In which I wish to acquire kickass organizational skills.
January 9, 2013 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I have a small niche food business. I have no organizational skills. You can see where this is going.

Because I love doing it and turned out to be really good at it, I decided last year to start a vegan baking business. Given where I am, a small city in Quebec, that is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because no one here is at all doing what I do, and a curse because it's very hard to jumpstart things like this because my French is so-so.

But that's another AskMe for another time.

Right now: my biggest problem is that I am terribly terribly terribly organized. As in "flailing wildy in despair because I do not know what to do." (That's not entirely true. I sort of know what I have to do; it's just I don't know how to form cohesive plans of action.)

Hive Mind, what do you recommend for getting your ducks in a row? I tried using Remember the Milk and promptly forgot about it. I am very half-assed with Wunderlist. My husband bought me a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen--and so far, I know many many people who swear by it--and I read the first chapter then forgot about it.

I'd like to be able to structure a proper real work day--though I do everything from home, obviously--and not feel guilty when my husband gets home and asks me how my day went. (For the record, he is my biggest and best cheerleader. I couldn't have asked for a more supportive partner.) I'd like to end the day feeling like I got one step closer to my dream of having a bricks-and-mortar bakery rather than curling up in the fetal position and calling myself a loser.

Organize me! Give your skills/tips/tricks! (Bonus if there is a really really really good app for iPhone/iPad or if you know how to life hack the David Allen book.)

I am pretty sure I could rule the world if I could just get effing ORGANIZED.

posted by Kitteh to Work & Money (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly? Paper. Have things written down ON PAPER. Type them, sure, but then print them out. And be on a work schedule.
posted by jeather at 12:28 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second paper. Fiddling around with the tiny electronic keyboards on various devices is not at all the same thing for me as physically putting marks on a piece of honest-to-god paper.

What kind of tasks should you be doing? What are you getting done/not getting done?
posted by purpleclover at 12:39 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I find that blocking out time in my day, and using my Outlook Calendar to enforce it really helps. Although I'm naturally organized, so I do it mostly to keep from being interrupted.

For example, write down everything that needs to be done in a day:

1. Special Orders
2. Ordering Supplies
3. Baking
4. Paying invoices
5. Sending invoices
6. Put out the garbage
7. Payroll

Whatever all you need to get done. You can do it daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually.

If you like paper, 3 X 5 note cards and a recipe case are brilliant for this.'

You can get dividers for days of the week, and months.

Put the daily things up front, and file them behind each other as you do them. Stop when you get to the first card. Repeat the next day.

Every day of the week, look at the card(s) for that day. Do those things.

Every month of the year, review the cards and move them to days of the week until those tasks are done.

This is better outlined by Ann Young and Peggy Jones in their book, Get Your Act Together.

They used to have a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the early '80s and although it was ever so slightly churchy, it was hilarious and filled with common sense and cheap to follow strategies.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:46 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Paper is a great technology for quick lists, but it doesn't allow you to capture much detail. Sure, you can scribble "order ingredients" on a slip of paper, but list out a dozen or more items and you'll be wondering if there's a way to handle it digitally.

For a digital solution, I swear by my own todo list app, which you can log into after a free signup. Of course, I am biased, so grain of salt and all.

Beyond that, I also wrote a book on getting organized digitally, which you can download for free. (Also here.) Many readers have told me they found the book a lot more readable than the one you mentioned.

Whatever tool & method you choose, I'd recommend one that doesn't require Talmudic knowledge of thousands of steps and rules. The simpler a system is to practice, the quicker you will get to the actual work contained on the todo list.
posted by mark7570 at 12:46 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

First things first: If you find yourself flailing and not knowing what to do, stop. Breathe. Close your eyes, turn around one full rotation, open your eyes (I mean this literally -- people can't turn a perfect 360 degrees, so you always end up with a slightly different perspective than you had before; it's weirdly helpful). Now pick the first thing you think of and do it. Don't worry about whether it's the right thing to do, just do a thing. When you're done with it, or when you reach a logical stopping point, think about what you should do next. It doesn't have to be related to the thing you were doing.

Now, more long-term: Make a schedule on your computer or phone, with every minute scheduled throughout your work day (including time for goofing off). Set alarms for each thing, even if it's "GOOF OFF - 5 MIN". Follow those alarms. After your work day is done, give yourself a few hours, and then have one final alarm go off: "REVIEW WORK DAY/PREPARE FOR TOMORROW". That's when you look back and see what you got done, and write up your schedule for the next day.

If you have to deal with other people at all, set aside time for that ("DEAL WITH BS / GOOF OFF" was mine), and hold people to that: "Craig, I'd love to answer that question, but I'm really busy right at this moment." (check schedule) "Can you call me back at 11?" *click*.

If you get behind, don't despair. Try it again the next day. Include bigger blocks of "FREE FORM / GOOF OFF" as you get better at dealing with stuff, then feel free to shrink them if you think you're backsliding.

Also, some people just aren't good at organizing and never, ever will be. Maybe you should take that as a signal that a larger business isn't for you, or that you'd be better off working for someone else, if in name only -- that is, you hire a manager and pay him or her a decent wage to hector you into getting stuff done.
posted by Etrigan at 12:50 PM on January 9, 2013

If you use a Mac and have an iPhone or iPad, I HIGHLY recommend Notational Velocity (free for the Mac), Dropbox and Notesy (cheap, for iOS).

Notational Velocity is excellent because it becomes a place to save anything you'd want to write down, and it keeps track of it all without any effort on your part. Got an idea? Jot it down. It's instantly saved with out you having to do anything. Notesy is the same, more or less, except it's on your iPhone and/or iPad. By using Dropbox, you always have everything synced and at your fingertips without ever having to do any actual organizing. It's one of those "It Just Works" kind of solutions.

With that combo, notes stop being something you have to organize. It's all always there, when you need it. And since you're saving to Dropbox, it's always synced no matter what device you're using.

I use this for everything from groceries to lists of movies to remember to rent. One of my favorite uses is store specific shopping lists. I keep an Amazon list, for example. If I ever need something for a few bucks to bump me up to $25 to get free shipping, all I have to do is type Amazon in one of the apps I mentioned. By the time I type the first few letters, I'm already presented with a file that has my list of little odds and ends.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:51 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not just paper: a NOTEBOOK. Unbound paper has the most alarming way of losing itself, getting folded up and smooshed at the bottoms of bags, etc. Use a single sturdy notebook. Write everything down in it -- ideas, recipes, to-dos. And then -- and this is really important -- re-read it and copy out the important bits at regular intervals. For instance:

Every Monday morning, I take the next clean new page in my notebook and write "To Do [Date]" at the top. I mark that page with a tiny post-it so that I can find the page again. I then read through the previous pages of my notebook where I've been scrawling things all week long and look for To Do items. I copy them to my new page and then cross them out on the old page. As the week goes by, I mark off my To Dos on the main list. By the end of the week it's all a mess again, but that's fine, because on Monday morning, I know I'll write up a new clean list for myself and cross the old list out.

If you make a habit of starting with your To Do list every morning when you start your day, and taking one last look/scrawling-session before you finish for the day, even better.

You can use the same process with recipes -- scrawl 'em down in your notebook, then copy them over to a clean page (maybe turn your notebook over and use the pages in the back as your recipe pages? Or get a divided notebook with one section for free-form scrawling and one section for recipes?).

In any case, just knowing that there's a SINGLE PLACE where you've written everything down will help you a whole lot. Even if that notebook is a bit messy and scattered, if you know what you need is in there, it'll give you a place to start.
posted by ourobouros at 12:57 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

* pulls up chair and sits down *

My organizational qualifications: day job as a secretary, and erstwhile job as a stage manager for theater, which requires such a high level of organization that it is generally assumed we are actually omniscient. (And for the context of the show, this assumption actually is correct.)

Now then.

You are looking for an app, and you are looking at books to tell you how to be organized - stop. As you have found, owning a book that gives you a management system to try to adopt doesn't work if you never finish the book; an App also will not help you if you ignore it/fail to use it properly/lose your iPhone/whatever. Plus, you are new to organizing, so you need to start from the very bottom and identify what your unique needs are. And often, doing this in paper and old-school is the best way to start - an iPad app can be ignored if you turn your phone off or run out of batteries, but a big piece of paper or a sign hung up in front of your face can't be.

So here's what you do.

1. Identify the tasks that need to happen on a daily basis, which on a weekly basis, and which on a monthly, and which are "these don't come up all the time but when they do drop everything". It sounds like you are halfway there - you know things that need to get done, but it's the "when/how" planning that is throwing you. So: start by figuring out the frequency of tasks first. Get four pieces of paper and make four different lists if you like. Then when you've figured that out - then take that "daily task list" and hang that up over your desk, because you already know that you need to do that every day. Wow, a plan of action already and you didn't have to do anything!

Then, take the weekly-task list, and pick a different day of the week on which to do each one; say that you have three or four tasks that you know have to happen weekly. You can arbitrarily assign them different days ("okay, I'll do number one on the list on Mondays, number two on Tuesdays, number three on Wednesdays....") or you can take other factors into account (say, if one of the weekly tasks is "deposit the weeks' income," and you know that you need that in the bank by Thursdays to have access to the money over the weekend or something; or, you know you don't want to do too much work on Fridays, you can avoid scheduling any weekly tasks on Fridays).

Then, do the same for the monthly task list - but I bet most of these are things like paying regular bills or placing monthly orders for things. Your schedule for those will most likely be determined by those factors ("I need to order everything from this one vendor by the 15th of each month - okay, I'll do it on the 12th to make sure it gets done on time").

Now you've got a plan. Get a paper calendar, a write-on wipe-off calendar, or some other paper thing and put all that info on that calendar - and stick it in plain sight where you're going to see it every day. Now you have a plan of action. You may find a way to incorporate an online way of doing this over time, but at least you have more of a conception of what you need first, which can only help you.

2. Time management is only part of it - stuff management is another. This was part of being a stage manager that I had an especial OCD thing about - in theater, there are always a ton of little niggly things that everyone has to pick up and put down and carry around with them (called "props"), and it was always my job to keep track, during rehearsals and performances, of who was supposed to be using what, where they got it from, where they brought it to, where it ended up at the end of the night, etc. I had to always know where the fountain pen was or always know that Sid would have a new letter every night to rip up in the middle of scene six or whatever.

And the only way to keep from collapsing under the weight of all that crap and the insanity from keeping all that under control, is by devoting tables to just the storage of this stuff and nothing but the storage of this stuff. Also, I would establish exactly where on the table this stuff was supposd to sit - there was always a very specific place for each and every thing that got used during a show. If something started on one side of the stage and ended in the other side, then I would have a place on both tables for it. This let the actors - and me - always know exactly where to get the rubber chicken from, always know exactly where the rubber chicken could get put down when they were done, and would let me see at a glance if the rubber chicken was missing and I needed to go look for it. I ruled that table very strictly - I would never, EVER let the actors use those tables for anything but props. (More than one actor has had to sheepishly come to me after a rehearsal and ask me for their book or whatever back, because I'd spotted it on the prop table and confiscated it.)

Mentioning this because that kind of diligence will go a long way to keeping you sane, too. If you decide that there is always only one very specific place to put the flour, then there is only one place you need ever look to FIND flour. If you always know that "when I receive a bill I put it in X letter tray," then you will never spend time trying to look for a bill when you need to do your bill paying, because it is in X letter tray. This will save you a lot of "oh shit I need to take care of this where did I put everything" time wasting. Yeah, it can take some time to set that kind of "this is where this thing lives" system up, but HOLY GOD it helps tremendously. (Actors who've worked with me have joked that they can always tell when I've finally set up the prop table - before I do, I'm always a little edgy and uneasy, but after I do I'm way more Zen. Seriously, I'm like, "oh, some cops just broke in from the upstairs dressing room window? Cool, tell 'em to wait for me in the lobby, just so long as they don't take anything off my tables.")


3. What Etrigan says about stopping to breathe every so often is wise too. One of the very first things I ever learned about being a stage manager was: I had to keep an eye on the clock and remind the director when it was time for the actors' hourly breaks. Now, that was only because this was an actors' union rule and it was a union house (the union says that during rehearsals, everyone has to either take a five-minute break every hour, or a ten-minute break after 90 minutes), but that is seriously one of the most sensible things ever. It's easy to forget to take these periodic breaks, and holy god you do so much better if you do remember to do them. Yeah, there will be days when the world's about to blow up and you'll need to postpone that break for a few minutes more (I admit I sometimes got a little fuzzy on the schedule if it looked like everyone was on a serious roll and they were going to be done in an extra three minutes), but let yourself have down time to stop a few times a day, catch your breath for just five minutes, and either refocus, re-adjust what you need to do the rest of the day, or even just look at cat videos or whatever.

You can do this. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:59 PM on January 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

How do you eat an elephant (ok for you, a Tofu-Elephant)? One bite at a time. Sounds like you need more than a to do list, you need a strategy for accomplishing your goals.

Have you done a plan that has set goals? If so, get out a calendar or print one out and backwards engineer your plan of work, break things down into tasks and subtasks with the larger goal in mind. When you remind yourself of your goal, which is important to you, you will be less likely to "forget" to do things.

If you have a smart phone, put these tasks into your calendar in a way that you are reminded to do them.

Working from home is a challenge but treat is just like any other work. Set a schedule for yourself and start work according to that schedule. If you are also in charge of household duties, separate them to a separate slot of time. So let's say that you decide to start work at 10AM every day, the first thing you do is review your tasks and you plan for meeting your goals. Then you work at it just like you're at any other job until it is time for lunch. Take a reasonable break for lunch and return to work until it is time to "leave work" and then go do your other things. I have worked from home for many years and I'm able to juggle more, but it sounds like a challenge for you so you should create more structure for yourself.

I use the Franklin Covey system for prioritizing tasks and print out a copy of this set of priorities to keep me on track. Don't sink a lot of your time looking at this or that "system" because that is just a way of procrastinating. It boils down to setting a goal, charting a path to reach your goal and breaking down the steps to reaching that goal into achievable action items. When you start work each day, revisit your plan and review your priorities for the day. When you finish work each day, review what you've accomplished and make note of what needs to be done the next day. On paper is great or something simple like setting reminders on your phone works too.

Look at your list of things to accomplish that day and put them in this order:
Do first or give the most attention to--deadline driven tasks, crises and pressing problems.
Then give priority to preparation, prevention and planning.

Give the LEAST or no amount of attention and priority to unimportant e-mails/web browsing, needless interruptions, busy work and other people's problems that don't have anything to do with your goals.

Also, as soon as you are able to, sounds like hiring a bilingual person to help you would be a big plus.
posted by dottiechang at 1:00 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think maybe delegate some of the responsibility for both making and following the plan. This is a risky suggestion, but consider if you could schedule time each evening with your husband to work out together what you ought to do the next day. Once a week make a plan for the week, then each day do a quick check in on how it is going and together work out your plan for the next day.

I only suggest this because you say your husband is a huge cheerleader, so there are a few things to keep in mind:
* You won't be organized overnight. Both of you need to be understanding and forgiving if you leave something off/forget to do something.
* It needs to remain up to you to set the priorities, but your husband may have helpful questions or suggestions.
* The purpose of the daily check-in is to help you stop, take a breath and really tell how thing are going, not a guilt trip or the like.
* Plans change, always. The point of the plan isn't so you know what the whole trip will look like, but so you know what the next step is. Don't be afraid to change plans to get to your goals.
* Goals change. Sometimes if you aren't working towards a goal it is something deeper inside you pushing back. Don't be afraid to admit that what sounded like a great idea earlier isn't what you really want to do.

Personally, I keep a to do list in a word file and print it occasionally. Over the course of a few days I'll hand scratch changes, cross things out or add a set of numbers in the left margin when I really need to do certain things first and in order. Once it becomes too much of a mess I update in the computer and start over. The real secret is that there is no secret, it is about habits not the tool you use.

Only do this if you think both you and your husband can handle it. It isn't worth making your entrepreneurial planning challenges into a relationship challenge too.

Good luck!
posted by meinvt at 1:00 PM on January 9, 2013

I suggest therapy. What gets in my way is not dealing with anxiety issues. I procrastinate and not read past the first chapter of GTD.

One to-do list, update it every day and cross off what is done. Mine's in Excel.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:12 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having good "executive functioning" (good organizational skills) often seems like it's genetic. If you don't have it, there isn't much you can do. It seems that way because people who don't have it find it almost impossible to change (as you describe).

So, I will give you a tip that I hope will be helpful to you. One of the problems that unorganized people have is feeling overwhelmed by it all. When you feel that way just say this: "All I need to know is the next step." Really, that's all you need to know to get moving. I use this mantra all the time when I enter a new world where everything is foreign to me.

Having a problem with coding and everything I've tried has failed? All I need to know is the next step. And that would be: find someone who can help me. One step leads to another and another.

This may not be a panacea for all of your organizational issues but it does allow you to tackle a problem in small bites.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:47 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I live on the computer (have OneNote, Evernote, Remember the Milk, etc.), have an iPad, Filofax, blah, blah but you know what works for me? Clipboard and pen.

Here's what I suggest: buy a single* (SINGLE!, JUST ONE!) A5** plastic clipboard, a stack of unlined A5 cheap, recycled paper plus an A5 adhesive backed magnetic sheet.

Stick the magnetic sheet to the back of the clipboard*** and each morning (or last thing at night) write down the three things that you must do that day at the top, leaving the rest of the page for notes, additional tasks, scribbles, ideas, etc. Review it once a week if you remember. But it'll get you into the habit of checking a daily To Do list.

Why magnetic? Because it can live on the refrigerator door (you see it every time you open it!) but is small enough to travel with you wherever you go.

* I started out with one for housekeeping, one for work projects, one for... yeah, you know where I'm going with this. Trust me, you want just the one.

** A5 because it's much easier to carry with you everywhere, you can throw it in a purse, a large coat pocket, etc.

*** You can probably get magnetised A5 clipboards ready-made in Canada but I've never seen them in the UK, hence the DIY method.
posted by humph at 2:39 PM on January 9, 2013

There are lots of organizational approaches. It sounds like you need one that isn't too all-encompassing. I recommend doing the task and data roundup required by Getting Things Done, where you log Every Single Task(To Do). Things to Read either go in a pile on the desk, or a To Be Read bookmark folder. Things to File get filed. Things to Pay need a process. People To Call, Stuff to Buy, Deliveries, etc. Some things can be done while the brownies are baking. Deliveries might be a good time for some thinking out loud about new products, new customers, etc.

Learn to use the Urgent/ Important Matrix; it helps you prioritize the To Do list. Organize your day in a way that suits you. I'm not a morning person, so it's a good time for me to do easy tasks, and I also drop in on people I need to connect with, while the coffee works its magic. I don't store certain stuff in my head, so I store it in my calendar and Evernote, which are synced to my phone. Friday afternoon is usually has a not very productive vibe, so I do things like approve payroll, and work on the organizational stuff. Try to assess your own work preferences, so your organizational approach and schedule will work for you.

I used to use paper, and a big clip, now I try to port everything to Evernote and my calendar. Paper gets lost or doesn't survive in the washer.

I think EmpressC nails it. Daily, weekly, etc., planning, A Place for Everything, etc., and the variety of suggestions that work for different people shows that there are lots of successful options. It's okay to keep refining your organizational approach, but you have to start one, and you have to make it a priority. Don't change it all, all the time, start simple, and keep using the plan. You may have a better seat-of-the-pants sense of things than you give yourself credit for; I always had a good sense of my balance sheet in my head. Look for the ways being organized can allow you to have more fun, make more profit, and keep more commitments. If your file system doesn't have perfectly printed folder labels, or if you don't scan every bit of paper and file it electronically, that's really okay. You do have to have a file system.

You're running a business, and you need a business plan, and you need to treat it as a serious, real business. If you don't keep track of receipts, you can't do taxes properly. I used to have a small business. I'd buy paper towels, toilet paper, and pens for the business while buying groceries for home at the store. I'd sort the stuff as I put it on the belt, use a divider, and just ask for 2 receipts. The work receipt went in my wallet, to be harvested when the wallet got too fat. Keep track of work mileage, in whatever manner works. Most of all, put organizing time in your calendar, and keep the appt. It may feel trivial to you at this point, but if you can stick to it for a month, you'll see the effectiveness, and you can keep it going for another month. I suspect you're having fun, and implementing a TO DO scheme sounds boring. Think of it as being more efficient so you have more time for Fun, because that's the point.
posted by theora55 at 10:37 AM on January 10, 2013

I think for you, blocking off your day will really help. Sometimes the best way to get some stuff done and be motivated for the day is to start with the "actual work" of your business. So get in the kitchen and bake something. But give yourself a time limit and make sure you have a block of business stuff schedule for before lunch.

Ending the day 30 minutes before your husband gets home to review your day and come up with a list for tomorrow will go a long way as well.

Good luck!
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:57 AM on January 10, 2013

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