Making your Life more efficient than ever before: The Notebook / Battleplan

This article, serving as a tutorial, shall benefit the widest amount of people – that’s why it is written in English, unlike most of the rest of the Blog, which is written in German (to make fun of people who don’t understand German). There are a few other articles in the Tutorial Section that are written in English.

How I got into a Very Desperate Situation

What is more essential than anything else? If we go with the lame excuse of Rene Descartes about the “proof” of his existence, it is thinking. While I think Cogito ergo sum is a complex fallacy, it’s the right answer in our everyday life: Thinking drives everything.

Now, I was at a stage in my life where I was thinking a lot but it led nowhere; when I finished my Austrian Civil Service Abroad in LA and Montreal (Blog), I was “stranded” in Los Angeles, given a self-imposed deadline of two months to figure out what I should do with my life. I couldn’t find a way to stay in LA with my girlfriend, and I didn’t want to go back to Europe, which would have interrupted my intercultural experience. I knew I wanted to get into film eventually and I wanted to continue producing art and I wanted to stay in LA, I thought about a lot of different ideas and solutions, but it just seemed so hopeless with the whole immigration and visa issue that you have as a post-9/11-foreigner.

This was the hardest period of my life, because for the first time, i didn’t know what I really wanted, and I honestly had no clue what to do. I was without clear direction, lost in my own questioning mind. I just couldn’t get my head straight, I couldn’t organize a mish-mash of thoughts that were ransacking my sanity.

I spent one month trying out things, walking around, submitting job applications (also an unrealistic idea, since any employer would have to sponsor me a visa, and despite my far-reaching portfolio, I was just a 20-year old kid), looking at online applications to universities, looking at scholarships, looking at film schools, talking to people, trying to figure stuff out – but nothing, all the research, all the time spent didn’t bring me on the right path. I had so little direction that I tried to make my seemingly wasted time a little bit more valuable by making a photography project that I called People of LA.

Now I was standing there, without any hope, one month passed, a thousand dollars spent on rent and the other survival stuff – and no solution in sight. During this time, I cried a lot. Probably, every couple of days. Mostly out of being in love and seeing the possibility of staying together fading away with every second wasted not doing anything.

I sat myself down, very seriously, and said to myself something along the lines “Half of your time already passed, and nothing is done. If you don’t get your shit together, you can throw continuing your cultural experience over board and go back to good old Austria.” Although Austria is awesome, I didn’t want to see myself giving up and not achieving what i set in my mind to achieve. When I was that stern, two things came  up in my thoughts:

  1. A lesson I learned back in my Austrian High School German class: The drawing of cluster diagrams; a graphical diagram of words associated with each other, usually to build a story, to connect facts in a scientific abstract or to dive deeper into a project.
  2. A directive I found in one of the job hunting books: “Treat your job hunt like a full-time job: Eight hours per day, five days per week. My friend found a job within two weeks because she treated her search like a job.”

I went to a pharmacy and bought a 100-sheet, 200-page notebook. On the cover I wrote my name, phone number, email address and “Battleplan“.

My Battleplan - a Notebook in which I put everything that was chaotic in my head, and brought it to order. This truly focused my search for sense and made me a more efficient person. The note directed at the finder of this notebook shows how chaotic I am.

My Battleplan - a Notebook in which I put everything that was chaotic in my head, and brought it to order. This truly focused my search for sense and made me a more efficient person. The note directed at the potential finder of this notebook shows how chaotic I am.

Writing down Your Thoughts brings them to Life

Merely thinking about something will often result in the thought getting lost in the chaos of brain activity – at least in my case, I think about all sorts of things from morning to evening, and nearly none of these thoughts gets organized or finds further use. When they are written down though, they actually come into the realm of existence and start relating to each other – similar to the phrase “to pour one’s heart out”, writing down your thoughts lets you pour your brain into a more comprehensible form. When I bought that notebook, I opened it and started the first writing a few pages into the notebook; I already planned ahead that there might be other information I would need more often – that information should be put on the very first pages, so those stayed blank.

The following content of the article will talk about the different techniques employed inside the battleplan; to read the rest of the story – how the whole idea came about and how I resolved my dilemma – you can find it at the bottom of the article.

Now, I have things like a bus schedule and my curriculum taped to the first pages. The book shall be divided in three sections:

  1. The first 15 pages should be dedicated to permanent pages and decision making, e.g. cluster diagrams. This section lets you read your brain, literally.
  2. The vast majority of the battleplan, around 170 pages, should be used as daily calendar containing dash lists, as explained further down in the article.
  3. The last 15 pages should be dedicated to permanent collection pages, that you accumulate over time.

Section 1 and 3 are date-independent, meaning, they serve a permanent purpose, while Section 2, the dashlist pages, are an ever-changing area for daily planning and notes.

So, the thing I started my Battleplan with was a Cluster Diagram.

Technique 1: The Cluster Diagram of Life Planning and Wishes

In order to find out what you want to do, you can choose to give your thoughts a graphical existence and determine relationships between these thoughts in the form of a cluster diagram. The thing I started with was to write down broad categories, put a circle around them, and connect them to smaller circles, in which there were more detailed thoughts about the same topic. I wrote down things like “Doing Art”, “Finding a Job”, “How can I support myself?”, “Is this really what I want” etc. – and brought them in causal and categorical connection. The thing that is important about a cluster diagram is to keep the content of each “bubble” short and sweet, like a headline. Also, try to find connections between different topics, and see how they  relate to each other. Here you can see my cluster diagram:

The Cluster Diagram I used to determine if I want to study, look for a job or live an artist's life style.

The Cluster Diagram I used to determine if I want to study, look for a job or live an artist's life style.

Another example where I used a cluster diagram to understand the different roles on a film production.

Technique 2: The “What I Want” List of Values and Principles

The cluster diagram is often only a rough overview and doesn’t offer space for further details. With a list that mentions all your wishes and principles, you are able to rationally narrow down what you really want. By reading that list afterwards, you get an actual overview over what is going on inside you head, which you usually have no comprehension for. In complex decision situations, this writing-and-reading tactic is of immense help. Also, question your values and your wishes; dig deeper and answer for yourself what you want and need. Since nobody is going to read that apart from yourself, you can be as frank as you want. Imagine this as your best bet at reading your own brain – it’s magical. While the cluster diagram lets you get an overview of your options, this list will give you deep insight in your most intimate self. That’s why I let you, my dear unknown reader, only read until number 8, which is already pushing it 😉

An excerpt from my "What I want" list with options on how I can continue my life - in this example, I was struggling with the balance of my relationship and life plans. The list contained more points, but this gives you a good idea on how a thought process like that could work.

An excerpt from my "What I want" list with options on how I can continue my life - in this example, I was trying to figure out if I wanted to live in LA or go somewhere else. The original list I made back then contained more points - this was a very complex decision -, but this gives you a good idea on how a thought process like that could work.

Technique 3: Time Tables

In order to keep track of your productivity, you can monitor yourself. In my case, I had a lot at stake and couldn’t afford procrastinating every day. If you don’t write down your worked hours, it is easy to do less than you would actually want – by drawing into a time table you can feel good about gotten something done. In my case, I wanted to treat the resolution of my inner conflict like a full-time job; that’s why I aimed at 8 hours of “work” per day, and as you can see, it only took 9 days until I had solved my problem.

A time table, in which each day has 12 possible boxes, each box meaning an hour of work; in this case, working towards finding out what I want to do. I tried to work on that eight hours per day, just like a full time job.

A time table, in which each day has 12 possible boxes, each box meaning an hour of work; in this case, working towards finding out what I want to do. I tried to work on that eight hours per day, just like a full time job. Note my excitement about finally accomplishing my goal after 9 days of organizing myself.

Technique 4: To-Do-List as a Daily Schedule: The Dashlist.

Skip the first 15 pages of your notebook for permanent planning and decision making pages. Then use the pages on the right only, each for one day. When you plan something for that day, you put a slash-sign next to a task; if it is completed, you make it into a check mark, if it fails, you make it into an X. That way, you have a list of tasks and plans each day and an immediate overview over what you have accomplished and what you couldn’t handle / got cancelled etc.  Use the left pages for additional notes. Now, the notebook has around 100 pages, so after a ittle less than 100 days you’ll run out of space. No problem, because you 1) didn’t write on most of the left pages, and 2) many days will only have 0-5 tasks, so there’s still plenty of space left underneath.

I usually fill all the left pages with the next months, and when I run out of space, I start squeezing the days wherever there is space. Usually, each double page will contain three different strands of days, which saves paper and often times reminds you of things that happened months ago; since you share space with days that happened so long ago you might accidentally read what you did (or did not) do back then.

The most important reason to squeeze days and to re-use space is that your notebook will get packed with a year’s worth of information  – all at the reach of your finger tips, in one single book.

When you start your battleplan, always leave one page blank, in case you need to jot down more notes than the space of one page could have offered you. On the left side, I took notes that day about filming and what I learnt on a particular film set. Later, you will use the space that has been left blank.

When you start your battleplan, always leave one page blank, in case you need to jot down more notes than the space of one page could have offered you. On the left side, I took notes that day about filming and what I learnt on a particular film set. Later, you will use the space that has been left blank.

Two of the day pages. The left page is in the August row, the right page is in the April row. Apart from the daily dashlist, you can see additional notes like "time spent on" or "content for blog".

Two of the day pages. The left page is in the August row, the right page is in the April row. Apart from the daily dashlist, you can see additional notes like "time spent on" or "content for blog".

Dividing the page with a colorful line after a day has passed - this lets you reuse the space for later months.

Dividing the page with a colorful line after a day has passed - this lets you reuse the space for later months.

Technique 5: Permanent Collection Pages

To collect recommendations, a group of thoughts about a certain topic, resources, or similar content, you can make a collection page; simply a list where all sorts of resources are visible close to each other. These pages should be put in the very back of the book (you can flip it to make it easier to distinguish), and you should reserve at least 15 pages in the back. The permanent collection pages serve similar permanent functions like the Cluster diagrams, and while being a list themselves, they differ from the dashlist pages in that they are date-independent.

One of the permanent lists in my battleplan: Must-Sees; movies that people recommended me. If I wouldn't have written them down on a single page, I would have lost that information forever ... and who knows, maybe one of these movies will change my way of thinking one day.

One of the permanent lists in my battleplan: Must-Sees; movies that people recommended me. If I wouldn't have written them down on a single page, I would have lost that information forever ... and who knows, maybe one of these movies will change my way of thinking one day.

Conclusion & End of the Story

I stayed in LA for two months. The firs month, nothing happened, I didn’t make any progress and felt completely lost in the large  world of transitioning from adolescence to a somewhat mature adult life. Five days after the second month started, I couldn’t stand it any more, and intuitively started my battleplan on April 5th. With the techniques described above – I developed / used all of them in the very first days – it took me  nine days not just to make progress, but to finish my conclusion and resolve the inner conflict that was tormenting me.

I realized that getting a job in LA as a foreigner with a lot of self-taught visual design skills but without a degree, without many connections and without a real employment history would be hopeless – no company would want to take the risk of sponsoring a H1B-visa for a greenhorn. I also realized that moving back to Europe would make it  very unlikely to stay happy in my relationship (long distance sucks). Becoming a random artist type would produce even more problems, especially on the Visa and life focus side. Studying at a major US-University would be ridiculously expensive and morally impossible for me to ask my parents for that, when I could get a similar education for free in Austria.

The solution to all that lay within the community college system, which was more than three times cheaper than any “real” US-university, and offered the same quality education of a regular university for the first two years. It was still expensive (I made a price comparison here, written in German) compared to what I would pay in Europe, but I felt that the experience would be well worth the money, adding to the cost of living in Los Angles (article on my blog, English). My parents agreed to help me financially and I became an International Student at one of the best and prettiest community colleges in the U.S., Santa Monica College.

The last point I wrote back then in my What-I-Want list, was:

Whatever I decide, it is the best solution.

And that was true; studying in LA and sacrificing some of my financial morale was the best decision I could have made. I am now close to finishing SMC and starting a one-year-long OPT (Optional Practical Training), and became a filmmaker, just like I wanted: I make films where people cry their eyes out, or where people get fired and cry, or where I myself am standing naked in the desert, or where people have love rectangles,  or where I don’t decide over the story or where eccentric people from Venice Beach tell their life stories.

If you are hungry for more (art and progress, not pizza and avocado), here’s more:

That whole drama happened two years ago, and I went through two batllepans… now it’s time for number three.

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Questions? Post them below and I will include the answers in the article.

PS: The rest of the blog is in German, except a few filmmaking tutorials. Use the crappily Google-translated version of my blog for further reading or, if you dislike mutilated grammar or want to become an Austrian bodybuilder like Arnold and me, learn German.

PPS: During the time where I didn’t know what to do, I really cried a lot. Like a baby. But that’s life, that’s why people like to live on this planet, and if it weren’t for that time of deep internal hardhship I would have never felt the need to organize myself with a battleplan and I’d still be the lazy bum I was back then.

The "Battle Coup", my second notebook. Each book holds about one year in its 100 pages; some pages are used 3 or more times by dividing them when they are not used.

The "Battle Coup", my second notebook. Each book holds about one year in its 200 pages; some pages are used 3 or more times by dividing them.

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.