Staying Organized in a Disorganized World

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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January 2, 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve written about how I’m trying my best to stay organized and get things done. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a real challenge over the last year and I’ve not always been successful.

One thing that’s helped has been Jessica Abel’s Creative Focus Workshop. It’s not cheap, but I think it’s worth every penny.

Not only have I made friends in the workshop, I’ve also been able to really dig into my writing process and figure out clearly defined milestones and deliverables (even if they’re only to myself). Then, being about to plot them out on a calendar which also holds the rest of my life helps me to see when I’m being too damn ambitious (I am usually too damn ambitious).

Between CFW and finally recognizing that I needed to seek treatment for my anxiety–my therapist was legitimately worried that I was going to have a nervous breakdown this past summer–I’ve been making space to evaluate the systems and tools I’ve been using over the past few years.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

As a result of that reassessment, I’ve made more than a few changes.

The first major thing I realized was that keeping a single bullet journal for both work and home really wasn’t working. This was fine in 2016, but as my job became more demanding, it became overwhelming and I was missing things that needed to be done.

I’ve cobbled together a system that I’m hoping will help me accomplish my professional and creative goals into 2018 and beyond. A lot of what I’m doing is inspired by GTD and its five central precepts:

  1. Capture: collect ideas, tasks, notes; write everything down!
  2. Clarify: figure out what you have to do; break everything down into actionable tasks and delegate what you can (if you have anyone to delegate to, that is).
  3. Organize: put your actionable tasks into the correct categories and priorities; spend time with your to do list, reminders, and calendar.
  4. Reflect: Look at your list to figure out your next actions; be sure to set aside regular time to review your list and realign to your priorities.
  5. Engage: get the thing done; all the prep work in steps one through four should enable you to be able to pick your next action and run with it.

I say inspired because I am not convinced that full on GTD is actually all that (and a bag of chips)–I’ve been rereading the book and I find myself struck by how focused it is on people in managerial and executive roles, which is certainly not the role I have at work–or any sort of role to which I have aspirations.

The other thing about GTD is that if you take it to its logical extreme, most of your time would be spent shuffling between your lists. I tried setting up GTD tags in Evernote and it was just confusing. I tried Omnifocus on a trial basis and it made me feel overwhelmed by just looking at it, much less setting up tasks.

So what I’m doing is capturing open loops on either paper or digitally and then, once a week at minimum, I look at them and either add them to my master list of open loops (which I’ve been keeping in Airtable) or if they’re quick hits, doing them right away or putting them on the schedule.

With that in mind, the central unifying tools in my system are the Jibun Techo and Todoist. These are both critical to both my daily and long term planning process.

The Jibun Techo is an interesting paper planner–it’s a dated weekly planner that begins in November and runs through December of the following year. So I’ve been using it for two months and it’s been really good as the glue that holds everything else together.

The Jibun Techo is part of a system of three different books in a single plastic cover. In addition to the paper planner, there is a book called Life and another called Ideas. The Life book has personal and biographical type pages and is intended for life-long record keeping. The Ideas book is a blank graph notebook. I’m using the Ideas book and the Life book is living in a drawer in my desk. You can purchase replacement Ideas books as they fill up.

In addition to the weekly pages in the Jibun Techo, there are also pages to track the books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, and a project planning section which I’m using for monthly habit tracking (among others that I’m not really using). The paper is Tomoe River, so it’s a joy to use with a fountain pen. The squares are /really/ tiny, though, so you do need to write small with an EF nib (I’m using a Sailor 1911).

On the weekly pages, there are eight columns. One for each day of the week and one for a to do list–the weeks start on Monday, which is ideal for me. I’m able to plot out my meetings and appointments so I can see how much working time I actually have each day and I can assign specific tasks to each days. That portion is very small, so I can only have three to four per day. Those tend to be my top priorities for work, writing, and the household (bill-paying, etc.).

This is working really, really well for me. I can put tasks on the weekly to do list well in advance and then when that week comes around, I can put those items on the day they need to be done. I segregate my work tasks from the others by writing work tasks from the top down and everything else from the bottom up. So far, they haven’t met in the middle. I know that day is coming, though.

Then there’s Todoist. I use the premium version, so I’ll probably be talking about features that aren’t available in the free version. I’ll mention here that I got something like 6 months of the premium version by using the app on the regular–and being able to use all the premium features for an extended period of time is what sold me on paying for it.

Todoist does a few things for me: it holds all my recurring tasks and it holds the steps I need to follow for each type of blog post–I have different master workflows for essays, links posts, and book reviews. I can duplicate these workflows when I start a new post or when I have an idea for a post . I can then schedule these for the week I want to do them, so they don’t pop up until its time for me to do that week’s planning.

Todoist is where I store my digital open loops and I have a daily task to process all those items and get them into the right place–if I don’t just go ahead and do them. Things I need to do around the house also end up in Todoist because 95% of the time, it’s not worth writing down that I need to vacuum or tidy up my desk.

Work Systems

I have a large dry-erase calendar from NeuYear on my wall and I really like it–it allows me plot vacation days and key dates so I know what’s happening when. It’s right next to my (new!) dry-erase board, which is where I can write out more time-sensitive tasks in detail or work out problems visually.

I also have a bullet journal. I tried a few different kinds of notebooks for this, most notably the Baron Fig Confidant and Nock Co.’s A5 notebooks, but ultimately neither worked for me.

I didn’t like the paper in the Confidant but the form factor was nice–if they ever upgrade the paper to something a bit more fountain pen friendly and add page numbers, I am definitely there.

Conversely, I really liked the paper in Nock Co.’s A5 notebooks but hated the color of the ink they used for the dot-dash grid–it was too obtrusive and my tasks were simply too hard to read. I am an enormous fan of their dot-dash note cards, though. They’re great for grocery or errand lists and collection of other open loops (if you have a memory like a sieve, as I do)

I’ve gone back to the Leuchtturm 1917. I really do like these a lot: the paper is excellent, I don’t have to number the pages myself, and they’re sturdy. I am going to try very hard to not get as uptight about it as I did with my previous Leuchtturms–I want to use this one to keep track not only of what I need to do at work, but also meeting notes. Work is only going to get busier over the next 18 months–we just went through a major merger and my division will be spun off into an independent company sometime in 2019–and I’m involved in a project which is critical to the spin off’s success (eep).

But with a bullet journal comes the possibility of list overload and that’s where the Emergent Task Planner comes in. This is a tool created by David Seah and which I took a look at after both Kevin and Ursula on Productivity Alchemy wadded theirs up and threw them away. There are free PDFs available, which is what I used in the first part of December to trial the system for focusing me on a single day at a time, and it worked so well that I ordered one of the notebooks.

The ETP has one page per day, with a schedule grid schedule down the left side of the page and on the right, room for your top priorities for the day. You can put in up to nine, however it’s really designed for a top three. There’s also a section for notes or tasks that come up during the day. The general idea is that you estimate how much time a task is going to take and then you do your best to keep track of how long it actually took. You can use the schedule in two different ways–Seah suggests time blocking, but I was using it to keep track of when I actually did the tasks on my list and when I got pulled away to other things. I can see how this would drive some people up a wall and back down again, but it worked really well to not only keep me working on what I needed to be but it also gave me a lot of insight into when I like to get work done and how many distractions there are during the course of the day.

I’m planning on experimenting more formally with time blocking this year. I’m planning to set up time blocks for email so I only check a few times a day and I’m also going to block out time for my critical tasks. I am so damn tired of people expecting that I’ll drop everything and help them immediately and I’m hoping that time blocking will help with that.

Personal and Creative Work Systems

These systems are a lot more basic than the ones I have at work! Mainly because at home I’m only accountable to myself, my spouse, and the Vorkittens.

I use the Ideas book for my personal lists and I use a Tomoe River dot grid notebook that I bought from a seller on Etsy for everything related to the blog. These are pretty basic bullet journals and they come with me everywhere. The Tomoe River booklet fits in the Jibun Techo, which means I always know where it is. I’d eventually like to find dot grid notebooks in the size of the Jibun Techo–it’s a “slim” A5, which means it’s the same height as a standard A5 but is narrower–it’s a surprisingly good size.

Todoist is what I use to keep track of when I’m going to write and revise posts or when I am going to have time blocked out for reading or administrative work, including my weekly reviews. I look at this every week to be sure that it matches up with my calendar.

Reviewing It All

I set aside time every week for reviewing what I’ve accomplished during that week and to plan the following week. I do this every Sunday and not only do I tally up specific tasks but I also think–and write–about how I feel about the previous week and to highlight any significant accomplishments. This not only helps to keep me on track but also lets me reschedule anything that didn’t get done or to give myself an attagirl for being awesome.

I haven’t set up a formal weekly review process for work, but I am thinking that I probably /should/, so I can stay on track for my professional goals. Once I figure out what those are beyond “continue being awesome.”

I also try to review everything on a quarterly basis. This is more in depth and involved and I see it as an opportunity recalibration of goals and priorities. I also make a general plan for the next quarter and tentatively block them out on the calendar by week. I have a number of blog-related projects which are on hold and I’m hoping to get to them in 2018.

And finally, there’s the yearly review. I’m hoping to make this happen in a more formalized way at the end of the year than the slap-dash list of accomplishments that I usually make at the last minute on New Year’s Eve. The current slap-dash list situation does remind me that I (which remind me that I didn’t completely suck).

That’s where I am, productivity-wise. This may be too much system, but we’ll see–if it is too much, I’m open to switching things up or going simpler. Who knows, I may be back to a single bullet journal at the end of the year.

Also: none of my paper tools are particularly pretty. I use fountain pens and ink that makes me happy, decorate with stickers or washi tape, but there are no elaborate or artistic layouts involved. My hobby isn’t keeping a pretty planner, my planner is a tool so I can make time in my life for the things I really want to do.

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7 Comments

  1. Day Al-Mohamed

    Oooh. Thanks for this. I love exploring different productivity tools. I keep hoping to find that “magic tool” that’ll get me and keep me organized.

    Last year, I had a combination of journal (a leather covered blank book from Oberon Designs) and planner (Bando) with some Habitica for general life habits.

    This year, my wife bought me a Passion Planner to try. We’ll see if it works better-worse-same as the Bando. I still have a journal for ideas and other scribblings and Habitica for general life habits.

    I can’t say I’ve found a single item that captures everything well.

  2. Liz Mc2

    Thanks for writing this up for the nosy/enthralled! My teen with ADHD has found Todoist really helpful; I find paper works for me–I am embarking on my 2nd year of a Hobonichi Techo, which is an ideal size/page format for me to have a schedule and daily to-do list all in one place. I’m still working on a system for longer-term planning, trying to repurpose my old bullet journal Leuchtturm. Those tend to be the balls I drop since so much of my work is straightforward daily tasks structured by my class syllabus. I need to establish a weekly task and goal reviewing habit!

    I like the idea of estimating task time and the visual way your ETP does that. I tend to wildly over-estimate time (so that, say, a 15-minute errand occupies an entire day in my mind and precludes doing anything else) and some visual blocking of task time/reality-checking of how long it took would help with my procrastination. I’ve begun doing something like this with paper-grading, my bete noire, but it’s a work in progress.

    Happy New Year! here’s to a productive one.

  3. The other Natalie

    This is great! I’m currently using the Uncalendar (http://www.uncalendar.com/index.jsp) in a Levenger Circa notebook cover and discs (https://www.levenger.com/CIRCA-326/CIRCA-NOTEBOOKS-339.aspx) for home. Digitally I use Google calendar to put all my appointments and events (I copy them into my Uncalendar weekly) and OneNote for quick notes, thoughts, lists, or a project that will have lots of information I need to track.

    At work, I use two Circa notebooks divided into sections (e.g., meetings, individual publications, special projects) and OneNote for instances where information on a topic may come via email, meeting, etc. but I want it all in one place. I tried Toodledo (https://www.toodledo.com/) but could never get the hang of it for task management so just used it for reminders, but now I just use the reminder feature on Outlook.

    This system has worked fine for a couple years but the last quarter of 2017 started getting hectic at work so I’ve added dot-grid papers at the beginning of my main notebook to list tasks for the week, both planned and emergent. Unfortunately I don’t think this loose system will hold much longer so I’m glad you did this post. Airtable looks like it could really be a help.

  4. Rainy

    Thanks for sharing your process! I’m working on systems and struggling a bit – will be checking some of this stuff out!

  5. Meera

    I quite like the Planner Pad. I really like seeing a week over a double page spread. I also like seeing all my to dos in various categories in one place – I have a work category (and various sub categories); kids; me (self care); study; and house. Because all those items have to come from the same resource, my time, so if I have a lot on in one category I have to shift other action items to another week or delegate/reallocate. I also like the three tier planner pad system; starting with a master list for each category; then items for each day; then appointments for each day so I can see what I’ve got on and what work I can fit in around it. Plus I record the meal planning there too, again around what time I have available. It also has monthly sheets and yearly sheets for major goals etc; and room at the back for notes. I used to use the small size but upgraded to the big one because I need the space more than portability. It lives in a zip up folio and stationary holder thing from Mochi Things, which goes to and from work in my backpack.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Thanks! I’ll check them out. I am a huge fan of Mochi Things. 😁

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