Keep track of my life. My WHOLE life.
May 23, 2016 1:08 PM   Subscribe

How do you organize your tasks, thoughts, and notes in a way that (a) helps you prioritize and focus and (b) makes them accessible long-term?

I'm a graduate student who needs to keep track of a LOT of information. I'm also one of those people who can't relax until she's braindumped that important info somewhere for fear she'll forget it, which is obviously a match made in some kind of special anxiety hell.

So, Mefites, what do you use to organize your lives? I'm interested both in specific tools and overall strategies that you've found helpful.

The Kind of Information I Need to Track:
- Daily to-do lists
- Long-term project-specific to-do lists and workflows
- Long-term (multi-year) future plans that are somewhat concrete but not specific ("Internship Summer 2017?" type things)
- Research notes and jottings and brilliant (?) ideas
- Contact and networking information
- Strategic information along the lines of "work on project X will make you more eligible for Opportunity Y in X years"

What I Want:
- The ability to organize information in a way that will make important things stand out over time (so that six months from now I can look and be like, "oh, right, I need to start thinking about Internship Summer 2017!")
- A good system for keeping track of progress on projects
- A decent daily to-do list

This doesn't all need to be the same strategy or program or notebook, although it would be nice if these functionalities were mostly integrated. I have a laptop, several work desktops, lots and lots of pens and paper, and a Google Android phone-- and I'm happy to invest up to $30 - 50 in tools if there's something stellar out there that I should absolutely pay for.

What I Use Now:
- Google Calendar (great for scheduling, very happy)
- Wunderlist (okay for short-term to-do list functionality, nice integration across platforms)
- Pen & paper (great in the moment, awful for accessing long-term because long-term notes and to-dos are mixed in with everything else)
- Tried Evernote about 1.5 years ago and it was a disaster-- crashy, buggy, lost lots of my notes, etc., but would be willing to give it a go again if you think it's what I really need.

Thank you organization gurus of Mefi for helping me get to sleep at night!
posted by WidgetAlley to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
I am a teacher these days, and I live by my spiral bound day planner. I can put a to-do-list on for the day, notes after something has happened, and flip ahead for deadlines coming up for other things, and keep notes about where I am in couch to 5 k or weight lifting. It is great for note taking. It has a whole week spread across two 8.5x11 pages so you can really keep a lot of notes.

Here is an amazon link
posted by coevals at 1:47 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Google Keep. Google Keep Google Keep Google Keep. ❤❤❤❤
posted by phunniemee at 1:48 PM on May 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

For daily and project-specific to-do lists, I use Kanban Flow and like it quite a lot. There is a premium option, but I have found that the free version does pretty much everything I want. You could theoretically put longer-term future plans in there with a due date far in the future, but I don't think this is quite the right functionality for that.
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:49 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ooh, ok, if Kanban Flow is more the kind of thing you're looking for but want to see other options, I like Trello a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 1:51 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I started using OmniFocus as a graduate student and I still love it. BUT it is mac-only, so that might limit you (you didn't specify your platform). That said, it is amazing for long-term projects; it uses the GTD system for task management. Here's a good blog post about using OmniFocus on a daily basis. She uses it similarly to the way I use it.

I've heard that MyLifeOrganized is a good PC alternative to OmniFocus, although I've never used it.
posted by sockermom at 1:59 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone, no threadsitting but a quick addendum-- really appreciate all the tool suggestions coming in, and if you'd be willing to share how you use those tools to organize your stuff, that would be great too!
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:12 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've been using Evernote (the free one, until pretty recently) on multiple versions of Windows, MacOS, iOS, and web for five? years and I do not have crash or loss issues ever. My primary annoyance is that on Windows I have to agree and install every update manually, while it tends to just happen on MacOS.

The ability to search even in images is what seals it for me. I would encourage you to try again. The one thing I don't think it's especially good at is calendaring but I also have very little need for that and so have never explored what my options/integrations there might be.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:14 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Microsoft OneNote is excellent for some of the things you described; it's organized similar to a spiral notebook (sections, tabs, and the like), and it's great for to-do lists as well as miscellaneous brain dumps. Quick searching, and best of all, it effortlessly syncs across as many computers or devices as you have, as long as you sign in on the same account. You can also password-protect specific sections, and share it out with others if you need to collaborate on something.

As far as I know, it doesn't do reminders or time-sensitive stuff at all.

It's entirely possible that your university can get you a copy and a subscription for free, so definitely check into that before you purchase anything.
posted by Dilligas at 2:15 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm the person who suggested Kanban Flow. I have used it two ways depending on the particular flow of work/projects I've got going on. One way is to set up a separate board for each big project. What I'm doing currently is to have one main board with all my tasks, but a different color code for each project.

Depending on which type of project/how much I'm procrastinating, I will sometimes use the Pomodoro timer which counts down 25 minutes (which you're supposed to work uninterrupted), and then gives you a 5 minute break, and then you go back to working. Some types of work are a better fit for this approach than others, but I find it very useful if I'm in a procrastination/"I don't wanna" slump.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:33 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've recently become a convert to Emacs' OrgMode, which I realize may be a TOTAL nonstarter for you, but it has the advantage of being free.

What drove me here (from OmniFocus, as it happens) was the need to capture both context and actions in the same file. My work is client project focused, and I was having trouble getting a good "scan" at what needed to happen (and what got decided) for each implementation.

Taking notes in OrgMode, and marking some nodes as actionable, solves the problem for me. You interact with OrgMode in two ways: the note-taking part is just in normal editor buffers (everything is plain text, which is another bonus; proprietary formats WILL eventually fuck you, and cloud services are generally just proprietary formats on someone else's computer -- way too out of my reach for me to feel safe).

When you want to see what's coming up, you hit a key to trigger an agenda view, and it presents a sort of "report" on the data available to it.

The most common view I use just shows me the TODO items that are due or upcoming. All the text notes are ignored. Stuff that I want to think about later (ie, is scheduled for a month or six months or a year out or whatever) isn't on this list, because it's not time for it yet. Stuff that's late is red.

That alone was revelatory for me. It's hacky and weird, but it sure works for me.
posted by uberchet at 2:47 PM on May 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

For pen and paper planning and to-dos, try learning about bullet journaling.
posted by girlpublisher at 2:49 PM on May 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

The last time I made a major push to "get organized," I used Evernote (free) in combination with KanbanFlow (free) to try to implement a Getting Things Done system.

I had a GTD notebook in Evernote, with subfolders for Next Actions, Later, Waiting, Someday and Completed. I used @tags for my various contexts (@home, @work, etc). For work and school items for the upcoming week, I would also create tasks in KanbanFlow, which I found better for visualizing what was on my plate (Also, if I remember correctly, KBF had a nice timer functionality).

As you can tell from my use of the past tense, I didn't stick with it. The duplication was annoying, and I'm just bad with "organization systems" in general. I haven't found a better electronic method though (not that I've really looked, tbh). If you're looking to get started on some kind of organization though, GTD is not a terrible methodology to branch off from.

I will say that the one planner system that I used to great effect for a while was the Franklin Covey method. Part of it was probably that I got kickstarted on it by taking an all-day seminar, but for a paper based system, I liked the weekly compass and I found that reconciling my to-do list at the end of every work day was good for keeping me accountable to myself. I stuck with it for a good 3-4 years, but eventually, I got annoyed at paying for their refills, and I never really went back even though there's no reason why I couldn't implement it with a Circa or Arc planner.

I also have trouble with paper planners in general, because I find that they don't work well with the way that I want to have a small pages for to-do lists and such, but then some days I also want full 8.5x11 pages. But I don't want to have to carry around an 8.5x11 folio all the time.

Anyways. Here is divabat's excellent post on the insane world of planner decorators. The decorating stuff may or may not interest you, but many of the links there have details on the systems that the crazy planner people are implementing with their washi tape and sparkles.
posted by sparklemotion at 4:12 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I use a combination of Evernote and Google Calendar for this. I love Evernote, but I assume OneNote would work fine too. I've experimented with a lot of different ways to organize myself, but this is the way that works best for me with these two tools:

Most of my system lives in Evernote. Evernote has two different types of organizational structures, notebooks and tags. A note can only be in one notebook at a time, but can have multiple tags. I have three notebooks, "Inbox", "Home Cabinet" and "Work Cabinet". I also have a few pinned notes that always stay visible in the Evernote application-"Home To Do", "Work To Do", and "Shopping List".

Basically, the strategy is that everything I want out of my brain goes in to Evernote, either from the desktop application, the Iphone app, by me forwarding an email to Evernote or from the web clipper. All of the new notes start in the "Inbox" notebook. Then every day or so I deal with the notes in the inbox. All the notes have to get out of the inbox, either because I add something to one of the pinned lists, tag the note (in my system all notes must have at least one tag) and add it to one of the "cabinet" notebooks, or do whatever the note said I needed to do and delete the note.

The calendar comes in to play when I want to remember things at some point in the future. For example, I might add a note about a seminar that I want to go to, but registration for the seminar won't be open for 6 weeks. The note about the seminar would be in my inbox, and then before I moved it out of the inbox I would add a reminder to my calendar to register for the seminar with a link to the note in Evernote.

Evernote has reminders and to do list functionality that could eliminate using a calendar, but I was pretty committed to my particular strategies when that functionality came out, and I'm using an online calendar anyway, so I haven’t really explored that much.

Understanding how to use tags in a way that makes sense to you is probably going to be the make or break of the Evernote/Google Calendar system working for you. The nice thing about tags is that you can give a single note multiple tags, but it also gives you a way to look at all of your notes about a particular topic. I have kind of a lot of tags (maybe ~60) and I don’t hesitate to give a note more than one tag. To use your examples, let’s say that you met a person who might be a good networking contact for you in the future. I would add a note to Evernote with a reminder of who that person is and their contact information. Then depending on what I think I might want to contact this person for in the future, I might tag it with “Internship 2017” and “Research Project XYZ” and “Potential Future Job Ideas” or something like that. Then when you look at each of these tags individually, this person will show up.

One thing that really works for me with longer term projects or things with a workflow/to do list is to give them a tag and have a “overview” note for the tag. I always use the same naming convention for those notes (in my case it’s “! tag name” since then it can be at the top when you sort). So for example, let’s say you had a tag for “Internship 2017”, your overview note might have the requirements for the internship, any important dates or deadlines, maybe an internal timeline that you have worked up, and some broad goals or strategies related to the internship specifically. You can update that individual note as you go along and use it as kind of the project dashboard. Then the rest of your individual notes under that tag can be notes that are just about “Internship 2017” or they can be notes about “Internship 2017” and something else because they can have multiple tags.

The more I write about this, the more I think Evernote or OneNote probably is what you want. I know you said that Evernote was buggy for you in the past, but I’ve been using it pretty heavily for at least 5-7 years and I’ve really never had that problem, so you might want to try again. What’s nice about Evernote (and I assume OneNote too) is that you can continue to gather and process information in lots of different ways, it just gives you a central inbox/storage area. You can still do stuff with pen and paper, and then just take a picture of what you wrote down, upload it to Evernote and tag it appropriately and it will be where you need it to be when you need it. Also, the “blank slate” aspect of it allows me to actually process things the way I want to process them without too much external guidance from a piece of software.

If you have other questions about how to make this work, feel free to send me a message…I’m not naturally super organized, so I’ve actually had to think about this quite a bit and I’m happy to share the tricks I’ve figured out along the way.
posted by mjcon at 4:35 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Go to This is what I use and how I use it.

Long-term planning is facilitated by three years' view each in a 12-month calendar in the front of the book that shows the days and weeks flowing continuously together. It's a whole new way to look at the year.

There's room for notes each month, and each week is preceded by a month view. A Planner Pad could be good for your pen-and-paper needs as noted in your OP.

You really have to look at their site, but they use a weekly layout that funnels stuff down from categories of importance to you, to things to do from those categories on a specific date, down to time slots at the bottom. It works really well with GTD if you like that.

I love it. I'm on my third one. They have different start configurations, too, so if you want to start with the academic year you can do that.
posted by jgirl at 4:44 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another vote for bullet journal! Here is how I use mine:

1) I have a Google Calendar for all birthdays
2) I have a second one for all future appointments which occur at specified times e.g. dentist appointments and so on

Then in the bullet journal, I do everything else.

1) The first page is the index page. So, if something important comes up later, you can write it on any page in the book and find it. For example, I hastily wrote down the contact information for my OB when my referring doctor recited it into my voicemail. Into the index that page went. Hint: Leuchturm notebooks have pre-numbered pages.

2) Some people go list-crazy. I just have a few, for freelance projects and longer-term projects. I also doodle and draw in my same book so I am ok with having lots of un-allocated pages :-)

3) My basic weekly plan is as follows: on my two-page spread, I draw a smallish column on the right-most side. I do a little M-T-W-T-F-S-S and then check my Google Calendar and note anything which must be done on a certain day.

4) Then I go into my longer-term lists and add anything from there that I want to do during the week. For instance, I have had 'go to Walmart for new laundry bins' on my 'stuff to do soon-ish' page for awhile. We're finally doing it this weekend.

5) Then every night, I do a little brain dump and set up a daily entry for the next day. I am a visual person and find weekly trackers don't work for me. I have to write down (and check off) 'take my vitamin' each and every day. So the daily entry format of the bullet journal works really well for me. I also find that if I don't plan my downtime, I can waste a lot of it doing stuff like goofing around online. So I will even note down chapters to read in my 'fun reading' books.

It's a flexible system and works really well. Being able to use digital tools for longer-range stuff like birthdays works really well for me. As long as I check it before I start my week, it always keeps me on target.
posted by JoannaC at 4:49 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Getting Things Done. It really is the comprehensive system you're looking for.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:34 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I use a Moleskine notebooks and a Bullet Journal-esque setup - tabbing pages with collections and longer-term thinky pages is key for me to find them again. And you can totally set reminders and tasks in Microsoft OneNote, if that's your jam.
posted by ersatzkat at 5:41 PM on May 23, 2016

Over the last 10 years I've tried pretty much every website, system and app - I was always looking for a system that worked for me and none of the seemed to click for me. Three years ago I finally settled on a system that keeps me organized. I used to try out new systems or apps every 6-12 months, but as a small business owner and father of a 14 month old, I need to use my time more productively now, so I'm sticking with what works.

So here's what I do:

Work to do lists, tasks, projects, reminders - all go in Things for Mac. I've tried dozens of task management apps and this one just feels right to me. I currently have about 20-25 projects in Things.

Personal to do lists, shopping lists, and casual notes go into Simplenote (nv alt on my mac desktop). I've been using Simplenote for about a decade now and absolutely love it. I'm in it dozens of times daily and share some lists with my wife (weekend list, food shopping, etc.). About once a year I delete old notes from Simplenote, or archive them in Evernote. I currently have about 180 notes in Simplenote.

All notes and scans of paper documents go into Evernote. I use folders, not tags. I find it confusing to use both. I have a folder for every project and all notes go in there (like a notebook). I also have folders for house, car, taxes, recipes, etc. I currently have about 4000 notes.

Computer documents (word, excel, etc.) go in folders on my Mac (in Dropbox, which makes them available anywhere).

Feel free to email me via MeFi if I can help further with any of this!
posted by kdern at 5:54 PM on May 23, 2016

I use Google Drive. I have a bunch of different documents keeping track of different things. For example, I have a spreadsheet of things that we need to fix on our house (based on the inspector's report) with short term/long term DIY/hire someone priorities. I have a big journal-type document that has my therapy homework and therapy-related thoughts. I have a budget spreadsheet, a list of stress-relieving things (yes, I need a list to remind myself...), a list of successful healthy recipes, documents tracking my progress on different workout routines, some articles I want to read, a couch-to-5k calories-burned calculator. And that doesn't even include the stuff that's organized into folders: school stuff by semester, pro bono work, regular work, successful knitting and sewing patterns, documents related to job hunting (resumes/cover letters/etc).
posted by mchorn at 6:19 PM on May 23, 2016

After an admittedly brief but underwhelming look at Google Keep, I'm a recent and enthusiastic convert to Trello. It's used to create boards, which contain lists, which contain items. Items can have descriptions, color-coded tags, pictures, attachments, due dates, checklists that generate completion status bars, etc. That all collapses away so you can just see all the item titles, drag and drop to reorder them, etc.

For your needs, I'd probably have a main board with my daily to-dos in one list, and other lists for each project. I might have the multi-year plans as another list on the same board, or on a separate board. "Notes and jottings and brilliant (?) ideas" on another board. "Contact and networking information" and "Strategic information..." probably as two more boards, or else outside of Trello, not sure.

Many of these map to parallels I have in Trello now. I have lists for different categories, and I move more urgent items towards the top of each. I also move the must-do-today and must-do-soon items to lists just for that, which are positioned first on my screen. I also have a board I share with someone else, and it has great sharing features as well.
posted by daisyace at 6:57 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Personally, I use a combination of Google Calendar and email. If there's something I need to check on intermittently-- your "strategic" items, for example-- I just schedule it on my calendar a few months in the future. These items usually get pushed off a few days, but I do get to them within a week or two of my arbitrary promise. I have different calendars within Google for the classes I'm teaching; sometimes I make special calendars for other tasks or tracking questions, such as health monitoring, as well.

When I want a searchable record, I send myself email. This works for me because I'm pretty good at reading & categorizing my email, and because many of the things I'm supposed to do are recorded in my email anyway.
posted by yarntheory at 7:17 PM on May 23, 2016

I use Google calendar for all time sensitive stuff (appointments, reminders including those far in the future). I have a calendar that syncs Facebook events I'm invited to. I have a separate calendar for health tracking stuff so it's more private. I also have a calendar with my roommate for when we have guests in town, we are out of town. Sometimes I have a calendar of stuff I might like to do, so on, say, Thursday afternoon I can see the farmer's market is happening and there's a knitting meetup.

I use Trello for to do lists. Using it like a kanban isn't working for me right now, I have lists for each of my projects/ jobs.When I have fewer different contexts, kanban-style works pretty well. I also have a separate board for other lists, mostly shopping lists for groceries and clothes. The hotkeys make Trello a lot easier to use on desktop.
posted by momus_window at 8:18 PM on May 23, 2016

I would suggest first finding a good system that works for you, and then implementing that system in whatever tool fits best with both that system and your life. Going "tool-first" leaves you prone to both A) not finding the most optimal system because you're limited by the tool you chose, and, B) if you choose a tool that's a "product" (particularly software made by a company, whether or not it's free), it might go away. If you're system-first, it's not usually a big deal to re-implement your system, but if you're tool-focused, it might be harder to readjust.

I use the Getting Things Done methodology. It covers to-dos both current and future, "someday-maybes" (your long-term concrete but not specific plans, maybe your strategic information), and has tips for reference information. It doesn't offer specific help with contact information (more than the basic reference information tips).

It doesn't care what tools you use. Essentially it's a system/method for capturing information, processing it down into what it means to you, organizing it into buckets that make sense for you, and reviewing it often enough so it's not on your mind.

The tools I use are Omnifocus (Mac and iOS only) for to-dos/someday-maybes (also what you might call your strategic information), Apple's Calendars (though I've previously used Google and it worked fine) for calendar info, Evernote for digital reference files, and a hard copy reference system for stuff that's better dealt with in physical form.
posted by brentajones at 8:20 PM on May 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I use Evernote as a searchable catch-all. I'm also a graduate student, and I while I find One True Organizational System posts psychologically compelling, they don't stick for me. What I do have is a pretty good ability to use a search box to find something that I vaguely recall doing/hearing/writing a note to myself about months or years ago. So I keep notes of conversations or ideas or talks I heard in Evernote, and then I can search back through them later. I also use a reference manager (Zotero) in which I stuff every paper I've read in detail for school, grouped into different "library" folders. I can write short l notes that go with the papers in Zotero, but I usually don't unless I'm organizing a grant proposal or something. Google calendar is also pretty critical, and then if I feel like have too many projects in my head I might start breaking down discrete tasks for them in Workflowy, which is like infinite telescoping outlines. I like it, but not as an everyday thing - just when I need to up my game in terms of feeling in control of the big picture. Mostly though, it's calendar + searchable digital notes for me.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:23 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am on the same level as you. I have tried many systems over the years. The only consistent system I have used is a combination of ideas and tools. I use Outlook for work related and GMail for all personal things.

For long term ideas/dates, I schedule it on my Outlook calendar (Can be Google or any calendar program). This includes not just Events, but "Alert me to think and decide on X". For example, my web hosting was due for renewal in 4 months, but I wanted to move to a different provider due to the high cost, but was not sure how I could make it cheaper. So, I scheduled thinking time on my calendar for 2 months before the due date. Simple to reschedule if you are busy on the exact same day.

For medium term projects/actions, I write down the tasks, put due dates for each of them and schedule them on Outlook as Tasks with reminders. Again, any program will do, but since Outlook is what I use 90% of the time, I use it.

For short term like a couple of days or max a week, I use either Outlook or David Seah's Task Order Up Printables. This is a printable card that resembles the orders in a restaurant kitchen. Most of my "tasks" actually are smaller discrete actions, so having them all together makes sense for me. Example, sending out a proposal to a customer might mean getting all the internal people from different areas together to a kick off meeting, consolidating the drafts from all folks and ensuring all the proposal requirements are met, getting pricing from partners/vendors, talking to sales folks on customer budgets/expectations, sending out the final proposal etc.

For ideas and notes, I use Outlook/GMail. Yep, I draft a mail (directly or using a doc as attachment), mark with a label and send it to myself. Searchable and always available on any platform. Same case with any blog posts, book reviews that I want to polish later.

Key is to use the same tools that you use for doing those tasks. Additional software only makes it difficult to stick with, since our devices may change, we don't open the app otherwise etc.
posted by theobserver at 1:28 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Getting Things Done for a great resource to help *you* decide what will work for you.

You have an android, so my favorite iOS Glass Organizer won't work for you, although this lifehacker article seems to think Business Calendar 2 is a good substitute.

First as a medical student, and now a crazy busy resident, I found keeping a 5x8 index card with a standard format for me (@Home, @Work, @Out, etc) an important adjunct for quick scribbles. You might also like the hipster PDA for a more formal version.
posted by eglenner at 3:37 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm also a graduate student who is easily seduced by the idea that THIS will be my One True Method for organizing my life. After going through about 7 zillion different apps and things, I've narrowed it down to two things that have worked consistently for me for the past two years, with brief forays to Google Keep and Trello.

1. Big Picture. I have an Excel file with a row for every month I've been in graduate school with columns for coursework, teaching, grad school milestones (e.g., MA defense, candidacy exam), conferences, manuscripts, grants, external life things - and I just started a Job Search column. This is a nice visual representation of what I've got going on, when I submitted that grant, when I resubmitted that article, and so on. It's also a nice macro view for planning ahead so I can see when major grants are due in the next two years, for example, and keep track of what conferences I'll need to be preparing for at the same time as I'm defending, and stuff. I generally update this once a week or so.

2. Day to Day. I have a To Do list that's always open on my desktop (using the notes program on windows). Things are organized more or less by due dates, but they include upcoming trips, e-mails I need to follow up on, sections of chapters I need to finish, grant deadlines, things like that. This is my "Open my laptop in the morning and set my priorities for the day" list. I save this list every night!

Because I spend a lot of time doing research in a place without easy or reliable internet access, I've needed to come up with systems that don't rely on having internet access to be cross-platform or anything like that.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:23 AM on May 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm a big fan of bullet journalling (as mentioned by girlpublishing and joannac above) when used in with a Google Calendar and Google Inbox Reminders.

The real key to bullet journalling, as far as I'm concerned, is the migration system. Here's how it works for me:

Google calendar holds events (birthdays, class schedules, drinks with friends, holidays, etc. Any event with a specific date and time goes in the calendar).

Reminders hold things that I need to remember to do on a certain date (return library books, book haircut, prepare tax documents, that sort of thing).

Bullet journal holds everything else. My bujo starts with an index, of course, then a six-month spread (three months to each page) where I write down things that I need to think about or do in those months (so, if you know you need to start thinking about internships for 2017 in November 2016, you put "- internship" in the November section).

Next, the This Month page, where I move everything from the May section of the six-month spread and add anything I need to do in May that doesn't have a specific date (write chapter 7, read professor blah's paper). Things with dates go in Reminders, events go in Calendar.

Next are some collections, which is where I put my genius ideas and jotted notes. I start collections on whatever the next blank spread is, then add it to the index so you don't lose it.

Then, daily pages. This is both a to-do list and a diary.

At the end of every day, I look back at that day's to do list and scratch off anything I've done, then get migrating! Is something that I wanted to do undone but can be done tomorrow? Migrate it to tomorrow's list. Is it something that needs to happen on a specific day? Migrate it to Google Reminders. Something that is actually an event? Migrate it to calendar. Then, I scan the monthly to-do to see if there's anything there I can work on the tomorrow.

At the end of each month, I go through the past month of daily pages doing the same thing, and then go through my collections. Any genius ideas that need following up I add to my monthly to-do for the next month. Anything worth having its own collection gets it. Anything I've decided is dumb, I cross out and let it go.

Honestly, this system has changed my life. I use a tiny pocket notebook with an index and a dot grid and attach a pen loop and a pen to it so it's always to hand. I write everything down, and it frees up my brain for more valuable things if I can write down "book haircut" when it pops into my brain and then forget about it till the evening. It means I go through three notebooks a year, but it's worth it to me.

I don't know if it would work without the digital assistance of calendar and reminders, but with it it's a godsend.
posted by AmandaA at 7:18 AM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Family appointments go in a Google Calendar that my wife also uses. Work stuff goes in Office 365.

Every weekday morning I prepare a 3"x5" card with the day & date in the upper left corner, a tiny listing of appointments across the rest of the top inch or so, and then a list of this day's To Do's. I cross them out when I am done. I also put an asterisk by important ones.

Each morning I also copy over any items not completed the day before, and discard any that I have given up on.

On the weekend, I type up a page with the entire family's commitments & To Do items, but it always gets scribbled all over as soon as I get home on Friday. This portion of the system, being shared with my wife and our four kids, still needs work. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:30 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Gosh, AmandaA, our systems sound pretty close!)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:31 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am an older student gone back for my second degree, so, while I am not at the same demand level as you, I've had trouble balancing the needs of my normal life, a part-time professional job, and heavy duty science classes. I am rather old school in my approach because I found that most digital tools were too easy to set and forget. Why bother making long lists of crap if you can then close them and never have them in your face as a subtle reminder? It wasn't working for me. Here is what is:

1. Google Calendar for important dates using Tiny Calendar on the iPhone and iPad to present the information. As an undergrad in several science classes at once, I found the number of due dates overwhelming. I got tired of constantly consulting the class schedules. I put each class on their own sub-calendar by color, then displayed all by default. Tiny Calendar takes the info on Google Calendar and presents it well on small screens.

2. Using a giant and very real blackboard. One strip of it is dedicated to a grocery list, a house to-do list, and an important info list. The rest is currently holding my schedule of items for the next three days, a list for Costco, and a long list of domestic projects I want to get done during my school break. It's also held study plans for the last month of classes, a plan to remodel the kitchen, drawings of plans for a physics project, notes from chemistry, etc. All those digital tools are trying to emulate what my blackboard does. The best part is the lists I am making are right there in my kitchen where I can see them and the blackboard is retro-cute. I bought the blackboard surface at Home Depot in their project plywood section.

3. Taking pictures of every damned thing. That grocery list on the blackboard? It gets added to by all members of the house. When I head to the store, I take a picture of it. It's a stupid easy system. I have pictures of my lock code for my OChem locker, my student ID #, various experiments, my license plate, the model numbers of various purchases, and on and on. I always have my phone on me and a picture is an ideal way for me to process information. I try to not have photos that are sensitive but it's more likely that I will need it and not have it than have it stolen and used against me.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:26 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mostly though, it's calendar + searchable digital notes for me.

Amen. I hated Evernote for a long time because there didn't seem to be enough there there, but for some reason, it finally started working for me. Anything I know I might need to access on the fly, but isn't specifically time oriented - recipes, copies of stuff like my car insurance card or health insurance card, my packing list for the next trip, account numbers that are too long for words, whatever - goes in Evernote. I've gone to not tagging or notebooking much - I have a recipes notebook, one for each year I've been using Evernote, and an inbox. What needs to be easily at hand - say, my grocery list - goes in the inbox. I don't try to organize Evernote too much - it's the virtual equivalent of the post it notes or the notebook that I dump ideas into. Paper notebooks don't work for me - my handwriting is terrible and I misplace them. My phone is always at hand.

I've also had a lot of luck, when I remember to do it, with a virtual version of the index card folks were talking about. I make a note called "[date] Agenda" and write down what I need to get done in approximate order, with checkboxes.

Events and tasks go on the Google calendar; since I teach, if I put my todos in tasks on Google calendar, I can go "okay, giving that test on Monday, I'll need to grade it by EOD on Tuesday" and put in a task. My wife shares her Google calendar with me, I have mine shared out to my roommate since he puppy sits for me, it helps me keep track of our rotating cast of interns. Google calendar helps so much.
posted by joycehealy at 11:49 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

.txt docs. No, I'm not kidding. Easy to update, print, send to phones, email, etc. I have one for long term planning and one for my daily life. Using apps wastes time you could be using to jot down info.
posted by agregoli at 2:28 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

You mention you need to keep track of a lot of information. GTD says that there is no information without an action. What do you need to do with the info? Describe that as an action and add a date. That is the first step towards productivity.

One key for me is that every task goes into todoist. If it's not a meeting with someone else, it goes into todoist with a date. If it doesn't have a date, it will get forgotten and never looked at. So, "Think about planning summer vacation" doesn't go on a list of things to think about this spring, instead it gets a date of May 1st. "Up North Cottages - recommended by bob" doesn't go on a list somewhere. Instead "Contact Up North Cottages by May 1"

For reference materials I use a simple system that works great for my job but might not be ideal for your life. I take paper notes in a notebook. When the meeting or day is over, I review the notebook for any tasks, and these go into todoist. I review for any useful information I need to do my job - contacts, passwords, URLs, etc. These go into a Useful Information google doc. I have found that I simply don't use anything more detailed than that in my day to day.
posted by rebent at 6:42 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

postdoc and journalist here, definitely still figuring it out so this is long. i have used and like kanban flow quite a lot. i stopped using it because while it was great to push multi-step research projects through the pipeline (everything i write should really be dedicated to pomodoro) it wasn't so good for juggling multiple freelance projects at the same time, even with different colors or tags. i recently started using workflowy, which i really like for the brain-dump thing-- i have different personal and professional lists which are all nested, some of which are more straight-forward to-dos and others are notes. so i'll have a header like (article project) with a to-do list (get that book and read it) and also a note list which sometimes becomes kind of the outline for my actual writing.

this part i am still kind of ironing out, the "prioritize and focus." i tried to hastag things "priority" and make only those visible but i still panicked looking at how long and varied that list was. but. i mostly decide every day what i have to do (usually this is deadline-based) so i just write that big on scrap paper while i am working (undiagnosed adhd for sure) so that i can look down and see what i am doing (so dumb but it works), and keep the workflowy to-do list for that project in a tab so that i can see the broken-down step-by-steps so i don't get lost. sometimes when it's bad i make pomodoro scratchmarks on the workflowy steps or on the big sign that reminds me what the single task is. when i have a stressful thought (email that colleague about this thing!) i put it in a "short tasks" list in the workflowy which i handle while waiting for trains or super tired. or if the derailing thought is (what am i doing with my life? should i start writing a novel?) then i put that into a "long-term professional development" list. or if the thought is more-project-related (research this footnote) i put that in the project's to-do list so i don't wind up googling intentional communities for two hours or something. somehow knowing that it's there on a list in the same place with the other lists means i can keep writing.

google calendar is for actual appointments and deadlines.

sometimes i also do a triage where i take a piece of scrap paper, write down everything i can possibly think of BIG and then draw boxes around it so the whole paper is taken up with big and little boxes filled with tasks. it looks pretty. then i carry it around with me blacking things out with sharpies until the whole sheet is DONE and SMELLS and i can TOSS IT. this duplicates the above system, yes, but has gotten me through crunches like moving, prepping and distributing a magazine, action-oriented short-term things with lots of associated tasks.

good luck!
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:37 AM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have a small spiral-bound notebook (from Redbubble, with graph paper) that has really been a game changer for me.

I have it divided into sections with sticky tabs for different domains of my responsibilities/life. The first few pages in each section are divided into fourths by specific project/topic with its own ongoing to-do list. I rip them out and re-write them as I cross stuff off. On the first page of the notebook, I use a post-it note to collect the specific tasks I want to accomplish that day, as well as a second one for tasks that I want to accomplish that weekend. I also have a section in the back that's more of a miscellaneous long-term planning section- I have my long-term projects timelined out visually, as well as a section where I check off every hour I spend writing every week because that's something I set goals about.

I found this easier to use/track than digital's more portable across situations, I can use it in professional situations where it would be awkward to be tapping on my phone, and I can quickly flip through and see everything more or less at once.
posted by deus ex machina at 2:23 PM on May 29, 2016

A couple of things that worked for me, which you might find useful:

1. When I get in this state of needing to get organised but unsure how, I like to use a pen and paper to write out what areas of my life/projects/types of tasks I need to organise and what I need from a planning system. It helps me know what to look for in the tools I use.

2. If bullet journaling doesn't suit you, take a look at the Strikethru system. It's similar, but a bit more simple to set up and use. I use a combination of both, tweaked to fit my needs.

3. I find it helpful to use a notebook system like the Midori Traveller's Notebook or Roterfaden. Both of these are covers that fit several thin notebook inserts inside, so you can have 3 or 4 notebooks in one easy to carry package, with a pen attached. I like this approach because I can use one notebook for daily to do lists which I throw away when it's full. This way I don't disturb the other notebooks with longer term notes when I go through daily to do list notebooks quickly. And it's easier to find project lists or long term notes because they're not mixed in with daily to do lists.
posted by bellebethcooper at 5:38 PM on June 1, 2016

I'm incredibly lazy and unmotivated during the day, but unfortunately for reasons of the real world I have to go to work and not stay up until 5am and all of that. What really helps me is just sitting down at my desk, and opening a notebook to a big weekly page with all the info I need.

I bought this notebook and I love it beyond life. It's the first planner I've actually kept up for an entire year. I'm going to buy a new one when I reach the end of it. I can open up the weekly page and see Sunday through Saturday with ample space to write in appointments, and the whole other grid-paper page to write down whatever little pieces of info are on my mind-- meal planning, outfit planning, to do lists, etc.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:58 PM on June 5, 2016

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