How to stay organized at a high stress job
January 16, 2015 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Just started a high stress job and need some personal strategies to help me be more on top of many projects and details.

Hi guys,

Just started a new job. Lots that I like about it. But one thing that I am finding hard is that I am juggling a lot of balls and feel like I am missing things just because I can't remember it all. The things I am missing are when I need to follow up on something I already sent an email about, or there is a very small detail as part of a larger project, or I forget something that was mentioned as an aside in a conversation. It doesn't help that my short term memory isn't great.

I use Evernote, and JIRA. I have used and love Trello, but find it is too redundant with JIRA. I also have been recently just carrying around a notebook and writing things down as soon as I remember them - which has been really useful. Also satisfying to cross out :)

However, I am less interested in tools and more in personal strategies. I don't mean fancy ones for collaboration like agile, but really small things I can do daily for myself that would help me. For example, have a daily morning exercise to prioritize my to do list. Or setting up calendar invites to myself to remind myself to follow up. Things of that nature.

Let me know, and looking forward to the help!
posted by pando11 to Work & Money (11 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Write everything down.


Every little tiny thing. If someone says "Could you call me in five minutes to talk about the Anderson account?" write that down. If someone says, "Keep in mind we'll need to schedule a conference call with the IT team at some point," write that down. When I was in a really high-stress position and dealing with a lot of minutia, I would even write down things like "[Boss] in with [Other Department Head] for 20 mins," just so that when someone inevitably asked me "Where's [Boss]?" I would have the answer without having to think about it.

Write it down PHYSICALLY. Evernote is OK for things to file away for later, but in the day to day, writing it down on actual paper will help you remember it, and also you have more control over how to keep it handy. You won't have to open an app to go looking for your notes, it will be right there in your notebook. I used to use lined post-it notes for this. I'd write every. single. thing. down and stick the post-it to the side of my computer screen at my desk. Or to the back of my phone. Or to a legal pad I was carrying into a meeting.

Speaking of, ALWAYS HAVE PAPER. Then you can write everything down that much easier. If someone makes a one-off point in a meeting, write it down. Then transfer it to your post-it system or Evernote or a calendar when you have time to organize your thoughts.

I'm also a huge fan of keeping spreadsheets and "cheat sheets" of one-off minutia that might be useful later. I keep every single phone number I ever write down, even if I'm taking a message for someone. I have a spreadsheet of all the higher-ups' usual coffee orders. I have another spreadsheet of what toner everyone's printer takes. If there is random information floating around in the ether that might be useful at a later date, keep a record of it!
posted by Sara C. at 3:29 PM on January 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

Getting Things Done (GTD by David Allen) is a system some people use. I use bits and pieces. The book is a relatively easy read and might give you some strategies that you can adapt to the tools you use (and your preferences). You can probably get the book for free at a library or buy a cheap copy used.
posted by powpow at 3:40 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Every morning, figure out what you want to address for the next 3-4 hours. Then at lunchtime, recalibrate and set a plan again for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, make a note of what you want to pick up on the next day so you don't forget and so you can keep your work flow going.

Really, for me it's about having a running "to do" list, and no item is too small. It's the small details that get forgotten most easily. Plus it feels good being able to remove a bunch of stuff from the list. So as soon as you send an email promising to follow up tomorrow, add a note "Follow up on email: Quarterly metrics" or whatever to your running list. I also like to have two lists: one for immediate stuff over the next few days, and one for ongoing/longterm/back-burner projects.

Another strategy you could use, at least in Gmail, is to do "zero inbox." Basically, every email that requires no further action is archived to "all mail." Email that gets archived into "all mail" is still searchable and still sitting there under the "all mail" view, but you won't see it in the default "inbox" view. Replies will still go into your inbox. That way, if you still need to respond or you are waiting for a response, you keep it in your inbox to remind you. Then your inbox becomes a to-do list as much as it becomes your way of communicating, instead of the typical inbox which is just a huge list of messages.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:13 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Along the lines of Sara C.'s comment, write everything down and then when you have time (I did it at the end of every day when I started my job and now do it about 1x per week), review your notes and re-record everything that you may ever possibly need in a central Word doc or spread sheet. Try to create a taxonomy of information in that spreadsheet. If you have a problem or a question in the future, having that repository of information where you can just quickly control f the answer is invaluable and the re-writing and re-organizing seems to help things stick in my brain. This is great because if you remember just one small detail about the information that you've recorded or about what it was next to in the document, you can probably find exactly what you need.

(I had a silly moment of internal triumph last week for having recorded a very obscure detail about a specific system that took me 2-3 hours to work out initially so that I could immediately respond to someone who asked me a question about this detail.)

Write down MORE detail than you think you'll need when you make notes to yourself. It seems very tedious at the time but I promise you that 3 months on when you're looking at some scribbling in your notebook or a line in your central doc that says "beneficial ownership borrow only", you're likely going to want a bit more information about your intentions in recording that information! Even if it feels tedious at the time and like you're spelling out the obvious, it really helps especially when you need to retrieve that information later and are totally lacking the situational or thought context for it.

I make myself a physical to do list at the end of every day and then every morning. I tick things off like you do. Electronic lists do not work for me. Give yourself enough time to think about what you need to accomplish and how you can best structure your day in order to do that.

If I ever think to myself, "oh I should really do X", I write it down. I'm not going to remember.

If you use Outlook, use the flags and reminders. If I need to follow up on something in 3 months, I flag the exact date I need to follow up and when the time comes, I have a nice little notification in my inbox. If there's something I need to do on a specific date, I send myself a calender invitation and then get that delightful little ringing 15 minutes before my 'appointment' and notifications thereafter until I mute them when I finish the task.

I send a huge volume of emails and juggling all of the information and ensuring that I have followed up appropriately can be a really daunting task. I flag all outgoings that I need to follow up on as a matter of course when I send the email. I spend time each week going through my sent items and seeing who has followed up and who has not and then going after the latter group! Along those lines, do NOT delete your emails - just figure out a filing system. If you have a volume limitation, turn your emails into PDFs and store on your computer. If you ever need to find something, at least you will have it and it will be searchable.

Essentially, imo the easiest way to succeed with this kind of job is to record everything explicitly and then go back and review and reorganize and rewrite the information on a regular basis. For me, this helps because I'm juggling more information than anyone without a perfectly photographic memory could ever retain and because detail is so important to what I do. 99% of the time I can find exactly what I need, when I need it and the reorganization and rewriting also help more information stick than it otherwise might.
posted by hellomiss at 5:24 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Meeting notes are critical. I always take detailed notes (I type them in notepad++, nothing fancy) and follow up via email to key meeting stakeholders with to-do items and meeting summaries. This takes time but is critical for organization. Others will occasionally reply back with items you forgot about from the meeting.

I will sometimes email myself notes from discussions at my desk and flag them for future follow up. Having the email record assists with searchability. Incidentally, I clean out some tasks whenever I start a conference call or webex since the tasks happen to be sitting next to my pinned emails with login info. Doing the regular clean up may not need to be time-driven if there is a regular event that sends you to the Outlook task pane.

Above all of this, I still use sticky notes to take notes on my near-term to-do list and cross out the items on the sticky when done. I find it satisfying to crumple up the sticky and recycle it when done. I dislike the little sticky forest that can grow on my desk but I find that is a great trigger for delegation.

Taking care of your cognitive and executive function is critical. This means getting good sleep, not drinking too much on school nights, and meditating or doing other awareness exercises. You want to be able to detect when you are making cognitive errors from fatigue, hunger, etc and then take corrective action accordingly. It is far easier to think straight if you pay attention to how (or if) you are thinking. Try to get out of automatic pilot and be deliberate.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:15 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I make sure to use a single notebook for everything: meeting notes, brainstorming, jotting down the phone number of someone I need to call, everything. I date and title each page for reference. This has eliminated the disorganized stacks of scraps of paper and post-its I used to battle. It also means I never lose bits of information.

Also, for those times when I'm not at my desk and I remember something I need to do, I use my phone to send myself an email with the to do item as the subject line. I tend towards inbox zero and know that anything I send to myself in email will not get lost in the shuffle or forgotten.
posted by mcduff at 6:44 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but I live and die by the Printable CEO's Emergent Task Planner, which I've recreated as a template in OneNote. I get into the office early enough to sequester myself into a conference room for the first 15 minutes to (a) review yesterday's entry and (b) fill out the broad outlines of today's entry. This lets me synthesize what my schedule will look like and allows me to prioritize my main efforts for the day.

When I head back to my desk, I do my best to write everything down in that day's entry, even if it's something as mundane as "Mary stopped by to chat about $FOO" or "Ray sent a reply to the e-mail chain discussing $BAH and proposed $QUX." Since it's all in electronic format, I can create hyperlinks, set reminders, insert the inevitable photos of whiteboard scribbles, and search archived entries.

At the end of the day, I go find an empty conference room and review/rewrite/reorganize as needed, which generally takes me another 15 minutes. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by evoque at 8:09 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Delegate. Del-e-fucking-gate. If you can delegate it, delegate it.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:56 PM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, don't delete your emails.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:57 PM on January 16, 2015

If you use Outlook, I highly recommend its Task feature. Drag any received or sent email that has an element of follow up to it to the Task icon (Youtube for instruction), and you can assign a date to that task. There are lots of ways to categorize and manage your tasks. I don't do any of those, but I do open my email every morning and review my Tasks for the day which is basically just a list of emails people were supposed to follow up on ie. Gary committed to getting me that report by end of day yesterday, I committed to emailing Dee by tomorrow with an answer on X. Because they entire email 'is' the task, I can easily flip it back to the person who owes me something.

I find using Tasks for simple little deliverables helps get them out of my head so that I can concentrate on more important/larger pieces of work.

This system works best when you get specific due dates in emails you send/receive. It's extra rewarding when you created a task 6 months ago that you had completely forgotten about, in cases where the other person was really hoping you would completely forget. YMMV.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 5:39 AM on January 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I love the GTD system, too (which also covers "write everything down".) This shit should be taught to everyone in high school.

When things get hectic, the thing that helps me most is aggressively ignoring or forgetting about things that aren't important right now. I can only remember so much. Don't tell me details about a thing next week, email it to me. The only way I can get away with this with confidence is the GTD tickler system. I can confidently forget the thing next week if I know that next week it's going to pop back up in my face. It's amazing how much this helps my stress level.

Actions never go out of my notebook until they're done. Even if I delegate it to someone else, it just moves to the "waiting" tab. Periodically I look at the list in the waiting tab and follow up on things that have been there a while or are close to being due.

Which reminds me of one addition I've made to the standard GTD notebook: a "routine" tab. I find it easier if I don't clutter up my actions list with routine stuff. I have daily, weekly, monthly etc. checklists in the routine tab and just put "daily checklist" on the next actions list. This could also be done by throwing a note card in the tickler file for each routine task and shuffling them from day to day, week to week, but it's easier for me to have the routine stuff at a glance.
posted by ctmf at 3:03 PM on January 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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