Filofax Personal Organizer

Why a paper-based organizing system in this digital age? First, as Getting Things Done guru David Allen puts it, “low-tech is oftentimes better because it is in your face.” Second, last I checked (channeling Jaron Lanier here), I am not a gadget. I cherish the tools that help me stay organized, yet allow me to abide within generous swaths of Internet-free time—formally known as normal life (you know, when you didn’t see everyone doing the thumb-twiddling zombie shuffle). The Filofax personal organizer is one of them.

I got my first Filofax over 20 years ago and it has been a love story ever since. Part of this English company’s century-old line of organizers originally developed for engineers, it is a beautifully made 6-ring loose leaf binder. With the Filofax diary, address book, paper inserts and other items that get tucked in there, for most users, it fattens up to the size of a paperback edition of Anna Karenina. Or, say, a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich. Right, it does not fit in a coat pocket.

Depending on the model, the Filofax personal organizer comes with an assortment of pockets on both the inside and outside flaps. Mine also includes a pen holder on the right and a highlighter holder on the left, and it closes securely, so no loose items (such as that drycleaner’s ticket) can fall out.

Filofax sells a cornucopia of inserts for the 6 ring binder, from a wide variety of configurations for the diary refill, to a personal ruler/ page marker, maps of most major cities, a pad for assorted sticky notes, checkbook holder, business card holder, super-thin calculator, extra paper in a rainbow of colors, index tabs, a portable hole punch, and an address book, among other items.

Countless are the ways to configure one’s Filofax personal organizer. I’ve evolved into using the Week on Two Pages diary for noting appointments, birthdays, and any time-sensitive to-dos; two rulers/ page markers; the assorted sticky notes pad (though now with my own, more economical, Post-Its); the address book at the back; plus a “page” of plastic sleeves for business cards. I stash items such as stamps and paperclips in the front inner pocket (especially handy when traveling). Tickets (drycleaners, concerts) go in another pocket. In addition, I made up several tabbed sections to index my personal, financial, business, and other to do / might one day do lists, to which I slap on ideas scribbled on Post-Its as they occur to me. The tabbed sections follow my personal interpretation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system — his basic idea being, capture all your to dos in one “bucket” you regularly revisit, and thereby can clear your mind for more clarity and creativity in the present moment. (To track more complex medium and long-term projects, I use the Projecteze system of a Word table which relies on the sorting feature—that’s another post.)
As for address book, it’s not my main nor my only address book, just the addresses I like to keep handy in this particular system — so, in part, it serves as a paper backup for the most vital addresses, and those I regularly consult when making appointments.

Usually the Filofax stays open on my desk — which works for me, but clearly that won’t be ideal for those who work in less private and/or mobile situations. I take it with me when I travel or attend meetings where I might need to review my schedule or consult the to do lists and/or address book.

High-end stationary, luggage, and department stores often carry the Filofax line of organizers and inserts — as does Amazon — but to ensure that I get exactly what I want when I want it, I order the refill for the following year from the Filofax USA’s on-line shop on September 1st. At year’s end — following the advice of my tax accountant who says it could be handy in case of an audit — I file the diary with the rest of that year’s tax documents.

There are four major disadvantages to this system. None of them torpedo it for me, but they might for you:

  1. It’s a paper-based system, and for those who want their hand-held and/or laptop to be their all, and the many bells-and-whistles of a cloud-based system, clearly, it’s a headshaker.
  2. High cost. You get what you pay for, however, and I have been happy to pay for the refills and other accessories because their simple and elegant design inspires me to stay better organized. For those who bristle at such prices, however, it would certainly be possible to make a homemade version of many of the inserts.
  3. Security risk. One’s office or house could burn down or someone could steal the Filofax — but then again, they couldn’t hack into it at 3 in the morning from Uzbekistan, either.
  4. Bulk and weight. I can easily toss my Filofax into a briefcase or shoulderbag, but without an on-call chiropractor, I wouldn’t want to haul it around on a walk. That said, when I go for a walk, I go for a walk.
-- C.M. Mayo  

Oh Life

I’ve written so many “first” journal entries that I’ve lost count. I have always wanted the benefits of a journal, but could never build the habit, or muster the discipline, to consistently write entries. That all changed when I discovered three years ago.

Oh Life is the tool that helped me successfully keep a journal for the first time. Thanks to it, I now have a record of my life that is richer and more meaningful than I ever expected. Oh life is where I wrote about the birth of my first son, my decision to quit a terrible job, and my excitement about starting a new, better job. It’s where I wrote about my brother’s cancer diagnosis and where I chronicled the daily milestone’s of my son’s infant and toddler years. Now I can look back on those events with a clarity that I never had before. In short, given me everything that I’d hoped for in a journal.

What makes Oh Life different is the medium. It is entirely email based. Every day, they send you an email, asking how your day went. All you do is respond to the email, and whatever you write is entered into your journal. The system is completely private so your entries are only accessible by you. As a bonus, each email contains an excerpt from a previous entry, which is a great way to get a daily glimpse into your own past.

I’ve also known a few people who used it as a shared-private journal. One family wanted a common place for kids, parents and grandparents to share day-to-day experiences and thoughts with each other. They set up an email address that automatically forwarded the daily prompts to all of them. This let them all make contributions in a format that was accessible to all family members but shielded from the public.

The basic service is free, and it offers all of the functionality I’ve ever needed. However the premium service offers some nice features. For $48 a year, you get:

-Up to 5 photo uploads per entry (vs. 1 with the free version)

-Customized email prompts


-Automatic Backups

-Trending tools, to see changes in particular terms or concepts over time.

If you want the benefits of keeping a journal, but can never seem to make it work, Oh Life might be the tool you need.

-- Scott Lyman  

Oh Life


Because most psychedelic drugs are illegal, reliable consumer information about them is rare. For many years I have been looking for a comparative survey of available “head drugs” that would truthfully and simply provide basic info on each. What is it? What effects does it have when you take it? What’s a typical dose? What is the trip like? What are the dangers, risks and side effects? I looked everywhere for this kind of information, but with no success. Most people get their info from friends of friends, and it is usually unreliable. I finally found what I was looking for in a small book published by a non-profit drug treatment and advocacy center in the UK. The thin cartoonishly illustrated booklet is aimed at young people who use drugs and it is simply stating the facts: Here’s what the drug is, why people use it, and what the effects and downsides of using it are. In addition to the highs, the book realistically addresses the “costs” of use, overuse, and abuse. (Note: their discussion of the legal status is UK-based.)

This is the best consumer guide to mind-bending drugs I’ve seen. If you know of a better one, please comment. Don’t just say No. Say Know.

-- KK  

Russell Newcombe
2005, 72 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



“I’ve had 200 trips and every one’s been a bummer but I ain’t giving up yet”
Cartoon character ‘Dopin Dan’ by Ted Richards





Other common effects [of Ketamine] include out-of-the-body (astral projection), near-death (floating down a tunnel toward light, etc.), and time-travel experiences. Like DMT, ketamine can also produce total hallucinations – though unlike DMT, it may also cause true hallucinations. Some devotees believe ketamine puts them in touch with alternative ‘meta-realities’, cyberspace communication systems, and intelligent disembodied entities (e.g. the ‘machine elves’). However, of three famous ketamine advocates, two died while on the drug, and one (to use a technical term) went a bit bonkers.


Nitrous Oxide

Main effects:
After inhaling one or two canisters, effects last a minute or two; though inhaling a nitrous/air mix through a mask produces constant effects until the supply is cut. Hallmark effects include a silly deep voice (the opposite of helium), hilarity (burst of laughter), the ‘eureka experience’ (the feeling that you are having a brilliant idea when you are not), and a pulsating, echoey state of mind. When used with other mind-benders, it briefly magnifies their effects.

Main risks:
If inhaled direct from the canister, it’s so cold that it could seriously damage the throat and lungs (like butane). Death from asphyxiation will occur if the gas is inhaled continuously with no air breathed. A safe location is also needed on laughing gas (e.g. on sofa or floor) — in case you pass out or fall over. If someone has had too much, in addition to appearing unconscious or unresponsive, their lips and maybe face will look blueish. Clearly, it’s best not to smoke or hold drinks or anything sharp when inhaling laughing gas. Regular use can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency.

IDEO Method Cards


The IDEO method cards are a great resource for people interested in finding new ways of thinking and brainstorming solutions. By picking a random card and following the prompts I have been amazed at the trail of thoughts that it helps to produce. As you work your way through more cards the ideas can become refined, and I have been impressed with the quality of practical ideas one can come up with (just don’t forget to capture them somehow). The cards have four different categories including learn, look, ask, and try.

You can use the cards by yourself or in small groups. I have found that even shy people are empowered (and inspired enough) to contribute ideas. You definitely don’t have to be an architect or a design expert to use them. This is definitely the best brainstorming tool I have seen. As a freelance Tamil journalist I use it to come with good story ideas. I can imagine small companies who can’t afford costly consultants might be able to use the simple prompts to solve some of their problems. They definitely make innovation and brainstorming, whether radical or incremental, into a low hanging fruit. Just jump and give them a try!

-- Sadashiva M  

[Note: IDEO recently released the cards as a free iOS App that comes with a few sample cards, and costs $5 to purchase all 51. -- OH]

IDEO Method Cards: 51 Ways to Inspire Design

Available from William Stout Architectural Books

IDEO Method Cards iOS Application
Available from iTunes Store

Produced by IDEO

Sample Excerpts:




Predict Next Year’s Headlines

How: clients project their company into the future, identifying how they develop/sustain customer relationship

Why: helps clients to define which design issues to pursue in product development





For more than 3 years, I have trusted Toodledo to keep track of all my jobs and errands for me. Using one of the tenets of GTD you need to find a “trusted system” and this is it for me. I can enter, view and update tasks at their website, or in various widgets, or in their iOS app, or by SMS, twitter, email or even command line. You can get the tasks to show up in Calendars, have priority ones emailed or texted to you, and there’s also a nifty booklet printing option. The app tracks them for me so I don’t have to fill my head trying and failing to remember all of them.

The web version is free, but power users can pay $14.95/year for more features still, including the ability to collaborate and share tasks to and from others in your team or family. The companion iOS app is $2.99, and does almost everything the website does, whilst being offline. Both it and the website have been rock solid for me, and I have never had a problem syncing between the two.


For some reason it has never made as much splash as Remember The Milk or Things, but to me it has more consistently focused on adding useful new features – recently the ability to track real-world locations where you need to do jobs (for example a particular specialist shop, or your parents’ house). When you add in the iPhone app, it will give you proximity alerts to remind you that there are things you need to do there.

I have looked at most of the to-do lists apps that have appeared over the years, and tried a few out for a while. I haven’t yet regretted my decision to stick with Toodledo.

-- Jonathan Clark  

Toodledo iOS app

Available from iTunes Manufactured by Toodledo

The Book of Genesis Illustrated


As literature, the biblical book of Genesis has it all: sex, violence, angels, war, murder, heroes, incest, world-wide disasters, spooky mystery, and a timeless story. All it needed was illustrations by the comic genius R. Crumb and you’d have a underground manga hit. And that’s what this book is. Crumb brilliantly did not alter or omit any words from the scriptural text, and even toned down his drawings to a PG-13 rating. But man, is this strong drink. It will burn your eyelashes. Like it must have done 2,000 years ago. Now you have absolutely no excuse not to read the first book of the Bible.

-- KK  

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
R. Crumb
2009, 224 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:




Ethical Wills


An ethical will is a good-bye letter that sums up your life’s aims. You write this will in order to pass on your values instead of your valuables. It is not legally binding. It is not a living will, either, which is no more than an final care directive. An ethical will, instead, is closer to advice. It is a re-statement of the lessons you learned in life. It’s an ancient practice; the earliest examples are 3,000 years old, and not uncommon among some Jewish communities. In the days of illiteracy, the deceased’s will was read aloud for all concerned to hear. Why not annex one little last sermon for them since you had a captive audience at a moment when they are really paying attention? What began as a supplement to a legacy will is now enjoying a role of its own. As you age, you set down your values, stories and other intangibles you wish to pass onto others. This letter says the unsaid, clarifies the mind, stretches across generations. For many families, this missive may become the most valuable thing you leave behind.

You don’t need this book, Ethical Wills, to figure out how to write one. Any style or form is fine; the more uniquely personal, the better. The book has collected some modern and traditional examples of ethical wills, which is what I found most useful. It lays out the reasons and steps to begin if you need encouragement. I’ve begun mine (it should be a work in progress) and have discovered that one of the best reasons to do it is for my own sake. Like journal-keeping, it’s an act of self-discovery. Unlike diaries, the total effort may be as short as one sheet of paper. I find it motivational to contemplate this possibility: how wonderful would it be if I could read the ethical wills of each of my grandparents and their parents? I find few things as thrilling as passing on values that might be replicated for generations.

Neither this book, nor any of the other related books and websites that I’ve read, have mentioned an intriguing alternative to a written ethical will: a short video. Many people who are not comfortable writing would be comfortable talking. Video cameras are cheap; you could do some really powerful statements of your values and perspective that might speak to future generations. If you go this route, use a common format so there is a chance someone can view it a century from now.

When you die you’ll leave behind a long trail of textual bits scattered over the world, but what you should leave is a distilled succinct package, a one-page, 5-minute testimony of you being you, so that if the rest of your recorded self should disappear, at least we’ll know what you thought was important. And I can promise you this, you’ll learn something doing it.

— KK

Ethical Wills
Barry K. Baines
2006, 217 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Thirteen years ago, I first learned about an ancient tradition for passing on personal values, beliefs, blessings, and advice to future generations called an “ethical will.” At a subconscious level, I must have remembered the custom, because when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1990, I asked him to write a letter about the things that he valued. About a month before he died, my dad gave me two handwritten pages in which he spoke about the importance of being honest, getting a good education, helping people in need, and always remaining loyal to family. That letter — his ethical will — meant more to me than any material possession he could have bequeathed.

Ethical wills were particularly advantageous outlets for women, since society’s rules usually precluded them from writing a legal will or dispensing property as they wished. Historians have found examples of ethical wills authored by women during the medieval period, usually in the form of letters or books written to their children.

This will was written in the earlier part of the twentieth century. It has a very interesting history. In the pocket of an old ragged coat belonging to one of the insane patients at a Chicago poorhouse, a will was found after his death. According to Barbara Boyd, in the Washington Law Reporter, the man had been a lawyer, and the will was written in a firm clear hand on a few scraps of paper. So unusual was it, that it was sent to another attorney; and so impressed was he with its contents, that he read it before the Chicago Bar Association and a resolutions was passed ordering it probated. It is now in the records of Cook County Illinois.

ITEM: To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may be need, as the stars of the sky, the red roses by the wall, the bloom of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.

ITEM: To young men jointly, I devise and bequeath all boisterous inspiring sports of rivalry, and I give to them the disdain of weakness and undaunted confidence in their own strength. Though they are rude, I leave them to the powers to make lasting friendships, and of possessing companions, and to them exclusively I give all merry songs and brave choruses to sing with lusty voices.

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Trace Your Roots


The 5-Year Journal


Radio Journalism Production Tools


The MindMap Book

MindMaps are a tool for thinking. Instead of arranging your ideas in a sequence — as a list of words — you draw them in an arboreal fashion, radiating out from one starting notion. Mindmaps use pictures instead of words, radial branches instead of linear lists, starfish instead of ladders, and associations instead of priorities — and as a result you think different. The visual trees you generate as you mindmap mirror the dendritic nature of our brain, and seem to flow more organically and (after practice) with less effort than the rigid discipline of making 1,2,3 textual notes.

They are easy to doodle. Anyone can make them. Kids and CEOs as well as creative types. I’ve come to employ this style of radial association in my own note taking and personal brainstorming. You don’t need this book to do it, but the book will help you refine your style, and it will help you expend its use. The authors, who’ve been perfecting and evangelizing this technique for decades, offer advice on how to use mindmaps to teach, as a form of diary, and most importantly, as a group exercise, say in corporate brainstorming sessions.

There are software programs for mindmapping (which I have not tried), but for me the intensely kinetic mode of drawing ideas (if even on tiny scratch paper) is a great part of the technique’s ability to produce new and different perspectives.

— KK

The Mind Map Book
Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan
1996, 320 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Mind Map by the well known film and video producer Dennis Harris, summarising an entire programme on Memory.


Always use a central image

An image automatically focuses the eye and the brain. It triggers numerous associations and is astoundingly effective as a memory aid. In addition an image is attractive – on many levels. It attracts you, it pleases you and it draws your attention to itself.

If a particular word (rather than an image) is absolutely central to your Mind Map, the word can be made into an image by using dimension, multiple colours, and attractive form.

Use images throughout your mind map

Using images wherever possible gives all the benefits described above, as well as creating a stimulating balance between your visual and linguistic cortical skills, and improving your visual perception.


Variation in size is the best way of indicating the relative importance of items in a hierarchy. Expanded size adds emphasis, thereby increasing the probability of recall.


In order to develop a truly personal Mind Mapping style, you should follow the ‘1+’ rule. This means that every Mind Map you do should be slightly more colourful, slightly more three dimensional, slightly more imaginative, slightly more associatively logical, and/or slightly more beautiful than the last.


Progression of noting a ‘very unhappy afternoon’ in which application of the Mind Map laws brings the noter much closer to the truth.

Standard phrase noting, which at first glance appears adequate, but which contains dangerous inaccuracies.

Note the full Mind Map guidelines, which allows the noter to reflect a more comprehensive, true and balanced picture of reality. (more…)



[When Cool Tools subscriber James Tierney recommended an audio CD that supposedly “balances and focuses the brain,” I was skeptical. My skepticism deepened when I visited the publisher’s web site and found additional CDs that supposedly induce lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. With minimal expectations, I ordered the “Concentration” CD. When I opened the package, the picture on the front of the jewel case looked like a throwback to the 1970s, and the “brain-wave maps” on the back seemed totally spurious. Still, when I played the CD the phased synthetic sound was quite pleasant. “It sounds as if we’re sitting in an airplane,” one of my coworkers remarked when she walked into my office. I did find that it is a highly effective mask for environmental sound, and helped me to ignore distractions in a noisy office. I asked James if he had tried any other products from the same source. –CP]

They sure have a lot, many of which sound like hokum, but “Concentration” is the one that works for me, and has been reliable over the decades. Long ago I tried their music CDs purporting to increase creativity and didn’t find them helpful. Their cat-napper has been a reliable tool for me over the decades: sometimes I am low energy and just need a catnap to re-energize. Within half an hour it gets me to sleep and wakes me back up, alert and full of energy.

— James Tierney

Available from New Mind

Manufactured by New Mind


How to Make a Journal of Your Life

Most people take journaling either way too serious, or not serious enough. For such a key life-skill it should be more like you — expressive, idiosyncratic, unique. This tiny chapbook is the best guide I know of to get you started in journaling, and keep you going. Hand drawn with inspiration, it properly emphasizes the value of graphic thinking in the examined life. It is wise, brief, and fun. I’ve given one copy to each of my kids. Although it does not mention blogging, and assumes you’ll use a notebook, I think every blogger and blogger-hopeful should read it.

— KK

How to Make a Journal of Your Life
Daniel Price
1999, 116 pages
Available from

Sample excerpts: