Most people who know me or who have ever worked with me know that I am an extremely organized person. Sometimes borderline OCD. I have been this way ever since I can remember and am constantly asked how I keep things together and get stuff done. My process has evolved greatly over the years so not only has the explanation changed, but it has become such an ingrained part of my life that starting from scratch can take a while. It is not really the most entertaining dinner party conversation so I've decided to outline what keeps me a functioning human every day.
My methodology is roughly based on David Allen's Getting Things Done. GTD is an excellent way of thinking about staying organized and being productive. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend that you do.
By no means do I think that it is perfect so I have made some modifications and eliminated many things. I do not believe that any methodology is cut and paste. What works for me may not work for you but maybe 60% does, so use that. That applies to everything I am writing here too.
The first major premise is to get "stuff" (thoughts, ideas, projects, tasks, etc.) out of my head and written down somewhere. The idea here is to reduce the cognitive load that all of those things exert on my brain.
Next is actually processing this "stuff" and figuring out what to do with it. I do this on a daily and weekly basis. As I go down my list of new "stuff" I ask a series of questions to figure out what the next action is:
- Can I do this right now, where I'm at, in a couple minutes or less?
- If yes, just do it.
- Does this belong to an existing project I already have ongoing?
- If yes, put the task in that project.
- Is this a new, or potential new, project that needs more thinking to figure out smaller tasks?
- If yes, create a project for it and try to jot down as many action items as you can think of.
- Does this task or project belong to someone else or am I waiting on this?
- If yes, make sure to put it in the correct place and make the necessary follow-up tasks.
After I have all of the new stuff sorted out, I then review my projects and figure what I need to get done. I have three standard review lists, all slightly different, that occur daily, weekly, and monthly.
These reviews are designed to help keep me aligned to my yearly goals, which are driven towards with a monthly and weekly focus.
I also like to keep different parts of my life split up into different categories or buckets. This is typically just "Personal" and "Work" but if I am part of other organizations or groups I will typically create a category for those projects and tasks as well.
Once I actually know all the things I have to do, the final step is to figure out what to actually get done. This prioritization of tasks is subjective and takes into account how much time I have, where I am, what my energy is like, if something is absolutely due that day, or if someone is waiting on me. It's never perfect but my judgment improves every time I do it.
Simply knowing how I want to get things done is only half the battle for me. In order to be fully productive, I have to have the right tools for the job.
When I was in college I used an application called Schoolhouse. At the beginning of each quarter I would take the syllabus from my classes and enter all of the reading, projects, quizzes, etc. along with due dates and timelines. It was perfect for how I liked to work and kept me in line (most of the time). Unfortunately, real life is not like college and nobody hands you a nice outline for everything that you need to get done over the next few months.
Since then I've been on the hunt for something just as powerful but also very customizable. Over the years I have used 2Do, Asana, and Wunderlist, just to name a few. Finally, I have settled on the Mac & iOS apps from OmniFocus. While not perfect, it allows me to run my life how I want to without "forcing" me into the structure that they have created.
Here is the meat of it. This is how I run things day in and day out. I am trying to be as detailed as possible here so that you can see exactly what I do.
My OmniFocus life is split up into five sections:
- Inbox - Everything goes here first. It is deposited via the iOS app, desktop shortcut, or email forward. Each morning these items are assigned a project and context before they are allowed to leave the inbox.
- Projects - This is where both the high-level structure of everything lives along with all the tasks. The review lists, goals, personal, and work projects are kept and prioritized here. I also like to utilize the different project task types of parallel, sequential, and single action.
- Contexts - If a task is the what, a context is the where. Not all tasks are created equal, so it makes things easier to know when you can get them done. I use the following contexts:
- Computer - Given the nature of my life, most things I have to do are on a computer.
- Mobile - This context is tricky because an increasing number of things can be done on a computer or on a mobile device. By default I just use the Computer context unless it requires an app.
- Call/Text - If I need to call or text someone about something.
- Home - Can only be done when I am at my house. These are usually standard tasks like cleaning and laundry but also include home projects.
- Office - Can only be done when I am at my office. It may require speaking to someone or information that is only there.
- Errands - Anything outside of my house, office, or computer that I need to get done, typically while on the go.
- Read/Review - This is not a catchall for articles found across the web but typically is stuff that I need to read or review that relates to some other project or task.
- Waiting - Tasks get this context if they cannot be completed without the action of someone else. I may have done my piece but am waiting for another person to do theirs. It is here so that I don't forget about things.
- Forecasts - For items that have hard deadlines or need to be completed on a recurring basis, they are given a due date and will show up here.
- Flagged - This is where I live most of the day. During my daily review I prioritize and flag tasks that I will be doing that specific day. The goal is to clear this context by the end of the day.
I am not sure how I lived my life before the daily review. It is one of the first things I do every morning (after getting a cup of coffee). In fact, I look forward to it.
This entire "project" is set to recur each day and is due by 9:00 am. This is what it contains:
- Weigh In - Upon first waking up, I head to the bathroom and, before leaving, I step on a scale that provides me with weight and body fat percentage. When I sit down at my computer I log that in a Google Sheet with date and time.
- Review Calendar - Here I will go over what meetings and appointments I have for the day. This helps me know how many other tasks, and for what projects, I will be able to get done.
- Review Waiting List - A daily check to see if I need to follow up on anything or with anyone.
- Process OmniFocus Inbox - This is where I'll go through all of that "stuff" that I've been entering, and assign things a project and context based on the questions I outlined in the methodology.
- Review Projects & Flag Top 3 - Here I go through each and every "active" project I have and flag any items that I plan to get done that day.
- Review Current Goals - A quick review to make sure I am on track with what I set out to accomplish this week. If I realize here that I am not, I may go back and change some of the items that I flagged.
- Review Mindset Diagram - Mindset by Carol S. Dweck is a fantastic book that really helped me personally. I like to review this diagram to help keep my thinking in the right context.
- Journal - I keep a markdown journal in a Dropbox folder that I try to write in every day. Sometimes it is just a few quick sentences, others it is several paragraphs long. It is really to get my thoughts written down regularly.
- Meditate - Sticking to a meditation routine has always been a struggle for me so adding it to my daily review has been super helpful. Currently, I use the iOS app Simple Habit but have used Headspace and Stop, Breathe, & Think in the past.
This list can be found in my "Daily Review" project but I go through it in my Forecasts section since it is set to recur every day. The forecast section also contains other recurring or due items that need to get done as well. This can be simple things like paying a bill or watering my plants but can also be other tasks that I will then flag to make sure I see them as part of everything else.
Every Sunday evening (but sometimes Monday morning) I go through things at a bit higher level to make sure that I have everything aligned for the week ahead. That list is:
- Process Loose Papers - I keep a physical "inbox" for mail and other non-digital items. This is where I will go through that stuff and figure out what to do with it. It also includes receipts or other paper that may have accumulated in my backpack.
- Process Notes - Most of my notes are written digitally on Evernote but I have a fair amount in my notebook as well. I will review my notes and create any action items as needed. If the paper notes are important I will make sure to transcribe them to Evernote so I can more easily find them later.
- Process Inbox - Usually this is cleared out during the daily review, but a handful of new items may have just been created during the two previous tasks. I do the same thing here as with the daily review by assigning a project and context.
- Process Previous Calendar Week - I like to take a look at my calendar from the week that just passed to see if there are any items I may have forgot about, follow-up meetings to set, or thank you messages to write.
- Review Waiting List - Once again, I review this list to see if there are any major items I am waiting on that need to be taken care of in the upcoming week.
- Weekly Focus - I process my focus or goals from the previous week to see how I did and set new ones. I typically put them in three categories: personal, professional, and fitness. I like to only have one focus per category but will occasionally have two.
- Review Projects - Unlike the daily review, during this task I look at both active and "inactive" projects. This is a functionality from OmniFocus that I love. If I am not going to be working on a project during a given week I will make it "inactive" so that it disappears from my view until I choose to show those projects during my review.
- Prioritize Project Tasks - Typically I do this simultaneously with the previous task by moving not only tasks but the projects themselves around so that I can easily see a visual priority. This makes things easier during the daily review.
- Plan Schedule - Most of my next week is typically planned out by the end of the previous week so I review it to make sure I have time for everything. I may need to cancel or move things so it's better to do that sooner than later. It also gives me a rough idea of how "busy" I will be with appointments and meetings.
- Review Finances - This helps to keep me conscious about how and where I am spending my money. I look at my checking, savings, and investment accounts to get an idea of where I am at. I also do a quick review of the week's charges to see if there is anything fraudulent.
- Plan Runs & Workouts - My running coach typically makes my schedule well in advance but I usually only look a week ahead. This gives me an idea of what kind of workouts are coming up, how much time that will take, and remind me to communicate any travel plans or busy days that may interfere.
- Review Pictures & Create Albums - All of my iPhone pictures are backed up to Dropbox, where I like to go through them on a weekly basis. It is kind of fun to remember the things I did and send someone a photo I forgot I took. Additionally, if I was on a trip or was taking pictures at an event, I will create an album for it.
At the end of each month I do a high-level review of my goals, objectives, and personal reflections. This is less of tactical planning than the daily or weekly review but tries to ensure that I'm on the right track with what I want to accomplish for the year and in my life.
- Process progress on last month's goals - How did I do? Did I complete them or miss them? Why was I successful or why did I fail?
- Process yearly goals - How am I doing on these? Are there any I can cross off as completed or need to get started on?
- What is going well? - What do I think is going well in my life at the moment and why?
- What needs work? - What have I been struggling with?
- What have I heard? - What conversations have I had with friends or family that included feedback for me?
- Review journal - Here I read through my journal to remind me of what I have been through, my ups and downs, and my successes.
- What are your personal goals for next month? - Based on yearly goals, what should my goals be for the upcoming month?
- What are your professional goals for next month? - What are my work objectives that I need to complete?
- What are your running goals for next month? - Do I have any races coming up or milestones I am trying to achieve?
While it might be useful, I don't actually write most of this stuff down besides the goals for next month. All of this information is mainly for personal introspection and alignment.
There is a yearly review that I also do but have not included it since it only occurs once a year and is typically when most people are goal setting anyway. It is hard to forget to do.
As briefly mentioned earlier, I like to keep a visual hierarchy of projects that is easy to navigate. I do this through a series of "high-level" projects, folders, and subfolders. I also utilize active and inactive statuses and different projects types to keep things better organized.
Some projects have discrete beginnings and endings so when all the tasks are fully done and there is nothing left to do, I make sure to "complete" the project so that it disappears out of my view. Others will stay open indefinitely as they are more of a place to keep and classify certain items than a true project that will be completed.
It is important for me to make as many project tasks as possible that represent the smallest amount of work to be done. It is easy to get caught in the trap of making a highly ambiguous task that actually encompasses many different things to be done. That often leads to frustration that the task is never complete and losing sight of the real work.
For a long while I struggled with what to do with things that did not really fit into any other category or project. To solve this I created a "Misc" folder. It contains the following projects:
- Miscellaneous - This is the catchall for one-time items and tasks that do not belong anywhere else. A pretty good number of tasks will end up living here.
- Clothes - Simply a place to remind myself of things I need buy whether it is for an event or something that needs replacing.
- Recurring - Everything besides bills (they have their own project) that recurs lives here. This is commonly household items or things that need to be taken care of regularly. Everything is this project has a due date and shows up in my Forecast view.
- Someday/Maybe - A place used as a backlog of ideas, projects, and tasks to do that are not super important but I may get to when I have time. During the weekly review I may pull items out of here and figure out what to do next.
Learning how to prioritize is one of the hardest parts about keeping an effective system. It takes a lot of time, patience, and failure to get it right but is always a work in progress. Sometimes priority is set by someone else or outside factors, other times it is based on goals, time, and energy. It is not easy for me to define how I prioritize because it has become almost subconscious at this point.
This is where I spend most of my day in OmniFocus. Here are all the tasks that I have flagged to get done in a single day, broken out by context. The one weak spot here is that they are not ordered in priority so I have to spend a little bit of extra mental effort each time I look at the list to figure out which to do next. Ultimately, the goal is that by the time I go to bed, all of the items on this list will have been cleared.
Bringing It All Together
Putting all of this into practice is not something that happened over night for me. Most of it was built up incrementally first by finding a methodology that I liked, then discovering the right tools, and lastly refining a process that I would stick to and keep me accountable. The things I have described above have been pretty stable for a while now but there are still small tweaks every now and then (in fact, while writing this post I thought of a few that I will probably test out).
I know that this is probably way too much for most people but it works for me and keeps me sane. I encourage you to adopt parts you like and adapt the parts that you do not.