To do: make a to-do list.
January 23, 2018 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Last year both my professional and personal situation changed, which leaves me in planning limbo: the old routines and tools on which I depended don't fully suit me anymore, but I have no alternatives ready. How can I get organized again, without going overboard?

During the years I was writing my PhD I consistently used a Moleskine daily planner. It had three to-do lists: a long one (on the blank pages) which served as a kind of inbox, a weekly one (on the Sundays), and a daily one. Every day I would review the weekly list and pick some tasks for the day. And every week I would review the long list and add some items to the list for next week. Recurring tasks, both daily and weekly (floss, exercise, take a walk, put trash out,...) would just be added in by hand every day or week. Other than that, I used the top half of the page for personal stuff, the bottom for work stuff. I didn't just use the Moleskine for planning, but also as a calendar and for keeping track of work hours and jotting down ideas.

Last year was chaotic; I fell of the wagon because personal and professional circumstances changed significantly. My Moleskine for last year is a lot emptier than the others, even though more happened, so it's clear I stopped using my trusted planning system. I bought a new one for 2018 and tried going back to what used to work, but I don't feel comfortable using it anymore (because the routine is gone, but mainly because it's a symbol of the past). Also, I bought an iPhone that I'd like to start using for this. I think my problem is rather with the Moleskine than with the basic system with the to-do lists and the reviews, which was reliable for me. It didn't always mean the most important things actually got done, though, and I also had much less tasks, deadlines and appointments than I have now.

So, I've been in planning limbo for the past few days, weeks even. I've been researching both time management systems and tools and rather than jumping in and trying stuff, I find fault with every option I've come across and keep looking for better ones. This is not uncommon for me; I'm a perfectionist and can get rather obsessive about stuff like this. Also, I have (major) issues with procrastination and I realize I might be using this as a way to do just that (I should be grading papers...). Nevertheless, I do need some alternative because right things really are all over the place, both objectively and in my head, and the system I had gave me some peace of mind.

My question is twofold, I think, with the first one being very common:

1. How do you keep organized and which (analog and/or digital) tools do you use that you can recommend?
2. How do you (if you're anything like me) keep from going overboard with organizing and managing stuff? How do you find a balance between using a particular system, and tweaking/adapting/doubting about it?

(Right now, I'm leaning towards Todoist; I like the simplicity and the gamification aspects of it, and the fact that it's both an app for my phone and my laptop. I also ordered Getting Things Done after being intrigued by it for years. Maybe I shouldn't have; I hope it won't prolong the limbo...)
posted by Desertshore to Work & Money (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
It had three to-do lists: a long one (on the blank pages) which served as a kind of inbox, a weekly one (on the Sundays), and a daily one.

You may like Trello for this. It supports the scrum/kanban organizational style and syncs over app/desktop.
posted by phunniemee at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

For analog planning, I'm using a Bullet Journal - I've had enough planners through the years that I use the parts of it that suit me and discard the ones that don't. If the Moleskine journal is the reminder of the past, maybe a different style of journal, like a Midori Traveler's notebook will suit you better?
posted by sarajane at 9:47 AM on January 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

I found Getting Things Done to be a helpful way to think about how to organize things - you can get something out of it without doing a whole, canonical GTD system. Have you looked at some blog posts / summaries? I'm not sure you need to read the whole book to get the useful parts.

Todoist is good and easy to try. I made "projects" for stuff like my grocery shopping, too, which was handy.

If you have very long lists, I'd caution against trello - the layout means you can only see a few things at a time, since they're each on their own neat little card. I found the constant re-arranging for kanban-style organizing irritating.

I've used todoist and trello and currently use a Passion planner because I missed being able to see what I'd actually done, and also have a more schedule-focused job post-PhD (e.g. X has to happen on Tuesday morning more than meetings). The to-do list space is puny in the planner - you can add post its, etc. to fill it out.

I also have an excel spreadsheet for work to-dos (organized by GTD context), because there are a lot and I edit it a lot and dealing with a web interface slows me down.
posted by momus_window at 9:58 AM on January 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a fan of Planner Pads. It was especially helpful for me because (at the time I was using it heavily) I was juggling multiple projects. Their system allowed me to create separate to-do lists for each project and then map out my week for the time I would spend on each one.

It's also pretty customizable - you can get a specific organizer or use your own binder. You can get various add-ons. And you can buy in chunks of time so if you start using it mid-year you don't end up with reams of unusable paper.

There is also an app version, but I still like paper for my own personal organizing.
posted by brookeb at 10:02 AM on January 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

1 & 2. I use Outlook, because I work for a large corporation and I get meetings scheduled by other people all the time, so I've adapted it to cover my personal stuff, too. To be sure that I receive calendar alerts on days off, I invite my gmail account to meetings/appointments/tickets to things/etc., and that way I get a google calendar ping AND an outlook ping when I have something coming up. Outlook certainly doesn't have gamification, so if you require that it's not going to work for you. But I color-code meetings, tasks, reminders, entries into broad categories, and personal stuff I slot all under one color. It's helpful to be able to look at my week and see that I have three personal appointments, six meetings on project A, three meetings on project B, four reminders, three slotted work times where I can't be disturbed, etc., all at a glance based on colors.

To keep track of long projects with many steps I used to use Asana, but I don't want multiple places to go to track things, so I use OneNote (which also syncs to my phone) and I use the "email page" feature to send to myself once in a while to see my progress. I can then file that like any other email in my project folder in Outlook, and it brings along the whole OneNote page (screenshots, external links, whatever). It's also super nice to be able to send to a teammate or a boss to show steps in a project and where I'm at.

For recurring things I do at work (like run usage reports, track time, update task lists) I put a recurring "meeting" of 5 minutes duration and set an alert for however many minutes before that I need it. Then, if I can't get to it right away due to Circumstances, I leave the desktop pop-up notification there until I do complete it. Sometimes I roll it for days, at which point it's very satisfying to finally close it because it's done.

I like having it all tied into one calendar. I can open it on my phone wherever I am and know if I can slot an appointment into a hour immediately, without checking three places or waiting until I boot up my laptop or whatever. Colors don't come through on the phone app, which is vaguely irksome, but that's ok because the data is there and I can read.

That's not to say that I don't still write manual lists. But that's usually for shopping reminders or as an "It's my day off and I really need to power through buttloads of chores so give me something to feel good about" list that at the end of the day I feel good about because everything is crossed off. I write those on a notepad and throw it away after. Why keep track of "do laundry, take out trash, do dishes"?
posted by clone boulevard at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm using a hybrid approach that is not unlike what you were doing before. I like paper, but my life is too complex to manage it all that way. Plus, I need search.

Consequently, I use a mix of a notebook (a regular blank notebook; go nuts) plus digital/online tools.

On the computer, I (obviously) use a calendar. I use both iCloud and Exchange, but any option works here.

The other digital part is my to-do manager. Pick one that works for you. I use Emacs and OrgMode because I am a crazy old nerd, but anything that has priorities, projects, and dates will work just fine. The key here is to be able to throw something in there and then no longer worry about it, because you trust the system to tell you when it matters.

With OrgMode, I add an activity, and give it a date, and it'll only show up in my agenda view when that date is approaching. This is HUGE, because we all have stuff that needs to happen in, say, 6 weeks that would otherwise clutter the view and obscure more immediate tasks. (I think this is actually a GTD concept; very GTD-focussed things like OmniFocus mimic this behavior, too.)

The notebook uses some BulletJournal stuff, but it's not really a BuJu because I need a productivity tool and not an arts and crafts project (I kid, I kid). I DO use a monthly view, a monthly habit tracker, and I create a minimalist week-at-a-glance page every Monday.

On that page, I transcribe in the meetings and tasks from my computer that matter this week, and in the subsequent pages take notes for the week.

This keeps me above water.
posted by uberchet at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use OneNote, and have several sections. A todo list section with pages in it that are the tasks that I want to accomplish with context in the page. A meeting staging section with a similar setup that works well for me. Me Mail me if you are interested in seeing it.
posted by Draccy at 11:44 AM on January 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

#1: I also use a Bullet Journal. There's Team Moleskine and Team Leuchtterm - maybe you'd want to switch over. But it sounds like it would be really easy for you to adapt to.

Having tried a lot of phone-based/online systems, I really found that nothing digital did what I needed to, which was get me to pay attention to my tasks. Whether I do them or not, the bullet journal means I look at them every day, and never forget any of them. With digital tools, I found I would have fun setting them up and then trying to use them, but the number and frequency of phone notifications and the annoyance of having to enter everything with phone text simply did not work for me. I might build the most beautiful systems digitally, but I just did not use them.

#2 One thing I like about the bullet journal is that it's endlessly customizable. It's a learning system. I tweak a little every time I set up a new month, week, or year. It is easy to overdo - at the beginning of the year I sat down and made all these layouts that I have already realized I will never use - I just liked the idea of having, like, a master grocery list - and I won't succumb to the fantasy of the perfectly managed life any more. Good enough is good enough, and in truth what I really use the journal for, apart from planning which it's great for, is collecting interesting notes, trivia, asides, ideas for writing, etc. So putting the focus of using this system on maintaining creativity, documenting my daily life, and recording ideas as they flow up, as opposed to optimal organization, works ok for me.
posted by Miko at 12:42 PM on January 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I use Todoist extensively, and it works really well for me. I mostly use the GTD approach, though somewhat simplified. I find it worthwhile for the paid version to be able to drop links to emails into my list, and it gives you a bunch of other tools including some filtering options I don't use all the time, but when I need them they're really really handy.

(I'd be glad to wave screenshots at you and some other stuff if you want to MeMail an email address, especially if you have specific questions about what things look like in use.)

I'm a librarian, so I usually start my day with a bunch of stuff (some of which is really small), get to work, figure out who's asked what overnight that I need to answer, and then move things around a lot.

Which is why I can't do paper: I'm constantly moving tasks or shifting them later in the list. I discovered I really need the drag/drop within the list and a easy way to say 'remind me to think about this next week' or 'it would be a nice idea to do this tomorrow' or whatever applies.

My best habit this year has been to stick small stuff I do on the list so I can check it off - it's giving me a better idea of what I actually did with my day.
posted by modernhypatia at 6:48 PM on January 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ooooof the transition out of my Ph.D. was so rough in many regards including this very one so <3 <3 <3 if behind this question is many other questions. Hope this helps:

As an unemployed recent-graduate I used kanban flow (and a real Kanban board at home) to keep track of projects and answer the question "what am I working on?!" when the easy answer "your dissertation" was no longer relevant.

When life got still more complicated I started using Workflowy which I still use now. I have a personal section, a book project section, a freelance project section, a long term planning section and a TO DO section. Obviously there is overlap between the to do and the other project sections. But I like having a place to dump things and then an existing skeleton into which I organize all the dumped to-dos. What remains on the todo list each day is a few items. I also keep lists like "people I should know" and "organizations I would love to work with" under long term planning which is awesome when I run across some info and would otherwise fall into an internet-comparing-self-with-strangers rabbit hole-- nope, just onto the list it goes with the others.

Google calendar is for fixed appointments.
posted by athirstforsalt at 2:20 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I replicate your Moleskine system in Evernote. I use just one note: at the top, I keep my plan for the day, underneath is basic plan for the week, and below that is a list with allll of my tasks. It's easy to add to the list and edit my plan for the day, rearranging and copy-pasting and moving things around. I use Evernote on my smartphone and my laptop, it's free for 2 devices, and everything is synchronized and backed up automatically.

I use Google Calendar for fixed appointments. (And a to-do app for some tasks that I need to be reminded of, but I could use GCalendar or reminders instead.)

You could also do this with a simple text file and Dropbox, but I basically live in Evernote, so that's what I'm using.

(Like someone else pointed out, kanban-style apps don't work well when you have a lot of tasks. Trello is useless to me.)
posted by gakiko at 10:26 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm constantly moving tasks or shifting them later in the list. I discovered I really need the drag/drop within the list and a easy way to say 'remind me to think about this next week' or 'it would be a nice idea to do this tomorrow' or whatever applies.

Just a note, the Bullet Journal method includes ways to replicate these task-migration systems on paper.
posted by Miko at 11:12 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I use the reminders app on iphone for this.

I have a few lists, work, home, recurring, grocery. Some of the items have due dates which create notifications on my phone, other's don't. As a to do list organiser, it's pretty straightforward.
posted by kjs4 at 3:20 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

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