Taryn Barbour is busy. As business manager for Quayle & Company Design/Build in Severna Park, Md., she says she'd be overwhelmed if she looked at all the things she needs to take care of. What works for her is breaking down tasks into small steps. “I spend five minutes writing down everything that needs to get taken care of that day, and the steps for larger goals. Then I prioritize everything A, B, or C,” says Barbour, who uses a FranklinCovey planning system.

The original Franklin Planner was developed in the early 1980s by Hyrum W. Smith, whose company, Franklin Quest, eventually merged with The Covey Leadership Center founded by Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The company's planning system has been around for nearly 25 years.

It's a fairly simple system in which tasks are ranked by importance. “‘A' needs to be done today. ‘B' is important, but if it waits until tomorrow it's OK, and ‘C' isn't really important and may be moved to the next day,” Barbour says. “If I've moved something three times, I just delete it; it's not that important to me.” Personal as well as business tasks are noted on the planner, which includes space for note-taking. There's a built-in system, with symbols, that makes the calendar easy to use. “If I delegate, I put that person's initials in and a dot when they take it over. I put a dot next to things that are in progress,” says Michael McCutcheon, owner of McCutcheon Construction in Berkeley, Calif., who has tried over the years to get everyone in his office to use the system.

The organizational method seems to spring from common sense. But, to get the most out of the system, training is important. “I [learned by listening to] an audio tape 20 years ago,” McCutcheon says. Each member of Quayle & Company's five-person office staff has been sent to training. FranklinCovey also offers a one-day time management workshop.

Both McCutcheon and Barbour use the paper planners — they don't use an electronic planning system, although that capability exists. Computer software planners work with Microsoft Windows and the Outlook program, and FranklinCovey also has an online planner. “Clients understand ... when you're scribbling notes, and they feel you're being more attentive,” McCutcheon says. “That's a critical difference from using an electronic device.”

Using a planner does more than help people be more organized. McCutcheon says that members of his staff who “operate on little scraps of paper on their desks don't get as much done as those who use the planner correctly. Tasks are more likely to be followed through on. There's accountability to yourself. You're also bringing in all the important things in your life, not just the urgent things. You're not firefighting all the time.”