How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Get Organized

BusyMan I have ADD, (“oh look, something shiny!”) which means getting organized is a challenge, and making sure I can put my hands on any given piece of information a huge life-long effort, but technology has helped a lot, and after trying, discarding, returning to and otherwise manipulating every conceivable combination, I have a system that works so well i thought I’d share it.

Organizational Systems

This posting is about handling  ToDo items and Appointments. A second organizational area is email and notes and a third is office organization. These will be handled in subsequent posts.

Here is what I do. I won’t try to justify any of it as it will take too long and sound idiotic…

To Do

I use different software on different platforms, but what is critical is that they are all synchronized all the time.   If not, I’m dead.

I buy the basic premise of Getting Things Done, as I understand it, which is:

If you try to keep track of everything you have to do in your head, you’ll always be doing the wrong thing and forgetting the most important thing. Thus you need a system that you totally trust to be reliable, into which you can put tasks and forget them until they appear, ready for you to take action.  You should never be looking at a task that isn’t ready for action, and you should be seeing the most important task you can take action on right now.

The key to making GTD work, which took me a long time was to stop putting deadlines on things that didn’t have real deadlines.  My fear was that without a deadline I’d forget about it.  Bzzzz. Still your turn. With everything having a deadline, everything got ignored and was “late.”

Much better is to give a deadline when you absolutely must, and then set a sufficient reminder, but, to make this work you must schedule at least one (better two) times a day when an alarm goes off to remind you to review your focus tasks.  Set up right, focus shows you the 3-5 tasks that are

  • Most important to do now
  • Actionable now (no point seeing something you can’t take action on

My system is to use three criteria for making the focus list:

  • Due today or over-due OR
  • Marked top priority (saved for the very rare)
  • Marked Next Action

Task AngelTo make this work I use the following fields in my various platform-specific tasks lists (all of which are synch’d through Toodledo

Date Time Start/Due

Few tasks are designated with a due date, and even fewer with a start date (don’t start before this date) but those that are have real deadlines.

[Click on image for full size]

Status

The statuses that I use are

  • Next Action – Move to focus list
  • Active – Do this as time allows
  • Planning – No action, still in planning stage
  • Waiting – Dependent on an action by someone else
  • Hold – No action for now
  • Postponed – No action for foreseeable future
  • Reference – No action ever but need to have this in the list for some reason

Of these, The first four are used a lot, the last three rarely.

Priority

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
  • Top

Top is reserved and used only for those things that have to go on the focus list right now.  Especially rare as that is what Next Action is for.

Context

  • Computer
  • Phone
  • Out
  • Redmond
  • Wife
  • None

Context tells me where I have to be to be able to do this task. None means anywhere.  Nice thing about this is when I’m in Redmond (e.g.,) I can just see those things that I need to do there.

Folder

  • Admin
  • Learning
  • IT
  • Projects
  • Personal

This is an arbitrary way to divide up my tasks.  IT is any computer fussing. Projects is the center of attention except on weekends when it switches to personal. I can filter out by folder so that helps a lot.

Creating and Maintaining Tasks

Key to making this work is that I can enter a task from anywhere, see my tasks anywhere and fuss with them at a very convenient place.

See them anywhere

toodledo I can see a synchronized task list on my phone [Tasks or Toodledo] , on the web [Toodledo]  and on my computer [TaskAngel].

I can enter at each location with the above software as well, and I tend to “fuss with” the tasks using Task Angel as computers beat phones every time for that sort of thing.

Doing the Most Important Things, Except…

Based on the rules above (focus list has only Next Action or Top Priority or Due) I will be working on the most important task at any moment. But then there are those things that linger, that are medium priority, never feel like they make next action and have no due date. They can sit for months. Thus, I’ve added my own task which is around the first of the month those tasks bump up one level of priority (Medium –> High –> Top) and so nothing sits on the task list for more than a few months even if it is trivial.  A hack, but it seems to work.

Mail It In

One of the great features of toodledo is I can send myself a mail (I use a pre-canned message that I leave copies of in my drafts folder) for new tasks, so if I’m not at a convenient location I can just mail the task to myself and it appears in the folder “Inbox” with some indication of priority and if there is a due date.

Phone It in

Similarly, if I’m in the car, I can call Jott, and dictate the to-do item. Works great.

Supplement

The key supplement to all this is an alarm at 9am and 2pm to remind me to review the FOCUS tasks. Since I’m not putting due dates I can’t set alarms on many tasks, but twice a day review solves that problem cleanly.

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About Jesse Liberty

Jesse Liberty is an independent consultant and programmer with three decades of experience writing and delivering software projects. He is the author of 2 dozen books and multiple Pluralsight courses, and has been a Senior Technical Evangelist for Microsoft, a Distinguished Software Engineer for AT&T, a VP for Information Services for Citibank and a Software Architect for PBS. He is a Xamarin Certified Mobile Developer and a Xamarin MVP, Microsoft MVP and Telerik MVP.
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8 Responses to How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Get Organized

  1. George says:

    How do you create your focus list? How long have you been using the system? How do you access on your phone (what type?)

    I can’t tell you how many systems I’ve started a quite on. I actually started using Toodledo a couple of days ago then found Taskangel and was looking for a review – which led me to your site.

    Thanks for the info.

  2. Ken Pierce says:

    Very cool. I’m giving it a try. I’ve also tried many organization strategies and have hovered around implementing GTD for a bit. Thanks.

  3. Jon says:

    What application do you use on your Mac?

  4. Paul C says:

    Good article, I’ll definitely flag this as a todo item… 😉

  5. @dbjdbj
    Don’t be silly; I use Google products all the time. I don’t see that anything they have would improve this, but I’ve used their calendars, search, analytics and much else. I do not play “Not Invented Here” – you have me confused with someone else. In fact, if anything I get a certain amount of grief that my main computer is a Mac Pro and my main laptop is a MacBook Pro.

    That said, if you know of something Google has that will save me time/effort, I’m all ears. (eww)

  6. dbjdbj says:

    Is there anything you would not do in order not to use anyhthing not Google ?
    No, I am not joking.

  7. Pete,

    In the system I use folders == projects (I’d rather they didn’t) and so yes, projects are tasks with subtasks.

  8. Pete says:

    Hello, I like your setup -but wondered how do you manage the projects -would these have subtasks, how many project would you have in there -could they not have there own folder?

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