Getting Organized

"Losers have goals. Winners have systems."

- Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert Comic Strip

I’ve never been a very organized person.  I don’t plan vacations months in advance.  I forget to respond to emails.  And I’m typically absent-minded, leaving things behind and forgetting appointments.

Over the years I’ve tried a number of different tools to help me stay organized: day planners, PDAs, David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done system.  None worked.  Or I should say none stuck.  Each system would last me a week before I resorted to my old habits. They took too much effort to maintain.

But after 10 years of trial and error, I’ve realized the most effective organizational system for me is:

-  Simple: the less effort, tools and gadgets, the better.
-  Action-focused: keeps me working on my most important tasks
-  Liberating: clears my mind of clutter, anxiety and open loops; frees my “psychic RAM”
-  Leak-proof: insights, reminders, references are all captured

The goal of any organization system should be to have a clear head and feeling of relaxed control.

David Allen, who has helped thousands of professionals get organized, and written THE book on managing workflow, calls this having a “mind like water” that responds appropriately to the force and mass of input like a still pond.

If you feel buried, forgetful, overreactive or underreactive, then you probably need a better system.

So how can we achieve “minds like water?”

The organizational principles from books like Getting to Done and Zen to Done that have helped me the most are:

  1. Capture – “Empty Your Mind”

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

- Zen master Sbunryu Suzuki

There need to be designated places where we can empty all the open loops from our head.  We should have as few collection buckets as possible, and we must process them regularly.

Most people will need to capture the following things: goals, ideas, lists, reminders/appointments, email, and reference materials.

I have the following buckets:

-  Google Calendar (for lists, appointments, and reminders)
-  Blackberry Phone (for ideas on the go)
-  Notebook (for ideas)
-  Excel Doc (for goals and list of Most Important Tasks)
-  Gmail (for email and reference)
-  Facebook (for email and reference)
-  Laptop Hard Drive (for ideas and reference)

Most people will have a physical in-basket as well.

The hardest part for me is regularly processing these buckets!  But if we don’t maintain these lists they also become a psychic burden.

2. Process – “Touch Once”

Next we need to clear our physical and virtual inboxes.  We need to work through each item and take action on it. David Allen calls this “transforming stuff into actionable stuff.”

We must determine if the item is actionable or not (see diagram from Getting to Done below).  If it is, we should do it, delegate it, or defer it.  Deferring it means determining the next action and scheduling to do it later.  If not, we should delete it or set aside for reference (to possibly use later).

By being decisive and touching each item once, we clear our mental decks.

Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” really helped me process my email.  You’ll notice he based a lot of his principles on David Allen’s Getting to Done. He's a bit of a smart-ass but I do think his advice is sound.

3. Prioritize & Plan – “First Things First”

This habit is so important that I wrote a separate post for it.  We need to determine our most important tasks (MITs) for each day and get them done as soon as possible.  I try to have no more than 3 MITs per day.  This is my equivalent to a “to do list.”

I’ve found that long lists distract and overwhelm.  Having a 3 item (maximum!) list simplifies things and keeps me focused.

4. Do – “Do One Thing at a Time”

Naturally, this is the hardest habit to master: getting the work done.  Some techniques that have helped me get into the zone are attention dashes, setting time limits and creating environments conducive to singular focus (i.e. no internet, working outside home).  I’ve written a series of posts on managing attention and energy here.

5. Review – “See the Big Picture”

David Allen suggests reviewing your goals, lists and calendar weekly.  This is a Quadrant II task that I try to do on a weekly basis, or at the very least, once per month.

My review involves asking the following questions:

-  Did I accomplish my MITs?
-  Who did I spend time with? (I’ve realized who I spend time with massively affects my outlook and happiness)
-  What 20% of sources led to 80% of my desired outcomes and happiness? Do more of these.
-  What 20% of sources led to 80% of undesired outcomes and unhappiness? Do less of these.
-  What are your upcoming MITs?

Nevertheless, stepping back from the day-to-day and reviewing is critical for seeing the big picture and staying on track.

I encourage you all to read Getting to Done and Zen to Done and reflect on how you can improve how you manage your workflow.

What system(s) do you use to stay organized?  Please share below.

Reading List:

David Allen, Getting to Done *
Leo Babuta, Zen to Done *
Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero

* indicates Ebook is available through UpStartist MBA shared book folder

  • JaredW

    The type of person who is constantly looking for keys, wallet, phone drive me nuts. Not that I don't misplace these things occasionally, but by putting them in the same place by habit (obsessively) leads to auto-pilot knowing where my sh^t is.  The more 'auto-pilot' minor tasks you can reproduce, the more you can focus on important things. So consistency of organization is an important starting point, whatever your methods may be.

    The other side of the organizational coin is that when things fall outside of your normal organization methods, they quickly are lost. If I don't have something on my master calendar, don't keep an email I haven't replied to in a familiar place, etc (out of site, out of mind), I probably won't get back to it until there's an outside trigger.

    I would like to add another layer to this, as mentioned in the post above. The one-touch action of scheduling a time in the future to return to an incomplete task would be a helpful reminder to keep pending tasks relevant.  And realizing why this task is still pending (waiting on me, waiting on someone else, don't want to do it) will help to decide how to act on it.

    Shared organization with another person, or group... it's hard. How do you balance different methods and levels of organizational interest with others, without driving each other nuts?

    • DarrenJoe

      Having a "place for everything" is one of Leo Babuta's 10 habits (i.e. Habit 6: Organize) in his book Zen to Done. It's helped me a ton. Like you, I put my wallet, phone and keys in the same place as well. But I also find the habit useful to keep track of finances, communications, etc. Each piece of information needs a home (and a related easily repeatable procedure) so our minds can rest at ease. I think you are spot on here.

      Re: group organization, that's why we have intranet and shared drives, right? (kidding). I think we need to put on our "systems hat" and categorize and name folders and files accordingly. Would a new employee be able to understand where to get information? That's how I try to think of it.

      Other than that I find weekly reviews work best for keeping everyone organized and aware of what the team is doing.  One of my bosses had each of his subordinates write a weekly "5/15" report summarizing: 
      1) what got done this week 
      2) what will get done next week and 
      3) what, if anything, you need from the boss (resources, information, decisions, etc)

      It's called a "5/15" because it should take 5 minutes to read and 15 minutes to prepare. I thought this was a good way to keep track of what everyone was doing.

      Other than that a short (!) in person meeting every week could accomplish the same purpose.

      There's project management software as well, but that's a whole separate post...