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April 19, 2009 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Please help me get organized. I have read far to many books and blogs about personal productivity and organization. I have tried practically every computer-based and web 2.0 application. I've tried GTD, Franklin-Covey, and my own home-brewed ideas, and while I seem to be able to take something good from them all, I can't seem to find a cohesive way of being and staying organized. I'm considering ditching some of the high-tech stuff for something simpler (paper), and I need some advice.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I have ADD.

My current setup is:

1. Gmail
2. GCal
3. Tracks.tra.in (www.tracks.tra.in). It's a hosted Tracks site.
4. Blackberry
5. Gigantic 8'x4' whiteboard for brainstorming.
6. I also use a Mac, and I almost never use a PC.

I'm pretty good at paper filing. I use a label maker, and i have separate file drawers for archives, committees I work with, and projects. I have three files on my desk ("hold," "file," and "read").

Calendar is easy. Google Calendar effortlessly syncs with the Blackberry using Google Sync, and only "hard landscape" items go on my calendar.

Gmail makes me decent at e-mail. It is easily searchable, and I have labels like "needs reply," "waiting," "hold," "do" etc. Each project gets its own label.

However, as far as making lists of things to do and organizing them with their relevant data (e-mail, meeting notes, random thoughts that pop into my head, etc., I completely suck. As a result, my days quickly spin out of control, and I have all this noise in my head that comes from operating within a system I don't trust and cannot seem to effectively use.

I love how with Tracks/Toodledo etc., I can easily use the Blackberry or Gmail to e-mail stuff into my tasks/projects lists. However, I can do this so quickly that I'm not really paying attention to stuff as I'm filing it.

Plus, I have a very hard time looking at my gigantic master task list and deciding on a reasonable list of things to do in one day, and I'm terrible at figuring out how long stuff is going to take me to do, so I rarely assign due dates to anything, including the discreet tasks that comprise a project.

Yes, I know I've over thought this, and yes, I know that the ADD fuels a great deal of this. Also, when I say I've tried everything, I'm not too far off. I've tried the Palm devices, Outlook, Things, Mail.app, iCal, Remember the Milk, Backpack, Toodledo, Jott, Tracks, Toodoist, 30 Boxes, Skoach, ClearContext, and Entourage(to name a few).

From GTD, I learned the importance of capturing thoughts, good paper filing practices, and the weekly review. Contexts didn't work for me at all. From Franklin-Covey and Total Workday Control, I learned the importance of having a daily list of things to do, separate from a master list of tasks, so I've got a handful of good practices but no workable system.

I bought a Palm III almost immediately after grad school, and I've been using electronic organization my entire professional life, so I have never, ever learned how to effectively use a paper planning system. Which is sad.

What appeals to me about paper is:
- I can't surf the internet or play Wingnuts on it.
- The act of physically writing things down seems like it would help me better slow down and mentally process things I have to do.
- It's easier to draw circles and arrows on paper.
- I don't have to charge it or find a wifi signal. It's portable.
- 8.5" x 11" is larger than my Blackberry screen.
- I over-tweak everything, and digital systems seem to make this worse.

What does not appeal to me about a paper system:
- I have no idea what I'm doing when I'm trying to use it.
- If I lose my paper planner, I am screwed.
- Not knowing how to use e-mail (which is digital) alongside paper, which is analog.
- My handwriting is pretty bad.

I have so over thought this for so many years that my head is about to explode. I have the freedom to use any system at work that I like, so there's that.

My apologies for the long question, and many thanks for your advice.
posted by 4ster to Work & Money (15 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
The Wikipedia page on Time Management might be at least a good externally-located springboard to help you in your quest. There seems to be some good advice and external links on that page. I especially like the section about setting priorities, which sounds like one of your biggest stumbling blocks.

Are you in a position where you can hire a part-time personal assistant? I'm envisioning, say, 1.5-2 hours a day, someone to come in and help provide focus from outside your own brain? Sometimes just moving the "chaos" into someone else's lap for a little while helps.

I hate to say practice and willpower will give you the necessary habits, as I've lived with a man with ADD for nearly 20 years, and I know that's not how it works for everyone.
posted by hippybear at 12:45 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

For tasks, todos and notes, I simply have a spiral bound note book. Task lists and notes go in chronological order, starting from the front of the notebook. I made a fresh new task list each week, and on Mondays copy the undone tasks from a previous week onto a new page. I divide up the lists page into sections - work stuff on the left, personal stuff on the right. Meeting notes, and other notes that would normally be stuck on a Post-It and lost, go on subsequent pages as they occur, in chronological order.

If you get perforated pages you can pull out pages you want to keep and file them elsewhere for safe keeping.

Ongoing projects and things I want to accomplish, ideas, or anything that is not yet a concrete tasks I record starting at the back of the notebook going forward. Then, when making a new task list for the week, I can look at the ongoing projects at the back of the book and make actionable tasks out of them.

If something has a due date I tend to put it on my Google Calendar rather than in the notebook.

I don't use a fancy Moleskine notebook or anything like that, because then you don't have to worry about keeping it neat or "nice". I don't use web-based task trackers like Remember the Milk because I find they make it too hard to enter tasks. I don't want to fill out long lists of fields each time I come up with something I want to do. I also like the act of copying my todo list each week, because it makes it clear what I am not paying attention to. Web based trackers of any kind make it easy to just accumulate more and more tasks.
posted by lsemel at 1:52 PM on April 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Is there a chance you're more organized than you think? It sounds like you're looking for the absolute Perfect System. The thing is, even if it exists, it's probably not worth it. I'm thinking you need to trust yourself, and work more on doing things, not tweaking your System.

That said, I'll point you to the Autofocus System from Mark Forster. Pretty simple to-do list.

If you really don't like your handwriting, you might want to check out this page, which runs through learning to write an italic hand that's both fluid and legible.

I myself use paper to take down thoughts when I'm away from my computer. When I'm at the computer, though, I have a lot of text files set up. For my to-do list, I use a command-line interface in the terminal, called todo.txt, which can be downloaded at todotxt.com. I also use Quicksilver and GeekTool to put my list on my desktop.

But the thing is to take it slow. Stop tweaking the System to get it perfect. It sounds like you have obsessive tendencies in addition to your ADD, which describes me as well. My suggestion would be to try out the Autofocus system, try it out for a week, and make gradual changes as you go along. It's easy to develop a fetish for productivity tools, but you have to step back and think about what it's really for: to get a perfect, all-inclusive, System? Not really. It's just an aid to help you do the things you want to do. Remember, it's better to do things without a system than to have a perfect system and not do anything.
posted by Busoni at 1:57 PM on April 19, 2009

Actually, a second thing I should suggest, is that maybe you should concentrate on doing less, rather than doing more. If you're swamped with things to do, you have to ask yourself a few questions: Did you decide yourself to take on these tasks? Why? Is it worth the stress?
posted by Busoni at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2009

Stop organizing stuff and start DOING stuff. This statement is telling:

I have a very hard time looking at my gigantic master task list and deciding on a reasonable list of things to do in one day

So don't. Don't decide on a reasonable list of things to do in one day. Decide on the ONE thing that you will do NOW. Then when that is finished, decide on the next thing you will do. Keep doing that until you have completed your list or the day ends.

My new mantra lately has been "Just Do Something". Just pick something and do it, and don't get paralyzed worrying about the other eleventy jillion things on my list.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:15 PM on April 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'm not very good at organization, but I need structure the way that normal people need air. To function I use a hard cover, coil bound notebook and a weekly entry day planner. Fixed appointments go in the dayplanner. In the notebook, I write to do lists, not for the day, but all the important tasks I have to do in the next week or so. Next to each task on the list I draw a heart, which I fill in with a highlighter, though you can use a checkbox or star. In the front of my dayplanner, or stapled in with a piece of paper at the back, is my fixed schedule of classes and commitments that happen every week

The trick with the to do list is that it's all single time tasks, and when assigning myself a task I break it down into the smallest possible part (like the GTD). However this small part really needs to be tiny, and can be a simple as say 'put your pencils and ID in a bag, for the exams next week' much less 'study'.

One of the most important parts of any organizational system is that it needs to appeal to your own aesthetic needs and learning style. I like bold colours and cute, so I'm more likely to use a crisp red notebook filled with hello kitty stickers. You might like to draw war machines crushing villages, and could make the notebook plan I use more inviting by doodling on the opposite page next to your lists. If a giant page of to-dos is intimidating, maybe you need to put your tasks on separate pages.

As for losing a paper notebook, you could just as easily lose the internet, or your computer. The advantage of a notebook is that the most you need to operate it is a stylus and light source, and you can carry it everywhere, and it even stands a good chance of being readable if it falls in the ocean. Just like you, I have almost unreadable handwriting, so I write everything in big letters.
posted by Phalene at 4:40 PM on April 19, 2009

Read: The now habit by Neil Fiore

assuming you're on a mac the following is my ultimate information management solution:

Use: Things

Embrace: DevonThink Pro Office

You'll not look back.
posted by mathiu at 5:13 PM on April 19, 2009

And take notes using a: livescribe pen
posted by mathiu at 5:15 PM on April 19, 2009

Be careful of conflating organizational skills with priority setting skills with time management skills.

If you aren't finding that you cannot locate information, then your problem isn't organization, it is priorities and time management. What organization works best is really up to the individual (or organization). My only advice is keep the number of different places you store key information to a minimum.

Priority setting and time management and skills, and the tools are less influential on your ability to do them. But, they are also related.

My first advice is whenever you agree to do something, immediately consider the time it will take you, the deadline, and go into your calendar (paper or digital) and block out the time necessary to do that task. You don't need to do that work at exactly that time, but it will help you see if you are becoming overbooked. Don't fret if you are often incorrect in your time estimates. This skill grows with practice. I've also found that I need to block out 1.5 hours per day for "unanticipated requests" in my particular situation.

Finally, on a daily basis I just pull out a piece of paper, look at my information sources and make a list of key tasks that are high priority. I carry it and my calendar with me so that I can appropriately add to the list new requests (the first task for a new request is to verify I can accept it, the second is to block out that time in my calendar when I've had a chance to give it consideration). I then work through the list during the day, carrying over tasks when necessary, or giving my customers an opportunity for conversation if I see that I may not be able to keep a commitment I made.

I know this doesn't answer your request directly, but based on your description I think you need to convert your struggle from finding the right tool, to how you build the desired skills.
posted by meinvt at 8:14 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

As much as I liked the GTD ideal, it was overcomplicated for me.

I ended up just going with WSD.

(and then am currently using a modified ZTD).
posted by mrbill at 8:52 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

As others have pointed out, the secret is DOING things. You can play around with the tools and methodology forever. Eventually the most important step you can make is choosing the path and then walking the walk.

I chose GTD (use Culturedcode's Things) and I'm quite happy with it. But it certainly isn't for everyone. Good luck.

(I should add that GTD is not complicated. The general principles could be stated and explained in a few minutes. Most people that claim GTD is overly complicated haven't read the book and simply believe they understand it from reading a website or two. And I'm not pointing to anyone in this thread. It's a claim I read a lot everywhere.

Also, ZTD is basically GTD with a few minor changes. It still kills me that the author decided that it deserved it's own name.)
posted by justgary at 9:44 PM on April 19, 2009

How about meditating on being organized for about an hour a day?
posted by rainy at 1:08 AM on April 20, 2009

I know a lot of people are fans of time management programs and methods, but really, to echo what some people saying -- just do it.

I think that, as with dieting, there aren't any 'secrets' with time management. The basic principle is pretty simple. Write down a list of what you need to get done. Do the things on your list, cross them out.

I found watching Randy Pausch's Last Lecture pretty inspiring (and it's hard for a 'time management' lecture to be inspiring!) He did the lecture as he was dying of cancer, and his perspective is more about how bad time management keeps you away from everything that's important in life.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 1:18 AM on April 20, 2009

You might have success with Evernote if you want to keep your system electronic. It provides a place for everything, with syncing, and lets you tag everything for quick searching and filtering.
posted by CoralAmber at 8:17 PM on April 21, 2009

posted by Jacqueline at 2:03 AM on April 25, 2009

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