When you understand the “why” and “how” of organizing time and tasks, you lay the foundation for stress-free productivity. In part one of this series, we touched on how to get the right work done, in the right way, with the right system. Now that you’ve dumped the data, learned the steps to control the chaos and started making strides, it’s time to discuss the tools you need to streamline the process.
Decision Time—Paper or Digital?
As you think about how to organize your time and tasks, your first step is the same as it was for the data dump in part one: Decide which process works better for you—paper or digital. The decision is personal, and there is no right or wrong solution. However, there are a few things to consider if you’re leaning toward paper:
- How will you back it up? I know that sounds silly, but if your entire organizational system is handwritten in a notebook or your projects are meticulously outlined on a legal pad, and either of those goes missing, what will you do?
- Will it always be with you? One secret to productivity is to create a dedicated space to capture everything in the moment instead of transferring it when you get back to your desk. Paper solutions, depending on your choice, may be tough to have on you when you need immediate access.
- Is paper truly the best option for you, or are you just scared of technology? I get it! Trusting tech to take care of #allthethings is a big leap. I encourage you to read on and, perhaps, determine small ways you can “lean into” technology. You’ll be a convert in no time!
Today, with our phones superhandy and most business requiring a computer, our actionable items usually come at us from our tech devices, so it’s natural that we’d also use technology to “tame the beast.” However, one program or app will not do it all. For optimum organization, expect to make some notes and keep a few lists.
If you want to keep your projects, plans and processes flowing, you’ll most likely need to take notes at least sometimes. Whether you’re doing a data dump, capturing nuggets from a conversation or meeting, or jotting down ideas from a brainstorm session with yourself, you will need to capture and catalog your notes. If you go the paper route, a good old-fashioned pad of paper or notebook is the simplest option. Be sure it’s a size you can have with you anywhere a thought might strike. And, of course, always carry a pen or pencil.
The digital route involves using traditional word processing programs. You have myriad filing options. Two possibilities: You can use a simple naming convention, or you may need more sophisticated labeling with separate documents in folders that correspond with the roles you play or projects you’re working on. When you’re choosing your word processing app, storage is a big factor. If you work alone, and these notes are solely for you, save the file locally on your device and back it up (either on an external hard drive or in the cloud). If you need to collaborate, use Google Docs or save documents with Dropbox™ or a similar file-sharing service.
There are hundreds of apps to help you keep lists. Determining the best one may feel a lot like kissing a ton of frogs to find your prince. Narrow it down by deciding how you like to track your to-dos—with simple checklists, hierarchical lists (projects, tasks, subtasks) or a visual tool. Consider whether you need to share your list with others or if it’s for your eyes only!
Avoid simple checklists unless you’re using them for grocery shopping, packing for a trip or transferring your daily checklist for ease of viewing. Instead, venture out a little into the sophistication of subcategories, project management and ancillary attachments.
Tips for Taming the Tasks
Your technology is only as effective as your diligence with the system. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Do not use email for tracking tasks. Your inbox is not another to-do list. However you choose to track your to-dos, if there’s an action item in an email you must transfer it to an app or a program.
- When I check email, I use the “Do it, delegate it, defer it or delete it” system (from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity [Penguin 2015]):
- While it may take you a while to determine the best programs/apps for you, it’s important to commit to your choices. Initially, you’re going to need to take time to input and organize your information, which might feel counterproductive. However, the initial time investment will pay off in the end.
- You’ll refine your interaction with your tech tool(s) over time, but you must trust the process and be consistent with its upkeep. Schedule some time each week to do a big-picture review of your projects, tasks and subtasks so you can better prioritize your time. Clean out your inbox once a day—either at the start or the end—and transfer action items. Then, fill in pertinent details, categorize and build out projects, and assign due dates or review dates.
—If it takes 2 minutes or less, I do it right away.
—If the next step requires input from someone else, I delegate it. I send instructions and record what I’m waiting on, when I can expect a reply or when I will need to follow up.
—If the task or project is too big to do right now, I defer it. Much as I do with delegated tasks, I record what needs to be done (e.g., “Respond to Candace about our upcoming meeting”) and move the email to a “holding cell” folder titled @Action. The @ symbol forces it to the top of my folders list, and when I put emails in there (after recording what needs to be done), it’s out of my field of vision. The app I use reminds me when I need to get back to it!
—Finally, if the email requires no action, I delete it! If I think I might want to reference it later, I may place it in a folder or in another holding cell (@Someday) to get it out of the way.
Getting things done is both an art and a science. Pick the system that will work best for you, and commit to an action plan. You’ll soon wonder how you ever survived without it.