How do you organize your life?
April 28, 2009 10:43 PM   Subscribe

How do you organize your life? I am a creative but highly disorganized man. At any given time, there's loads of things I need to do, and I usually only end up doing about 1/5th of them. And it's not because I'm slack: I simply can't keep track of everything.

I've tried various things from having a paper diary, to writing everything down in Google Docs, using Google Calendars etc. They all work well for a while, then I become slack, and end up going back to my old habit of simply keeping everything in my head.

How do successful people organize their life? Is it through a mishmash of technology, eg BlackBerry's, cell phones, project managers? Or are they just naturally good at it?

What system do you use to manage your daily life? How long have you been using your system for? Is it robust...has it stood the test of time? And is it recommendable...are you achieving all you want to be achieving in life?
posted by tomargue to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
They all work well for a while, then I become slack, and end up going back to my old habit of simply keeping everything in my head.

This doesn't sound like you have an organization problem, it sounds like a willpower problem. You say yourself that your systems work for awhile and then you don't use them. Well you have to use them for the systems to work. Work on that, continuing to use a system, any system, and I think your problem will solve itself.
posted by bigmusic at 10:57 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I keep an 8.5x11 spiral notebook at all times. In the notebook I keep my current todo list, and notes. The todo list contains specific actionable items for things that can be done in a few minutes to a few hours, and I divide it into two columns, personal todos and work todos. Every week I copy any items that remain from the previous week's todo list onto a fresh page and start a new todo list. Anything I'd normally write on a Post-it note, any documents or papers I want to have handy, and meeting notes, also go in then notebook on subsequent pages, so I don't lose them or get inundated with sticky notes all over the place. At the back of the notebook, working forward, are pages containing higher-level tasks -- larger, long-term plans, ideas, doodles, and things I want to do someday. Every so often I look at the pages in the back of the notebook, choose something to work on, divide it up into more specific, granular tasks, and copy it to my current todo list at the front of the notebook. When the notebook fills up, I start a new one. I combine this system with Gmail and Google Calendar which are both synced to my Blackberry. For specific, granular tasks within the context of a work project, I'll often use some digital means, ranging from a textfile or a bug tracker. I try to avoid having to remember anything and make it a point not to keep tasks in my head.
posted by lsemel at 11:00 PM on April 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

I was going to recommend a mix of Rainlendar and Google calendars, but if you won't write things down and you can't keep track of them in your head, I'm not sure there's anything that's going to help. I have to force myself to write things down.

Since it seems intractable to me and I think you're going to have to force yourself to write things down, I'll tell you how I manage things in case you decide to bite the bullet:

- If something happens on a certain date, I put it in Google calendars and have it e-mail me a reminder in advance (whatever is appropriate; for me it's usually a day in advance). This is helpful for me because I hate having excess e-mail in my inbox, but I can't get rid of the reminder until I do something about it.

- I use Rainlendar for a few things. I don't so much use the calendar feature, only the "to do" list feature. You can configure the "to do" list to be "always on top" of your other windows. I have it locked in place and set to 25% transparency unless I mouse over it, in which case it becomes more opaque. I configure it to let me click through it to whatever window it is hovering over, and I have to press Shift to click the to do list.

In other words, the list isn't in the way enough that I have to move it around constantly, but it's in the way enough that I can't avoid looking at it, and I always want it to be smaller. This means I can't just ignore or forget things.

You can prioritize the to do list by high, medium, low, or none. You can have categories of tasks; some of mine are "exercise," "chore," "leisure," etc. You can set tasks to have due dates and times. You can set tasks to recur on certain dates and times. So, for example, I have recurring tasks for exercise on MWF. I have recurring tasks for chores on certain dates; every Tuesday the high priority tasks of cleaning my birds' cages pops up. Every Monday I am reminded to plan the week's meals. Every day I make sure I write the minimum of my book that I've assigned myself. I have found this very helpful.

I use the free version of Rainlendar and it has nearly everything. It just won't interface with Google Calendar and some other things, but with the system I have, I don't need it to do that. So you don't need to pay for anything unless you really want that feature.

You could forgo Google calendars altogether and use Rainlendar for the same thing if you wanted, but as I said, having the e-mail sitting there drives me nuts, and it's nice to be able to access stuff like that when you're not on your home computer. I typically don't need the more basic "to do" list anywhere else, though.

- I keep a small notebook and a pen on me at all times. When I don't have access to a computer, I write things in the notebook to put into the calendar or to do list, in addition to whatever else I need it for. Some people keep an index card on them at all times for this same purpose. Whatever works for you.

Oh, but how do you remember to look back at the notebook and process it? Daily recurring Rainlendar task.
posted by Nattie at 11:14 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:

In a sense, yes. I find that my existing solutions are not fun to use, so it's a struggle to use them. Perhaps I don't like using them because they simply don't work for me...not sure. If I can find a system that's not unpleasant to use, then that's worth a lot to me. And I'll probably use it for a long period of time.

In the end, though, I may end up biting the bullet, and really stick to a system for an extend period of time.
posted by tomargue at 11:15 PM on April 28, 2009

Just a todo list in a text editor. Works perfectly well for me. I've been using that for the last 3 months. You have to keep in mind that no organizational method is perfect, because depending on a combination of tasks you have at a time one method may work great but on another week your tasks will be different and some other method may work much better. Don't get obsessed with perfect organization.
posted by rainy at 11:16 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tomargue - what you are going to notice when people are giving their recommendations for systems here is that they are personalized. They work for them because they were devoted to getting something to work for /them/. Go look at the spin offs of the GTD system, everybody has it personalized for them. Anybody that has a system that works, has worked at it. I'm not saying you won't get any good ideas about making a system that works for you here, but I am saying that any system that is going to work for you is going to require some hardcore devotion on your part. Getting organized isn't easy for some of us and we have to work really hard at it. GTD and the like aren't the panacea to these problems, tenacious devotion to not giving up on getting organized is. You fall off the wagon, get back on, the cycle will repeat itself. Just keeping getting on the wagon and re-customizing your system. For more idea from metafilter memebers, look here.

The best systems have a sort of feedback loop, you can look at them and see if you are doing well or not. What I've found that works for me, is scheduling documents to start up at different intervals. Bills spreadsheet, budget spreadsheet, Joe's goals and so on all pop up automatically on the computer at scheduled intervals. So they are always popping up in front of me. So I don't have to think about starting up a program so that cuts down on the weight of thinking about the system. You might try that. Good luck, and don't give up.
posted by bigmusic at 11:29 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @Isemel, yeah, I used to do something similar to you: I'd have an A4 sheet of paper that I'd print off once a week. It'd be split in to two sections: what I needed to do, and a rudimentary weekly calendar that I could copy in when I needed to do them by (I had monthly calendar on the back).

I kept my ideas (not yet actionable things I'd thought of) in a notebook somewhere.

At the end of each week, I'd copy over the remaining tasks, to a new A4 sheet.

This worked reasonably well for university and maybe I should give it another go.
posted by tomargue at 11:30 PM on April 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, bigmusic for the GTD link and suggestion.

I've heard "GTD" a few times now...probably a good time to read/understand the concepts within.

I agree with you though, hard work, and re-getting on the wagon. I want to choose a good wagon this time.
posted by tomargue at 11:41 PM on April 28, 2009

Oh and if you are trying to figure out how to launch a URL in windows - throw this in a .bat file to schedule it.

posted by bigmusic at 11:41 PM on April 28, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, not to sound like a spoiled brat....but I wonder if there's something really simple out there. E.g., I want to be able to type in what I want to do, its prerequisites and when I want to do them by. And I want the organizer to tell me when the best time to do each task is. Then it's simply up to me to carry out the tasks.

If anyone knows of such a tool, then I'd be very grateful!
posted by tomargue at 11:57 PM on April 28, 2009

Well, it's just another gadget, perhaps, but the "synergy" approach to organizing information has me really looking forward to the upcoming release of the new Palm Pre, which promises to be a very handy organizational tool.
posted by washburn at 12:06 AM on April 29, 2009

GTD was always too involved for me. For the past five or so years I've been using 8.5x5.5 pads to write everything down on. This isn't everything, but it's a lot. Write your schedule for the day/week so you can refer back to it. Bring it to every meeting. Make little to-do lists.
posted by rhizome at 12:11 AM on April 29, 2009

tomargue, you don't have an iPhone or iTouch by any chance, do you? If so, and you care to pay the $25US (I think) subscription a year, Remember The Milk is pretty rad. You can put in due dates and it moves items on to your "Today" list as those dates roll around. You can set things to repeat every day, or two days, or every week, or whatever. You can also arrange stuff into lists; I have a Shopping list, a Menial Chores list, a Emails And Phonecalls To Make list, etc etc! I signed up for the regular web version ages ago but drifted away from it; you may or may not feel similarly, so could be worth checking out anyway. The iPhone app's got to be one of the better apps around, though, and I actually find it fun to add stuff in and check it off.
posted by springbound at 12:12 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh no, is this guy really going to bring up going to therapy?

Have you ever asked yourself what Not getting things done is maintaining for you? Really, is the thing the separates the organized people from the non-organized just knowing which program/format/technology to use? Your question is full of questions. . . maybe you're just not asking the right ones? Could "being" organized be more about a state of "being" than a state of "doing?"
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 12:16 AM on April 29, 2009

One huge benefit (and impetus to keep using my system*) is that I feel less like I'm losing track of things. I used to be a keep-it-all-in-my-head type, and I still retain a lot of info that way, but the definitive calendar/goal list/to-do list has been outsourced and it's freed up a lot of mental energy and capacity.

Maybe this is a really obvious benefit, but I wanted to reiterate it in case you need "motivation".

* my system is mostly Google Calendar, now with the addition of Remember the Milk, and recently I started (for work) scratching stuff onto a small notepad because I like how it feels. But mostly Google Calendar.
posted by polexa at 1:42 AM on April 29, 2009

It might be a bit leftfield, but how about hiring an assistant? Really busy successful people tend to have PAs.

There are a lot of virtual services out there, or you could hire someone for an hour or two a week just to relay all your projects back to you with checkpoints etc.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:10 AM on April 29, 2009

This book says there's nothing wrong with you at all:)
posted by leigh1 at 2:20 AM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I use TaskFreak, but there's a lot of freeware available (fwiw, I asked a question about to do lists recently).

The thing is, you just have to remember to write everything down, and to take note of due date, priority and category. It helps if you start with the fundamental understanding that 10 to 20% of the time you spend on any task/project should be devoted to assessing the task, giving it a certain priority, assess how far you are with the task and how it relates to all the other stuff you have on your plate.

I think disorganized people are often overly task oriented and want stuff to be "out of the way". They think managing all their tasks is eating up time that they could spend on the task itself, so they skip the planning stage and delve right into the work. That's a fallacy that leads to being overwhelmed by your workload.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:19 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've started using Things which is based on the GTD system. I like it because after a meeting or massive email I can sit down and enter everything I need to do, organize it by project, and give it due dates, and then Things maintains my daily list for me, with things ranked in the order of due date. I can also quickly click through my projects and see what's on tap for each of them. It's not exactly what you're asking for, but it's close. It is Mac only, and does cost money, but I've found it's worth it for me.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:36 AM on April 29, 2009

I find that my existing solutions are not fun to use, so it's a struggle to use them.

I get this, but ... it's not really about "whee, this organizer is fun to use!". The benefit (for me anyway) is in the peace that comes from having a more organized life.
posted by shiny blue object at 5:02 AM on April 29, 2009

Definitely check out Yes, it eget done what let has a dorky happy homemaker vibe - but if you actually sign up for her emails and do what she says, you'll develop habits that let you get done what needs to be done in life. The boring part of your life goes on autopilot, and your productivity shoots up.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:44 AM on April 29, 2009

i just use a my outlook calendar (you can use any calendar software), and put tasks in as events on each day i plan to do them. if i dont complete that task i drag it over to the next day or the next day i think i will do it, or if it becomes unimportant i delete it. pretty simple, and it keeps all of your to dos in the same place as appointments, birthdays, etc.
posted by fumbducker at 6:45 AM on April 29, 2009

Oops - I meant to say "Yes, it has a dorky happy homemaker vibe" etc. I don't know how the extra letters got stuck in there.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:45 AM on April 29, 2009

It seems like a lot of people are recommending technology-based resources. I am a highly organized, type-A personality but I still can't use computer-based resources for organizing my life. I guess if you have a blackberry/iphone/etc. then maybe it would be easier, but for me what works is a paper calendar. That way, I have access to it all the time, and I can put other little things in with it (receipts, coupons, lists, etc.).

Just go to the office supply store and buy one of those binder/calendar/organizer things (I like the ones that have a different page for each week). Devote an hour right when you get it to write everything in - appointments, deadlines, birthdays, etc. After that, carry it with you and write things in it as they come, so you never forget anything.

Finally, be sure to actually CHECK it. Set a time to do this. It doesn't have to be that often. I like to look at my organizer at the beginning of each week (Sunday night or Monday morning) to know what I have in store for the week. Of course, I reference it almost daily as well, to check the details of events. Still, having just one set time per week makes using the calendar more regimented, which seems to be your downfall.

This method has worked for me since I was a kid (I know, how sad...a middle-schooler with a calendar). It has carried me through college, law school, and now into my professional life as an attorney. I find it very liberating because I don't have to worry about my "must-dos" and getting them done. Instead, I follow the schedule I have created for myself and when I'm done, I can do the things I enjoy without guilt or worry.
posted by angab at 7:22 AM on April 29, 2009

I can't/won't do GTD. That being said, my system:

Moleskin notebook with pen - use it to write stream of consciousness on the subway, which often includes what I have to do and cements it in my mind. iPhone - helps me not have to remember stuff because I can always look it up (eg directions), Remember The Milk (web only free version for now, but I'm drooling over the paid version even at $25 a year), Google Calendar synced w/ my iPhone.
posted by xiaolongbao at 4:04 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster:
With Google Calendars, polexa, I found that you couldn't make a list of things to do. Ah, but I tried it then and nowadays you can drag and drop your tasks around. I guess this negates the need for a list.

Yeah, springbound, I gave Remember The Milk a while back. I like how you can quickly add to-do's in. But what I found was that I couldn't really have sublists. E.g., I'd write a to-do: "Cover letter for Java developer", and wanted to add: "add Hibernate skills to resume", "call Andrew to proof-read", etc as sub-to-do's, but found I couldn't. Or maybe it's staring me in the face....can you have sublists with RTM?

Haha...freya-lamb, yup. That's been fantasy of mine since I assumed I'd get an extension for my year 7 history assignment.

hydropsyche, Things looks *really* good.

I'll check the others out later. It's in my to-do.
posted by tomargue at 8:00 PM on April 29, 2009

I'VE GOT THIS IN 6 STEPS!!! (they're lower down)

Man, does this hit close to home. It seems that most people who are organized can't understand people who aren't. It's a learned skillset, but I think organized people had it ingrained early on (parents who model good organization, etc). I'm not at a place, yet, where I can see the forest for the trees, but I can offer some thoughts.

Take note of major weaknesses. I was and am unorganized in a lot of areas (time, physical materials and space, getting things done), but I had to find the root. I had (and still have sometimes) all this anxiety when I sat down to work, because my mind started to flood with all the things I had to do. I felt overwhelmed. I also forgot things regularly, or didn't prioritize them. The root problem though was not having all these things stored somewhere.

For me this was more pertinent to tackle right away than getting physical materials organized (but that comes next) Really, I could do all the work I needed to do, and I could do it in a timely manner (I still cut really close to some deadlines) -- the problem was that I didn't have a repository for where I broke down all the tasks.

I totally use technology, but I use paper to think.

1. I take a blank sheet of paper and I spill out every big and little thing I need to do, sometimes drawing lines to connect them.
2. I group the tasks as projects (shopping, getting finances straight, gf anniversary)
2a. To ease my anxiety, I choose a different colored pen and prioritize my projects/tasks. I mark P1 by things that MUST be done and SOON. P2 by things that are important, but don't have to be done right away. P3 by things that can be put on hold for awhile or maybe don't have to happen.
3. I take a new sheet of paper and I pick ONE project. On that sheet I write down EVERYTHING I need to do to make it happen. For finances I need to collect my latest bills, find my bank login information, set up auto-pay for each recurring bill (auto-pay for car insurance, auto-pay for cell, etc), call my loan people and ask Question A,B,C....
I do that for each thing on the page.
4. Make a similar page for each project.
5. The problem with paper is that I lose it. Somehow I lose it. So I use some piece of technology as a repository for all of this that I can access most anytime. Right now I use OmniFocus (a Mac program) which is essentially an advanced checklist maker. Evernote is free and cross-platform and can be used in a similar way. Probably a spiral notebook can to, but that doesn't work for me.
6. EACH DAY I roll through the list and make/print a to-do list of tasks for the day. Maybe I pick one project, or six tasks, or whatever seems feasible. I really try not to overreach, because I don't want to discourage myself.

I'm not sure if there's more to it than that, but in the few months since I've begun doing things this way, I've felt a lot better about the world. I still have flubs, but I don't wake up hating myself for what I forgot to do the day before.

P.S. I use Google Calendars for event reminders, but that's it.
P.P.S. If this helps, I'd really like to know.
posted by jander03 at 8:52 PM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

tomargue, both Swift To Do list and Taskfreak allow you to make projects with subtasks.

I found that most to do software does not allow subtasks of tasks for some reason, you almost always have to choose between making something a project (which can have subtasks) or a task (which is standalone or falls under a project). It's unclear to me why developers stick to this pretty sharp distinction. I even e-mailed the developer of Swift To Do about it, but he told me he wouldn't even consider it because there were more urgent development issues.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:12 AM on April 30, 2009

Here is what is currently working for me:

1. Use a notebook or binder that has both monthly and daily or monthly and weekly calendars in it. Write all of your appointments, birthdays, deadlines, etc. on the monthly calendar.

2. Some planners have space for this built-in, but it's no big deal if they don't. Keep a list, however large of everything you want to get done this month. Everything.

3. Then, before you go to bed each night, write on your daily page your appointments in the appointment area (transferred from your monthly page). Then copy some of your to-dos from your Master List for the month onto your daily page.

4. Next to your tasks for the day, write an A, B, or C. If it is an "A", come hell or high water, you are going to get it done that day. No excuses. Something that is a "B" must be done this week. No excuses. Something that is a "C" would be nice to get done this month, but isn't urgent today of this week. However, if you have time, you'd work in it.

5. At the end of the day, you cross off your "A" stuff (because you did it, right?). You cross off your completed "B" stuff. You incomplete "B" stuff gets written on the next day's page, along with your new "A" or "C" stuff.

6. At the end of the week, look at your undone stuff (mainly B and C stuff), and ask yourself these questions "Why am I not doing these things?" and "Is it really necessary for me to do these things?"

7. At the end of the month, take the undone stuff on your Master List and ask, "How much of this stuff do I seriously need to do next month?" The stuff that you've not done might not really be necessary. Think about it: you survived this month without doing it. Maybe you needn't do it at all.

9. Always keep blank index cards with you to capture stuff that crosses your mind that you have to do. When you get back to your planner, take the stuff on the index card and add it to the master list.

10. Take another index card and write your appointments for the day on one side and your tasks on the other, if you don't want to to take your planner with you that day.
posted by 4ster at 6:18 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any system you choose will get out of whack over time. What's interesting about your university system is that each week you'd sit down and get it all in order again. That's one of the features of GTD that I've kept in my own idiosyncratic setup - a weekly review.

If once a week you take an hour to pull everything back into place and tidy it up, it gives you the freedom to be a little more spontaneous the rest of the time.

Another thing that can make your setup more reliable is having some kind of portable device for capturing the ideas you think of at odd moments. I used to use a PDA with NoteStudio until the PDA broke, then a little Moleskine, now I have an iPhone with Things (linked earlier in this thread). And I found them all much the same, not "whee, fun times adding tasks!" but just simple and quick to use. You're more likely to keep up-to-date adding tasks if it takes less than 30 seconds to do it, the faster the better.
posted by harriet vane at 10:09 PM on May 1, 2009

A quick description of my own setup - modified GTD. What I track:
- a list of projects which usually only features the "next action", but might include a complete list of tasks to get it all done,
- a list of things I want to do someday (later in the month),
- and a list of things that maybe I want to do but I'm not sure.

I don't meld my Someday/Maybe like in proper GTD, or bother with contexts (almost all my work is online). I don't use a 43 folders system because I rarely have paperwork to keep track of. I also have a filing box - any reciepts, statements, etc go into that, and then get filed in a proper cabinet once a year at tax time.

I use Things on my iPhone to track all my projects/tasks/somedays/maybes.
- Next actions get marked with "today", even though I might take several days to get to them. It's just that the "Today" feature makes a nice to-do list.
- As projects get completed I go to the Someday list to add more projects to my current list.
- If I lose enthusiasm for a non-essential project, it gets bumped back to Someday, or even back to Maybe.
- Each week I review the lists, tick the stuff I've done, check there's nothing I said I'd do but forgot about, etc.

I also use the Notes app on the iPhone to keep track of books to read, music to check out, clothes to buy next time they're on sale, etc. Just the stuff that's not exactly a To-Do list, but would be handy to remember next time I've got a bookshop voucher or whatever.

I've been using this system for about 5 years now, in various formats. I didn't quite like using a paper and pen, because I edit frequently and it looked messy, but otherwise it worked just fine. It's really helped me get my act together - in this time I've bought a house, organised a wedding, got a promotion and started a side business, and I don't think I would have done all this successfully (or at all) if I hadn't been tracking my progress and working on a little bit every day (instead of my old binge/sloth cycle).

I found some of the articles at 43 Folders useful for working out how to write better task lists, etc.
posted by harriet vane at 10:32 PM on May 1, 2009

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