The Fractal Planner: An Electronic Task Management Tool Review

Several years ago, before I moved to Albuquerque (a detail which will be important here in a minute), my neighbor called to ask if I would come over and help her middle-school-age boys with their math homework. Their father wasn’t home, and she was at a loss. I agreed because: 1) I loved my neighbors, and 2) I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering, which, although I don’t remember much about calculus and differential equations, somehow made me think, “How hard could their homework be?”

It was fractals. Say what? You mean frac-tions? No, frac-tals. I read the assignment over, and had NO CLUE how to proceed. Sorry, kids, they didn’t have fractals in the olden days! This was right around the time they demoted Pluto as a planet, and I half wondered if they were putting me on about both Pluto and fractals.

Then I moved to Albuquerque, the Fractal Capital of the World. Here they have The Fractal Foundation,  fractal planetarium shows, fractal design competitions, and fractal hot air balloons. If you didn’t learn about fractals in school either, here is an example: Picture a tree. It has a trunk, main limbs, and smaller limbs, branches, and smaller branches. So each part resembles the whole thing. I’m not even going to try to explain it in mathematical terms, but I did search Google Images for fractals in nature, for my pleasure and yours.

Fast-forward to a recent email from a friend: “I think I’ve found the planning tool of my dreams!” It didn’t take much to convince me that I must try Fractal Planner too! As a professional organizer who also provides time management coaching to my clients, I walk a fine line between what tools and methods I use myself; what I think will work for the client at hand (considering how much they have going on in their lives, how comfortable they are with technology, and how much of a learning curve they are up to); and what’s new out there. Sometimes I recommend the system I’m using, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I test a new system and make a change. Not often, though. That would be counter-productive.

So, I’ve tried computer apps such as Remember The Milk, WorkFlowy, and Sandglaz, and good old paper-and-pencil Planner Pad. I certainly haven’t tried them all, because there are dozens, if not hundreds. They all work to some degree, and appeal to some portion of the population. The Fractal Planner (which is not free) reminds me most of WorkFlowy (which is free), but with the addition of some very helpful bells and whistles.

The best way to learn about The Fractal Planning Method (which you can use with, or without, paying for the e-tool) is to read the free e-book, Clear Mind, Effective Actionby Fractal Planner creator Jim Stone. (If you DO sign up, you MUST read the e-book.) He writes: “The name ‘fractal’, coined by Benoit Mandelbrot, suggests the notion of ‘breaking down’ (or ‘fracturing’) something into smaller units that resemble the thing just broken down.” Thus you will end up with lists, sub-lists, and sub-sub-lists, which can be easily added, deleted, rearranged, expanded, and contracted. This fully supports the key time management concepts of keeping one’s lists all in one place, and breaking larger projects down into smaller, more do-able steps.

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring Fractal Planner with my friend who suggested it, and with a current, tech-inclined, adventuresome, time management client. Here are my observations thus far:

Adding/Editing Tasks:  This is definitely easier on my desktop computer than it is on my smart phone (I don’t use a laptop), but both are certainly possible. It’s web-based and you simply log on from wherever you have access. I love cutting and pasting whole existing checklists into the plan, and selecting a few tasks each day from my Master Plan to automatically populate my To-Do List. If you are not comfortable with computers, it’s OK to forget this and stick with a paper system!

Prioritizing: This tool helps you to see all your lists in one place, which automatically helps you to review them and determine which tasks should be done next. The expand/contract feature enables you to zoom in and focus on one area of your life, or one specific project, at a time. But don’t forget to periodically zoom out to review your life priorities and goals, and choose the activities and tasks that will support them. Those that don’t support your priorities and goals right now can be deleted, or moved to the Maybe/Later list.

Terminology: This plan is so much like the one I already use (part electronic and part paper) that it only took some minor brain adjustments to get used to the terms used in Fractal Planning (FP), such as:  FP’s Stock Plans (a.k.a. Stored Procedures) = Checklists and Routines; FP’s Maybe/Later List = Back Burner List + Ideas; FP’s Clear Mind Procedure = Mind Dump; FP’s Clarity, Meaning and Purpose = Priorities and Goals.

Cost: There is a monthly fee for this one. I don’t consider this a drawback, but you might. Of course, who doesn’t prefer a free trial? But I felt it was worth $9.95 to try. You can cancel at any time. And sometimes with free stuff you get what you pay for.

Scheduling: FP “integrates” with Google Calendar, but not with other calendars…yet. Until/unless this changes, I will simply schedule things in Outlook the way I always have. Not a deal breaker for me, but it might be for you.

I don’t care what planning tool or system you use, as long as you use it, and it works for you. So, think about whether or not you even have a system, and whether or not you’re using it. If not, why not? What do you like and dislike about it? There’s no point in trying a new system if you can’t answer these questions. And they are questions I will ask you if you call me for help!

Fractal Planner just might be the planning tool of MY dreams! It completely replaces my Planning Notebook (a.k.a. Master List), with its many paper lists gathered together. I can carry it around in my pocket and it is easier for me to use! Fortunately, it is also compatible with my own To-Do List Clutter Flow Chart. I like it well enough to become an affiliate…but have decided NOT to, in keeping with my general inclination to remain impartial in my recommendations.

Do let me know if you try it, OK?

[May 2013 UPDATE: In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve cancelled my subscription to Fractal Planner ($9.95/mo) and have gone back to WorkFlowy (still free, now with a $4.99/mo. paid Pro option). In this review I state that WorkFlowy is the closest thing I’ve seen to Fractal Planner, but without all the bells and whistles. Well, guess what? WorkFlowy now has bells and whistles, as well as several good, short demo videos. I still highly recommend the free e-book Clear Mind, Effective Action linked to in this review. And if you use Google Calendar, which I do not, Fractal Planner may still be well worth the extra cost to you, since WorkFlowy still does not have a calendar integration function.]

Copyright 2012 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. I have been using comindware task manager and it is a great system for great teams, but for me personally i would like something simpler and I think I will try your tool as well.

  2. Sir,

    l m also impressed by this software but its monthly cost make it a very costly one in the long run, given the fact, it recommends us to create a master plan for life!

    Are there any alternatives having a one time payment cost?

    kindly advise

    • Absolutely, there is a cheaper way to implement the Fractal Planning Method: Read the free “Clear Mind, Effective Action” e-book linked to in the blog post and create your own spreadsheet!

  3. One thing that concerns me about cloud-based solutions is not being able to access the data if you find yourself with no internet connection. Is there a way around that?

    • There’s no way around it that I know of, Janet, although I must say I have never experienced internet issues that coincided with a burning desire to do some fractal planning! And I regularly back up my plans, just in case. For those who are worried though, I highly recommend the FREE e-book linked to in the post — Clear Mind, Effective Action, by Fractal Planner creator Jim Stone. The Fractal Planning METHOD can be readily used in a low-tech manner, such as with an Excel spreadsheet.

  4. Hi,

    I’ve searched around a bit and cannot seem to find an answer to this question. Please let me know if you have an answer!

    What security precautions does fractal planner take with my data? Do they have secure servers? Do they have a back-end?

    Thank you!

    R Murphy

    • Good question! Because I don’t put anything much more proprietary in my planner than “buy milk” and “outline blog topics”, I haven’t been too concerned about security. I’m sure Jim Stone, creator of Fractal Planner, would be happy to answer that question for you via his website.

  5. Hi Hazel,
    Wow! Thank you so much for this post! I found you doing a search for “Fractal Planner”, saw your G+ Authorship in Mr. G’s results; clicked on it; got more than I was looking nice

    Long ago I after reading Jim’s “Clear Mind” book and using FP, I thought the subscription software was a bit too expensive for me. However, as you pointed out I loved the idea of being able to see the whole-kit-n-caboodle of what we carry around in our minds. Can be amazing how much that is. 🙂

    But now! I’m hooked on Workflowy! I’m playing with the free version. If I find it fits nicely into my workflow I would definitely like to buy the “Pro” via your affiliate link if you have one.

    And for you Mac folks, like me, you can create a desk-top version of Workflowy by using “Fluid”. It’s a browser that turns what ever webpage you want into an application-you still need the internet because you still need to login to get access to your account. Fluid costs about $5 or $6. You can create as many applications as you want. If this doesn’t make sense try checking it out. Just google “fluid mac app”.

    Again, Hazel, thank you for the great info. It’s custom to show thanks and appreciation here in Japan with a bow… m(_ _)m

    Ken “happy-to-find-workflowy” Taylor

    • Hi Ken, I’m glad you like WorkFlowy, but don’t take your eyes off Fractal Planner, as they are both continuing to make improvements! I don’t have an affiliate link to either one, preferring to remain impartial on most things I recommend.

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