list is finished, we will classify each task in the Eisenhower matrix of the Weekly planning.

Weekly planning

The Eisenhower matrix divides tasks into 4 categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, neither urgent nor important.

This matrix helps with prioritizing tasks and focusing on the essentials.

This week, my content creator activity should be prioritized over my illustrator work. The most important deadline will be to send out the Creati’letter, my monthly newsletter and publishing the blog post with the YouTube video that goes with it.

I dropped here my personal tasks as well, such as booking the ticket for my trip this summer, cleaning the apartment or taking care of my plants.

To enhance the importance of keeping balance in life, there is also a habit tracker section. I choose to put here reading, keep my body moving (because all my tasks are quite sedentary), and evening journal before bed.

This habit tracker can be used for both professional and personal purposes, but just in case we get too absorbed and might totally forget to take care of yourself, there is the Self-care line that is completely dedicated to our own well-being and remind us that we need to do something for our mind and body. This week, I chose to commit to doing yoga twice.

Daily planning: deployment of the weapon

Every day, I plan for the next day.

Photographe : Antoine Martel

This planner is not dated, so we can use it at any day, regardless of any specific date. For example, if May 1st is a Monday, my work week will start on Tuesday.

The most important thing will be to choose which tasks to put in the Tasks of the day chart.

There are only 5 lines provided per day. This could be less comfortable for those who seem to always have a lot going on (like me!)

However, this limit in space helps us to maximize our productivity, because:

  • This is not a to-do list. This is where we only put tasks requiring high concentration.
  • To avoid exhaustion, 3 to 5 tasks requiring big focus is a reasonable and healthy limit.

I start with the most important and urgent task, followed up with some others that were defined on the two square blocks at the top of the Eisenhower matrix.

For each task, I add next to it the number of “pomodoros” that I think is necessary.

Pomodoro is a technique that consists of working in 25-minute intervals, called “pomodoros”, followed by short 5-minute breaks. After each set of 4 pomodoros, one can take a longer break of 15 minutes.

Let’s move on to the actual daily use of The Present Day planner and dive into a week in my work life.

Spoiler: it’s not at all smooth like most of the productivity articles or vlogs you and I are used to devour.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2023

Here are the 5 tasks I would like to accomplish:

  1. Send out the Creati’letter
  2. Answer emails
  3. Run estimation price for illustration
  4. Translate blog post into English
  5. Draw commissions

My anchoring in real life

Any given workday begins with me filling in the small section dedicated for gratitude.

Filling in these little lines before work starts is the best way to remind the workaholic in me that there is more in life than just productivity.

Boost your productivity…

I start with the writing of my monthly newsletter, the Creati’letter, along with a timer pre-set for 25 minutes of full concentration.

The Pomodoro method is a good way to focus intensely for short periods of time, avoiding mental exhaustion and feelings of boredom. During these 25 minutes, I turn off all notifications and work in total silence.

Once the 25 minutes are over, I color the first circle in the pomodoros box and take a 5-minutes break.

Coloring in the box has 3 uses:

  • It is satisfying!
  • It gives a sense of accomplishment, and at a regular space on top of that, which boosts our motivation.
  • It’s a concrete way to measure the actual time spent on each task.

… in a realistic way…

I’ve finished the French version of the Creati’letter using 4 pomodoros, out of the 5 initially planned. I still have the Vietnamese and English versions to write, and then I have to plan the mailing of the newsletter.

I realize that the 5 pomodoros planned are not enough to complete this task. And this table is a quantitative way of showing me just how much I’ve overestimated my abilities.

For this one particular task, I added annotations to be specific about the time I spent on each subtask (writing, translation, formatting).

Once the first task is finished, I move to the next task on the next row. When a new pomodoro is finished, I color the next pomodoro on the chart.

This step-by-step process gives us an overall view of how much time is spent on our tasks.

If I’ve finished the 10 pomodoros and want to continue working, I’ll use a different color and color from the opposite direction.

…. without burning out

At the end of the day, I only finished two out of five planned tasks. If it was a few years ago, I might’ve been furious and called myself lazy.

But as I look at today’s page, I know that I chose to prioritize the completion of an important and urgent task and that I worked in some very good deep-work cycle, and for more than 10 pomodoros.

What was important for me is that the Creati’letter was sent. And one of the two important deadlines of the week were met!

In the evening, before going to sleep, I summarize my day in one sentence at the end of the Daily planning page. Then, I review the Eisenhower matrix to plan the next day.

Wednesday, May 3rd 2023

The 5 tasks I would like to accomplish during the day:

  1. Run estimation price for an (commissioned?) illustration
  2. Translate the blog post into English
  3. Work on drawing
  4. Answer emails and take care of administrative tasks
  5. Edit YouTube video

What to do during breaks?

I tend to do things that have nothing to do with work. Doing so allows me to disconnect briefly. It’s the perfect time to make tea again, smell the rain, or play with my cat.

Often, I take the opportunity to do the “personal” tasks that couldn’t be included in the Eisenhower matrix. This week, I am going to take care of my apartment, which has been neglected due to my absence and last few busy weeks.

When the order of tasks is reversed

Today, I was able to finalize the first two tasks of the day, but I have urgent requests coming in from the client side.

So instead of drawing, I spent some time answering emails… the vagaries of freelance life.

Thanks to the system of subsequent boxes, we will see directly in which order the tasks were completed.

When tasks overlap

Finally I can start on drawing, after having to postpone it due to the lack of time yesterday and the urgency of today.

The time I spend on drawing are the only times when I could listen to something while working. Podcasts are probably my go-to each time.

But right now, my editor-in-chief just sent me the rough-cut version for the video that is due to be released in two days. I usually check the roug-cut by listening to it only, as if it were a podcast, to detect if the pace of the video is smooth enough or not.

On this day, I listened to it while drawing.

Since checking the rough-cut is a subtask of editing, and I actually did it at the same time as drawing, I lined up two pomodoros. But checking the rough-cut is not really a task that requires total concentration, I marked it with a different sign.

As a matter of fact, with The Present Day, we can imagine and create our very own marking systems for different types of activities.

As usual, I ended the day with planning my next day.

Thursday, May 4th 2023

It’s editing day.

Here is the list of 5 tasks I would like to accomplish:

  1. Edit YouTube video
  2. Work on music and sounds for YouTube video
  3. Do color correction and grading
  4. Answer emails
  5. Work on subtitles and prepare necessary elements to put the video online

The process is classic, but the technical hazards often come lengthening the editing time.

As a result, at 7pm, the video is still not finished.

And it’s scheduled for tomorrow!

As I still exceeded the 10 pomodoros, I take the red color and start again in the opposite direction.

I finished the day at 10 pm.

Friday, May 5th, 2023

Today is the day my bi-monthly blog post is published, along with a video!

The day before, most of the works were finished. I still have to do the English subtitles, the Vietnamese subtitles, the description, the end screens, the links to insert, … Well, the list goes on.

Posting a YouTube video is not just a matter of clicking a button once the editing is done. Without a plan made of clear and concrete ways to track progress, it’s easy to get discouraged wondering why the bulk of the work (editing) is done but I still can’t see the end of the tunnel.

The 5 tasks I would like to accomplish in a day:

  1. Prepare the English subtitles, Vietnamese subtitles, and the description of the video
  2. Validate the blog post content for publication
  3. Go through administrative tasks
  4. Proceed with the drawing project in collaboration with Thao Nguyen
  5. Answer emails

Finally, a day that goes as planned! Just like those videos of the productivity YouTubers to smoothly end this week full of randomness.

What do we do when we finish a task before the end of the pomodoro?

The easy answer is we can take a break right away.

Or we can also take the opportunity to do mini-tasks that can be completed in less than 25 minutes.

I pick these mini tasks from the Notes section below the table of Tasks of the day.

I use this section to write down anything that pops into my head during my deep work cycle. Often these are things that need to be done. Writing it down allows me to continue to focus on my work without wasting energy trying to retain new ideas or tasks to be accomplished in the near future.

Weekly reflection: Take one pause to go far further

At the end of each week, there is a space in The Present Day planner made solely for the purpose of reviewing our week with 4 questions focused solely on personal feelings.

Photographe : Antoine Martel

There are no grades, no marks, no productivity measurements, only a time for us to be honest with ourselves.

This is something I never did until last year. With my days just filled with bullet points of what to do, I often forget quite easily what I did the day before and tend to only push myself to focus on the tasks ahead. Little did I know how these moments of reflection could help me realize how far I’ve come, and especially, embrace all the mini accomplishments that no one other than me has made throughout the week.

A lively planner

As flexible as a bullet journal

In this planner, there are plenty of blank spaces and you can shape it the way you want.

For example, next to the calendar, we can write down our thoughts, reminders, or a moodtracker.

I use the Notes section as post-it notes, but you can write your ideas, thoughts, even shopping lists as well.

The limits, and my solutions

Even though it is a powerful weapon, this planner has its boundaries.

Weeks full of meetings

This planner is not a classic agenda. That’s why it might be not the most suitable for tracking activities that include a lot of meetings.

I should confess that since I tend to forget what I do the day before and feel guilty when I see just two to-do lines and two pomodoros filled in during the days I have lots of meetings … I still write down my meetings schedules in the table.

I mark them as below, so I can see directly what I did between my high-concentration tasks.

What to do with unfilled pages?

This planner comes with 7 Daily planning pages each week. My guess is many followers of both Chi Nguyen (The Present Writer) and me are very likely to have personal projects or a second job to develop outside of your main activity. If you’re one of these people, this planner will be your faithful companion every day.

However, if you are committed to a 9-to-5 life for five days a week, the Daily pages might have more blank than intended.

Here are several ways I filled in these Daily pages, and hopefully it could give you some ideas as well!

  • I used them mostly for weeks when I was in training and had meetings almost all week. During this period, I didn’t need to plan the week with the Eisenhower Matrix, but there are still 1-2 days where I still need to do some deep works. In this case, I change the pen colors to easily distinguish these pages.
  • On significant days, I drawed the memories instead of writing.
  • I doodled a lot during class or in a meeting as well. For those who need to keep their hands busy to stay focused and better assimilate information (like my former colleague, whom I say hi if he passes by ;)), this could be a good aid.
  • I did anti-stress coloring.

The lack of flexibility of a paper tool

Even if the planner is designed to be flexible, it is still a paper notebook, making it difficult to edit or modify things that are already written down, especially when it comes to schedules with unexpected events.

My solution is simply to write in pencil. You just have to erase less wildly than I do!

So, the result after one month?

We are in June now. Let’s grab this opportunity to see what The Present Day planner helped me accomplish in 1 month.

Over the first week of May:

  • In terms of productivity, I completed 15 out of 17 tasks that I planned with my week that were shared with you. Above all, the seeds sown on my balcony this week have all grown!
  • For the habit tracker, I was not assiduous on my habits this week. So, I tried again the following weeks. And here are the results of my last week:
  • Self-care-wise: I only went to yoga once because Thursday works ended up extending to all evening. But I made it to the pool instead. It was equally just as relaxing.

And about the month:

  • I have 1.5 weeks of contents up on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • I published 2 blog posts. Only one YouTube video is up, but I have 2 shorts up and running.
  • Here is my before and after portfolio:

The dream weapon, the weapon for our dream

If you stayed until this far, here is an anecdote just for you:

In April 2023, I received a package. I was super happy to discover the prototype of the planner of Chi Nguyen, my favorite author.

I didn’t wait a single second to test it. And since I’m the Art Director of The Present Writer, I wrote the tasks related to the launch of the planner directly into it: what kind of visual content to prepare, what kind of design to plan, what kind of graphic elements to create…

It took me 12 hours after receiving the package that I remembered that… I was the designer of this planner.

For me, it was the proof that the prototype looked just professional, beautiful, and delicate enough to be a product ready for the market.

I laughed at myself.

And then I cried.

When I was little, the world of illustrators, designers, creators seemed so far away. The dream of designing the visual of a physical object was a forbidden dream, and especially, so unreal for this life.

For the past 9 months, while working on the design of this planner AND being its active user, I have been learning how to turn each day into a step towards the dream that I have been secretly dreaming of for so long, and the best part is to not do it at the expense of not living each day to the fullest.

If I could meet the little An from the past, the one who was long considered lazy, I’ll definitely give her this planner to try.

This planner, this secret weapon, this physical object is the concrete proof that things will get better and that it is worth moving forward.

At the moment, the Present Day planner is already available in pre-order in Vietnam, and then, in a second time, internationally.

Here’s the link to pre-order (valid until 10/6/2023) if you’re in Vietnam: https://shop.thepresentwriter.com/products/the-present-day-planner/

I’ll keep you updated.

Keep creating!

Tu Ha An

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