I’ve lost count of how many times people ask me how I stay organized and manage projects and tasks. For some reason, getting and staying organized seems to be a tough thing for a lot of people, so I promised I’d share some of what I do and what I’ve learned.
Figuring Out How you Think
Something critical about organization and project management is understanding how you process information. Not everyone does it the same way, and it requires paying attention to yourself and your first instincts when you have a new project to tackle.
For example, I’m a project-based thinker. I think in tracks or buckets. Everything relates to one larger objective, and the pieces are all part of the same path to get there, whether it’s writing or emailing or creating content or attending meetings. Some are concurrent, some have to happen in order (it always helps me to know what comes next, even theoretically). But it all falls into the same bucket.
By contrast, some people would rather sort their work by task-type. Maybe you’d rather spend three hours just knocking out writing tasks, no matter what they relate to. If you classify things in your head that way, by all means, work in functional classifications.
Maybe you separate personal vs. professional to-dos. Maybe you process things visually, or there are five key questions you need answered before starting a new project. Whatever. But pay attention to your brain process and try to work with it rather than against it.
Tools I Use
I sometimes hate sharing these kinds of lists because tools and their use is so individual. But in case it shakes loose an idea or two, here’s my core list of things that help me stay organized. All of them – aside from my Moleskine – sync with my iPhone so I can manage at the laptop or when mobile.
Evernote: This is my home for draft blog posts and meeting notes, and capturing ideas when I’m on the fly that need more attention later.
Gmail: I love the threads and the label system. And I am a RUTHLESS email deleter. See below for more.
Things: My task management application of choice. I like that I can track things in projects, check things off as I complete them, and look at the flow of tasks, in order, within their respective projects (as well as by priority or deadline). I also like that I can tag task items to categorize them a few different ways.
Moleskine: I have one that’s my personal journal, and one that’s exclusively for professional endeavors. I use it to brainstorm, doodle, and capture meeting notes in in-person meetings (when I consider having my laptop open to be a distraction to both me and others).
Google Docs & Calendar: All of my documents are contained here, everything from my planning documents for my job to my personal budget spreadsheet. Meeting requests/appointments/travel get put on the calendar right away. If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist.
That’s it. Too many tools and you won’t use them. I need a few simple functions: idea capturing, task management, information/communication management, and scheduling. I found a simple tool for each that works, but isn’t complex. More than that bogs down my pace.
How I Organize and Workflow
Not an exhaustive list, but because so many people asked, maybe a couple of these tips or tricks are helpful.
1. Again, I organize my information by project rather than task type. It helps me to know that everything and anything related to my blog goes into one bucket. Anything related to, say, building an online community for Radian6 goes in another.
2. If an email has a to-do in it – either explicit or implied – it’s added to the list and either deleted or archived (if it has information I need later). If that info is brief, I’ll copy it into the notes of the task in Things and delete the email. If it’s just an FYI or informational, I decide I either need that info for later (label and archive), or I’ve absorbed it and can delete it. Keeps the inbox shallow.
3. When I take meeting notes, I always have a spot on the page for tasks that I capture throughout the meeting. At the end of the call or meeting, I transfer those to Things and track them there. Then I can forget about the notes except as reference.
4. I only set deadlines on my tasks in Things when they really have them. I find that I don’t stick to arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines, so I just don’t bother. I tackle the deadline items first, then review the rest of the list and pick the next most logical (or attractive) thing to work on. Which brings me to…
5. When you get stuck, do the work that flows most easily. Busy work or otherwise. It’s the momentum that’s important.
6. I have a tag in my to-do list called Short Strokes. These are items that will take me less than 5 minutes and aren’t attached to a particular project. I visit those when I’m stuck and overwhelmed, on hold, in the airport, etc. They’re small wins that make me feel good about checking them off.
7. I label/tag offline items so I can do them on airplanes, because I’m on those a lot.
8. I also have a couple of houses for ideas. From my Moleskine, the ideas with teeth go into a folder in Evernote. I review them occasionally to see if any of them call out to me and warrant a move to reality and some next steps. (Breaking ideas into realistic steps is a lot more of what we’ll talk about here in 2010).
9. Tags in my email and Things coincide. That way if I’ve archived an email, I know where to look for it. I have more email labels than I do task tags, but for the most part, it helps line things up and saves me time searching for stuff.
All of these things, for me, tuck seamlessly into my workflow, and help me keep multiple tracks and projects moving forward. Not all of these things will work for you. Your pace is probably different than mine, and your methods should line up accordingly.
But tinker with a few things and see what helps you, and what just feels like more work than necessary. (Hint: if you’re spending too much effort managing your project management system, it needs revisiting.)
The Dynamite Philosophy: Blow Things Up
I tweeted earlier this week that I blew up my to-do list completely, and started over. Why? I realized that things weren’t organized in the way I needed to review them. So, I broke it all down, and started fresh.
If you haven’t answered the email lingering in your inbox, either do so, or delete it. Someday never comes.
If you find you aren’t using your to-do list, it’s probably not fitting the way you think. Nuke it. Start over.
If you haven’t read all the posts in your reader, Mark All As Read and walk away.
Once you’ve selected tools, if they don’t work, ditch them and try something else. If one method of tackling projects doesn’t work, blow it up and try something else. If you don’t need a tool anymore, get rid of it. This isn’t a forever relationship. Your organizational style and attack on projects needs to evolve with you. If I’d stuck to the work style I used five years ago, it would be crippling me today.
Lastly, realize that no system is bulletproof or perfect. Do the best you can. Tweak it, refine it, but stop obsessing over organization. The system isn’t the goal. You’re trying to get your stuff done. Over engineering kills action, every time.
So what are your keys for getting stuff done? What systems and methods work for you?