“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.
It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.
I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.
For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.
Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:
Sorting by context
Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)
Time and Energy Available
Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.
A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.
Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.
- Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
- Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
- Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
- Draw an “X” over items that are complete
It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.
The Dash/Plus System
My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.
Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.
Managing paper is often a reason I’m called in to help clients. They are usually frustrated by growing paper piles and, almost always, there is a Miscellaneous (MISC) file among the piles. The MISC file is like a junk drawer for a diverse set of papers they’re not sure how to process.
When files are labeled MISC, it’s difficult to figure out (and find) what is inside because the label is broad and encompasses several categories. This will ultimately slow you down when you need to retrieve information, and on days when things are hectic and particularly fast-paced, you can quickly get frustrated. So, why are MISC files created so often? Perhaps because it’s easier to put everything in one general file than making more complex decisions. Figuring out what to do takes time and some decision making, like what to keep and what to recycle/shred, what categories to use, and making room for new items.
To banish that catch-all file and make deciding what to do a little easier, follow these steps. Of course, not every system will work for everyone, but this three-step process will at least get you thinking about creating one that will work for you.
- Ask yourself a few questions. Before you decide where to put a specific piece of paper, decide if you actually need that piece of paper. Can you access it in some other way (internet, a digital scanned copy)? How long has it been since you last referred to that document? Does the responsibility of storing it still lie with you or does it now belong to someone else or another department?
- Determine the next action needed. Once you’ve decided which papers you need to keep, these papers will need a permanent living space (just like everything else in your home or office). Think about the next action that needs to be taken so that you can determine the paper’s category. Do you need to make a follow up call to a client? Pay a bill? Edit a manuscript? Then, you could have folders with the following labels:
- Current bills
- To call or Today’s tasks (or add client call to your to-do list instead)
- Editing or the title of the manuscript
The names you use will be particular to you and the typical documents you need to keep. Also, consider looking at your existing categories to see if you can find the right match for your papers (then you wouldn’t have to make a new folder or come up with a new category at all).
- Use easy-to-remember categories. Putting things in categories actually helps us to remember those items better. This means you’ll be more efficient at finding the files you want when they are grouped by a specific topic that makes sense to you. For instance, you might have a Utilities category in which you put the current telephone, gas, electric, and water bills. Or, a “Blogging” folder for articles that inspire your future posts.
You can really simplify the filing process by removing your MISC folder from your paper filing system. You’ll find that there really isn’t a need for a general file once you have determined the correct category for your papers. And, keep in mind, the less you print, the less you have to file and retrieve. When possible, use online bookmarking tools (like Delicious and Instapaper) and/or tag your documents and save them to your hard drive and/or cloud server so you can find them easily.
According to the New York Times article “Pushing Paper Out the Door,” a paperless future is coming quicker than a lot of us may think. From online bill paying to ticketless airline travel, paper is no longer needed for day-to-day activities.
“Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is,” says Brewster Kahle, the founder and director of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library. “Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow. When was the last time you saw a telephone book?”
Hmm, the last time I saw a telephone book, it was left on my front porch in a plastic bag by the good folks at Verizon. I never used it, and it quickly found its way to the recycling bin. The article goes on to highlight an Unclutterer fave, the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which was highlighted in Erin’s Paper Clutter Begone series.
…at home, where printers are slow, noisy and devour expensive ink cartridges, people are more cautious about hitting the “print” button. What little paper comes into the home — receipts, bills, invitations — can be scanned and then shredded. Filing cabinets can be emptied, the data kept, the paper gone.
The article also goes on to offer ways to get rid of those shoeboxes of photos that all of us have taking up space in back of our closets. Scanning services are an option, but you can tackle this at home with a garbage bag and a scanner.
For more on getting paper clutter under control take a look at Erin’s Paper Clutter Begone series:
- Part 1 – Fujitsu ScanSnap
- Part 2 – Filing system software
- Part 3 – Filing systems for your file cabinet
- Part 4 – Shredders
Catalog Choice is a free service that you use to help curb the amount of catalogs that you receive in the mail. The process doesn’t take very long and can be completed in three easy steps. From Catalog Choice:
Catalog Choice is a sponsored project of the Ecology Center. It is endorsed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and funded by the Overbrook Foundation, the Merck Family Fund, and the Kendeda Fund.
If you are tired of all the unwanted catalogs that you are receiving, you may want to give Catalog Choice a try.
Filing documents in my home has become a terrible chore that my wife and I loathe. The big problem is our filing cabinet. It is a beast of twisted metal and needs to be replaced as soon as possible. We have yet to get around to replacing it, but we would also like to relocate the file cabinet to a spot where we will actually use it and take advantage of its storage capabilities.
Currently, our file cabinet resides in our laundry room right next to the cat litter. Its not exactly the most welcoming place to do filing and organizing. So, we would like to get a new file cabinet that can be placed somewhere in our home, but doesn’t look like a file cabinet. With the new location we should utilize our file cabinet much more often and the piles on my desk and in the kitchen will hopefully be a thing of the past.
Where is your file cabinet? If it resides in a unpleasant or out of the way spot in your home, this may explain why you never utilize yours. Try and place it in a central locale where you can actually use the thing for filing instead of loathing the process altogether.
My wife and I have been together since high school. Yes, we’re high school sweethearts and we’ve now been with each other for more than half our lives. Over the years, we wrote each other quite a few letters. My wife studied in France for two semesters and we attended colleges that were quite far from each other. And, this all took place before e-mail had become popular.
We recently came across two shoe boxes full of old letters we wrote to each other during our college years and we were at a loss as to what to do with all of them. Most of them are quite silly and pointless, but there are some letters that actually convey some long distance heartache. So, rather than pitching all of them in the garbage, we went through quite a few of them and tried to narrow down the collection to something more reasonable. After a quick scan of hundreds of letters, we pared the collection to a much more reasonable collection of twenty. Now, instead of two shoe boxes full, we have all twenty wrapped into a little bundle with ribbon. My wife made them look very nice and now our daughter can eventually read these letters when she is older (a lot older in some cases).
We also considered scanning some of the letters, but my wife decided against that. For those of you who have a ton of old letters in your possession, you may want to think about getting rid of the majority of your collection. Surely they aren’t all gems.