Simple, powerful organizing advice

Last week, I came across a helpful article from 2007 on Zen Habits about 27 simple organizing habits. Twenty-seven is a lot of habits, but one of them (a three-parter) really struck me as being essential for an uncluttered life. If you’re looking for straightforward and easy advice to follow, consider adding Leo’s #21 as basic habits to your every day routines:

  1. Write things down
  2. Execute
  3. Tidy up along the way

Write things down

The act of writing things down helps you remember details. Think of the notes you took in college or the shopping list you can “see” in you head. Today more and more people are producing digital notes, but research suggests that’s not the best method as far as recall is concerned.

In 2014, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a study on note-taking and recall. A group of students were told to take notes on a lecture. Half of the subjects used a laptop while the others used pen and paper. While both groups memorized the same number of facts, the pen-and-paper group outperformed their counterparts in tests on the material. Why? It could be because writing is slower.

A recent study by Scientific American suggests that, in a note-taking scenario, we can’t possibly write everything down verbatim. Instead, we must listen closely and record key words or concepts that represent what’s being said in a meaningful way. Conversely, speedy typing lets us “drone out” and record everything, as if simply taking dictation.

Execute

Procrastination is a vile, seductive monster. While beneficial procrastination is possible, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Stop procrastinating and take time to do what must be done and simply do it. I start each day with my three MITs, or Most Important Tasks. When they’re complete, everything else I tackle that day is a bonus.

Tidy up along the way

I recently revealed here on Unclutterer that the tidy life doesn’t come easy for me. As such, I really dislike the idea of an entire Saturday spent cleaning. That’s why I’ve adopted the habit of tidying up along the way. It requires almost no additional effort and is immensely helpful.

Walking upstairs? Grab that book that goes on the upstairs bookshelf. Going outside? Put the recycling on the curb. All of these tiny tasks add almost no time to what you’re already doing, are super simple, and have a huge impact on the state of things in your home and office.

Big thanks to Leo at Zen Habits for inspiring this post. Three simple ideas — write it down, execute, and tidy up — can have a massive improvement on your surroundings and your day. If you make them a part of your routine, you’ll enjoy the results.

Book Reviews: Five new releases on simple living and productivity

Five really terrific books have been published in the past few weeks that might be of interest to our readers:

Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
by Chris Guillebeau

Living an uncluttered life isn’t always about stuff. It’s also about clearing clutter from aspects of your life that keep you from doing what you would rather be doing. Chris’ book is perfect for anyone looking to unclutter a bad job or career from your life to do exactly what you should be doing. This isn’t a “dream big” book that leaves you inspired but without steps and tools to achieve what you want. This book is full of every tool you will need to make your job and/or career change happen. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that I’m a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Chris. One of those reasons is because his advice is based on years of research and includes examples from actual people who have taken his advice and found success with it. If you’re unhappy or disgruntled with your work, his book is exactly what you’ll want to read to move productively in a new direction.

90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more)
by Felice Cohen

A few years ago, we wrote about Felice because she lived such a full life in such an itty-bitty NYC studio apartment. Since that time, she has sat down and written an entire book exploring her strategies for occupying such a tiny place. You don’t have to live in an extremely small space to benefit from the advice in her book, though. I found her text easy to read — it’s mostly lists that are direct and simple to follow. There are 90 “lessons” in the book to go with the 90 square feet theme. If you know any graduates heading to college or a big city with a tiny space, this book would be perfect for him or her.

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids
by Asha Dornfest

Asha has been writing the ParentHacks website for more than 10 years, and her latest book is a cultivation of all the best advice she’s seen during this time. The book is illustrated and in full color and every page is packed with useful tips to make parenting easier. My favorite thing about this book is how often it transforms objects that on the surface seem to be unitaskers but shows you how they’re really multi-taskers. (16 uses for a baby wipe tub, 13 uses for non-slip shelf liner, 8 uses for a baby bath tub, etc.) If you’re a parent, you will want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is becoming a parent, they will want this book. This book is my new go-to gift for anyone who announces she’s pregnant or becoming a parent in another awesome way. There are so many real-world tips in this book that almost every page contains a piece of advice you can use to make life with kids easier.

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own
by Joshua Becker

Today is the release of Joshua’s book and it’s perfect for anyone who is coming to uncluttering with the hope of having a more fulfilling life. His book explores the topic of simple living in a much more philosophical manner than what we usually delve into here on Unclutterer. And this minimalist philosophy speaks to a lot of people, so if that sounds like you, pick up this extremely resourceful and guiding text. The advice is solid and practical. It’s not an organizing book — it’s a live with less stuff book. It’s a must-read for anyone looking for a step-by-step guide to minimalism.

The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer
by Helene Segura

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Helene’s book and have been eagerly awaiting its release so I could recommend it to you. If you struggle with productivity and time management, THIS is the book for you. The review I emailed to Helene immediately after finishing reading it sums up my opinions about the helpful text: “The Inefficiency Assassin is a concise, straightforward, and comprehensive plan that provides realistically attainable tactics to solve every major productivity problem. It details precisely how to eliminate these issues so you can have the professional and personal life you desire. With Helene Segura’s help, you can say farewell to guilt and exhaustion and to being overworked and overwhelmed.”

Video game soundtracks for productivity

I’ve found a unlikely source of music to listen to while I’m at work: video games.

The relationship between music and productivity has been demonstrated in several studies. For example, one study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks, while another demonstrated that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Tempo and style can affect your productivity, too. If I’m cleaning a room or doing yard work, I want something with a fast tempo, typically rock. It’s easier to feel energized with invigorating music. It’s different when I’m working quietly at my desk, however, and that’s when I listen to video game soundtracks.

When doing quiet work at my desk, I must listen to instrumental music. Lyrics are too distracting because I end up singing along and not getting any work done. Modern video games (not old-school ones like Pac-Man) have lengthy soundtracks and are exactly what I’m looking to listen to. Yes, classical music is also a great choice, but not the only choice. There following are the game soundtracks I love to listen to while doing thoughtful work:

Lost Cities is a card game designed by Reiner Knizia. A version for iPhone and iPad was released a few years ago and it has a fantastic soundtrack (available here from iTunes). It’s like music from a fantasy movie.

Monument Valley is an award-wining game for iPhone and Android. It’s very pretty and so is its soundtrack. I’d describe it as atmospheric and certainly more abstract than that of Lost Cities. This is the album I listen to first thing in the morning with headphones. It really gets me in the mood to work.

Sword and Sworcery is a pixelated beauty of a puzzle game that I quite enjoy. Its soundtrack is just as quirky as the game itself. If bass, drums, and filtered synthesizers are your thing, this is the soundtrack for you. Just like the others, it’s all instrumental to get in the zone and work.

Creating a productive work environment

In order to do your best work with the least effort, it helps to have your workplace arranged so it fits your personal needs and preferences. You can’t always create a perfect work environment, but adjusting as many factors as possible might make a big difference.

Of course you want your papers, supplies, and such to be uncluttered and organized, but what else might help create a productive environment?

Ergonomics

If you spend any significant time on a computer, it’s essential to ensure you have an ergonomic set-up. If you’re in pain from a repetitive stress injury, you’re certainly not going to be productive. And harming your body is just generally a really bad idea.

Cornell University has some good ergonomic guidelines, including a summary diagram. For those who are sitting rather than standing, note that the old “sit totally upright” advice has been modified to encourage sitting at a somewhat reclined posture, with your back at approximately 110 degrees.

Getting the right set-up can be especially tricky with a laptop. You may need to use external input devices (keyboard, mouse, etc.), a laptop stand, and/or an external monitor to create an ergonomic workstation. The University of Michigan has a document about laptop ergonomics (PDF) that summarizes the problems and solutions.

Temperature

While there are studies that try to define the best office temperature, an article by Rose Eveleth at Smithsonian.com concludes that there is no universally perfect working temperature. But you probably know what temperatures work well for you.

I don’t work well when it’s hot, so I’ve invested in a good fan I can bring into my home office when need be, and that solves my problem. (My home doesn’t have air conditioning.)

If you aren’t in control of the thermostat in your workplace, you may still be able to bring in a fan or a space heater, as need be. Warm clothes, a lap blanket, and fingerless gloves are all options for keeping warm. And dressing in layers if the temperature is unknown (for example, when attending meetings outside your normal workspace) is usually wise.

Noise

You may work best with music, white noise, or pure silence. Some people even work well with the background chatter of a coffee shop.

But in many shared offices, noise can be a problem. TED speaker Julian Treasure says that if you work in an open plan office, your productivity is only one-third of what it would be in a quiet room. For those who work in such offices, he recommends using headphones and playing a soothing sound such as birdsong. Bose noise cancelling headphones are expensive, but get lots of raves. Less expensive choices might work fine for you, too.

Lighting

I’ve written before about the importance of well-lit spaces, and that certainly applies to the workspace. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has a number of fact sheets that explain the importance of proper lighting in the office and how to achieve it.

Aesthetics

If you care about aesthetics — not everyone does — then making your office space more visually pleasing will make you happier, which means you’re likely to be more productive. As the Herman Miller website states, “The effect of beauty may be hard to measure, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling — or important.”

If you have a home office, you can choose wall colors that appeal to you. Other options include incorporating artwork or plants into your space. Cut flowers might also be an option, but you’ll want to make sure you aren’t triggering someone else’s allergies. Even attractive office supplies such as staplers, mouse pads, and desk organizers can make a difference.

Make time to achieve your goals with Google Goals

Technology’s great promise of an easier life is realized with varying degrees of success — sometimes you find the perfect app that saves you time and other times you have a printer you’d like to toss out a window. Last week, Google released a new Calendar feature that focuses on a single aspect of achieving a new target or habit: finding the time to work toward your goal. And I’m glad to report that
Google Goals is quite helpful.

Google Goals works simply. Tell the Calendar app about a goal you’d like to achieve, and Goals looks at your appointments and schedules time for you to work toward it, based on your availability.

Right now, Goals is available on the Google Calendar app for iPhone and Android.

To add a new goal, open the app and tap the “+” in the lower right-hand corner. Three options appear: Event, Reminder, and Goal. Tap Goal and then:

Choose a goal

There are five categories: exercise, build a skill, friends and family, me time, and organize my life. Tap the one that likely fits your goal.

Define an activity

Tapping “organize my life” reveals four options: plan the day, clean, do chores, and a custom option, which can be anything you like.

Choose the frequency

How often do you want to work on this goal? Weekly, twice a week, or something else? Make your selection, and then determine how much time you plan to spend on that task.

Time of day

Lastly, pick your preferred time of day to work on your goal. Again, Google is going to do the specific scheduling for you, so make a general selection like morning, afternoon or evening. Once you’re done, review your choices and confirm the new task.

Google then looks at your calendar and all that you’ve got going on to find the best time for you to work on your goal. I’ve been using it for finding time for my daily walks with great success.

Again, note that Google Goals focuses on one aspect of achieving a goal: finding the time to work on it. The rest is up to you. For help with goal setting, check out our previous posts on realizing your goals.

Organize your email inbox with SaneBox

For many, dealing with email can be a full-time job. New messages arrive before you’ve attended to the old. What’s worse is that messages can be lost, misdirected, or marked as spam and unintentionally end up in the trash, and finding the important emails among so many duds is a real time-waster. In my constant pursuit to get email under control, I’ve found a fantastic service that I’ve been using for months now that is helping me to effectively deal with my email woes, and it is called SaneBox.

To use SaneBox, simply create an account by entering the email address you wish to tame. Right away, SaneBox begins analyzing your email history, noticing the addresses you respond to, and those you don’t.

Right here I want to address the security questions that some of you probably have. When I started researching this software, my first question was, “Wait, they’re accessing my email?” Well, no. First, email never leaves your server. SaneBox does not take possession of your messages. Also, they only look at the email headers, which are composed of the sender, receipt, and subject. They look at the patterns in your email behavior (messages you’ve opened, responded to, etc.). In other words, they’re not reading or downloading your email. Phew.

Back to the service. When the setup process is finished, SaneBox creates a new folder in your email software for you called @SaneLater. The messages flagged as “unimportant” during that initial analysis are moved there. The rest, or the “important” messages, are left right in your main inbox as usual. The result: you only see the messages that mean the most when you glance at your inbox. This has saved me huge amounts of time.

Messages moved to @SaneLater aren’t deleted, so don’t worry. They’re simply in a new folder. While SaneBox is learning, it might place a message in @SaneLater that you consider important. In that case, simply move that message to your Inbox and future messages from that sender will stay in your Inbox. After a few days of training, I just let it go with my full trust. I’ve gone from around 40 messages per day to six or seven.

There are other options beyond the @SaneLater folder, all of which are optional. @SaneBlackhole ensures you never see future messages from a certain sender. @SaneReplies is my favorite folder. It stores messages I’ve sent that haven’t yet elicited a response. @SaneTomorrow and @SaneNextWeek let you defer messages that aren’t important today, but will be.

What’s nice is that SaneLater doesn’t care if you’re using Mac OS X, Windows, iOS or Android. It also sends you a digest (at a frequency you determine) of how messages have been sorted, in case you want to make any adjustments.

SaneBox offers a 14-day free trial. After that, there are several pricing tiers, available on a monthly, yearly or bi-yearly schedule.

Organize goals with the SELF Journal

There are numerous tools on the market to help you organize your goals, and I’ve recently began to use one that might also interest you: The SELF Journal. This little notebook is something I backed on Kickstarter back in 2015. After receiving my journal in December, I used it to successfully plan and implement a new season of my podcast. The experience was so positive, I’ve decided to share it with you.

Are you setting goals effectively?

The problem with goal setting is that many people do it in a way that doesn’t help them to achieve their goals. Many set unrealistic goals (run a marathon next weekend without any training), underestimate completion time, or fail to review progress.

Another big hiccup is not having a plan. Let’s say you set a goal of organizing the garage, top to bottom. Simply saying, “I’m going to organize the garage this weekend,” isn’t enough and probably won’t work. The SELF Journal, aside from being well-made and attractive, features a built-in system for moving toward a goal effectively, day by day.

The SELF Journal method

When my journal arrived last December, I was ready to dive in. I had a project that needed a lot of time and attention, and the journal seemed like a perfect fit for helping me to achieve it. In a nutshell, the book uses these methods:

  1. You create a 13-week roadmap. Many poorly-crafted goals lack a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The SELF Journal helps you to create this timeline and write it down.
  2. A procrastination-busting calendar. You’re encouraged to fill every working time slot with a relevant activity. No, “just checking Twitter real quick” does not count.
  3. Prioritized planning. You’re meant to plan tomorrow’s tasks today, so you’re clear on what’s to be done in the morning.

There are two more aspects that I really like in the journal. The first is tracking and reflection. The journal provides space for you do reflect on your wins for the day and what you’ve learned. The wins emphasize the last aspect of the system — bookending your day with positive psychology — while the opportunity to record lessons learned informs future work.

The book’s morning routine emphasizes the preparation and work, while the evening routine highlights reflection.

I’ve been quite happy with it and I suspect others will also find it beneficial. Its current price is $31.99.

When plans go awry

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. As much as you try to be a reliable, organized person and meet your commitments, sometimes life interferes. Would it help to know that members of Congress face the same challenges that you do?

Derek Willis and Cecilia Reyes recently published an article on the ProPublica website entitled “The Dog Ate My Vote: How Congress Explains Its Absences.” Members of the U.S. House of Representatives can file explanations for missed votes (as well as noting how they would have voted, had they been present). As you read their explanations, I’m sure some of them will sound familiar.

Travel delays, sometimes because of weather, are a common theme. For example, Rep. Jackie Speier wrote, “I was unfortunately unable to cast votes on Monday, July 8, 2013 due to inclement weather that prevented me from making it to Washington, DC.”

And sometimes our representatives experience the same travel frustrations we all do. As Rep. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II wrote in October 2011:

I regret that I was prevented from casting votes during last Monday night’s session due to repeated delays of a flight from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington.

The flight, originally scheduled to depart at 4:50 p.m., did not leave Charleston until after 9 p.m., more than four hours late. In that time, the airline offered numerous excuses — maintenance, delayed flights that had backed up the system. Numerous alternative departure times were put forward and then retracted. Within one four-minute span, the airline emailed four different departure and arrival times. At moments, the arrival/departure information was so confused that the airplane would have had to violate the laws of physics in order to abide by the airline schedule. This is an all too often occurrence and often maintenance delay excuses are used to cover crew issues and/or other problems.

Needless to say, all passengers were inconvenienced and the airline’s explanations were wholly unsatisfactory. This flight delay prevented me from carrying out my Constitutional duty to represent the people of southern West Virginia.

Sometimes there are medical issues or family emergencies. As Rep. Ruben Hinojosa explained in Feb. 2011, “I regret that I had to return to my district because of the illness and subsequent death of my sister.”

Competing priorities can also cause someone to miss an important event. (At least in these situations you sometimes know about the conflict in advance and can warn people about your absence.) As Rep. Billy Long wrote: “Friday, May 15, 2015 I was away from the Capitol to attend my daughter’s graduation from the University of Missouri Medical School. Due to this event, I was unable to vote on any legislative measures on this date.”

And sometimes we just mess up. I love this honest explanation from Rep. Jeff Landy in April 2011: “I stepped outside to discuss issues with a constituent group and completely lost track of the time.”

As Willis and Reyes wrote, “Voting is one of the most important duties of a lawmaker, and most miss very few votes.” Assuming you are also a person who meets your key commitments the vast majority of the time, just realize that sometimes — no matter how organized you are — things will go wrong. However, there are steps you can take to these situations to a minimum, and make it easier to recover when they do happen.

Unexpected flight delays can ruin your schedule, but you can try to minimize the potential for problems by not booking super-tight connecting flights, and looking at airline data about which flights tend to get delayed when making your choices.

If you regularly lose track of time, using timers and alarms can help. If you’re often on the go and don’t have a smart phone with an alarm function, a watch with a timer might help.

Because you never know when an unavoidable delay might occur, it helps to have contact information (phone numbers, email, etc.) for anyone you might need to inform of any delays. And let them know as soon as you can, even if your revised plans are not yet firm, so they can adjust accordingly. Similarly, have everything you need to reschedule flights and hotel reservations: the confirmation numbers for your original reservations, and the phone numbers, websites, and apps you need to revise those plans.

And when making plans, follow the advice of experienced project managers and include some contingency time in those plans — time added to the schedule to allow for the unknown issues that almost always occur. A schedule that assumes everything will go perfectly is often unrealistic and leads to last-minute scrambling when things go wrong.

Organizing your thoughts

As you may have guessed, the first step for organizing your thoughts is writing them down. (Especially thoughts related to things you need to do.) It’s not hyperbole to say that writing things down can change your life. It helps clear your mind for important work, offers a record of the past, and can foster a sense of achievement. But even beyond that, having things written down, even when the resulting list is huge, can help you feel like you’re on top of things. But simply making a list isn’t all you need.

For optimal thought organization, consider taking these additional steps. First, and this is the most critical piece in the process, perform a good core dump. Get everything — and I mean everything — out of your mind. When everything is out of your mind, it can stop pestering you about what needs to be done. Your mind is more of a problem solver than a filing cabinet.

Next, find the tool that’s going to work for you for capturing those tasks/ideas and working from them. Notebook? (A Moleskine, a Little List, an Emergent Task Planner) An app? (Evernote, ToDoist, Wunderlist) Desktop software? (OmniFocus, Fantastical, Toodledo) It really doesn’t matter. Just identify the tool that is best for you (a.k.a. that you will actually use over the longterm). One that helps you to prioritize your work and integrates (even manually) with your calendar are also good ideas.

Finally, identify the best time of the day to do the work or tasks you need to accomplish so they stop weighing on you. For years, I was the type who liked to work at night. When the kids were in bed, I could retreat to my home office and work for a few hours. Today, that’s not the case. I find that I like being with my family in the evening and then prepping for the next day in other ways, like making sure backpacks are full, my outfit is ready for the next day, lunches are made, and so on. Instead, I’ve begun doing thoughtful work in the morning, before the rest of the house wakes up and starts their day. The point is: notice what works for you and stick with it.

If you’re looking for ideas for ways to do your core dump, my favorite way is to brainstorm with a mind map. It’s a great way to have a powerful brainstorming session without resulting in a mess that must be sorted before you can get on with the rest of your work.

Now, take the time to find the time and tools that are most amenable for you and enjoy productive thought organization.

Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

Eat that frog later?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The “frog” in the Mark Twain quote above has been adopted by the business community and productivity advocates to represent the one task or activity you’re least looking forward to completing over the course of your day. The idea being that once the unappealing task is done, the rest of the day is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting idea for sure. But let’s consider a minor alteration: is there a benefit to eating the frog second, or even third?

In May 2011, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Power of Small Wins.” In it, author Teresa Amabile describes something called The Progress Principle:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Amabile and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people to record details of a “best day” and “worst day” at work, in terms of motivation. The results were interesting. The days labeled as a “best day” were those during which progress was made on a project:

“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.”

I’ve noticed this tendency in myself. For that reason, I like to set myself up for early wins with one or two quickie successes early in the morning.

For example, if know I have to sit down at the computer and write a proposal, I might clear a few emails from my inbox first, tackle another small to-do item (like returning an object to a coworker), re-read an article related to my proposal, and then begin writing.

I find that if I clear a few easy items off of my “to-do” list, I experience some of the benefits described in the Progress Principle above, and I can use that momentum to tackle the big project of the day — the frog. A couple little successes can go a long way.

Build a visual to-do list in Evernote

We’ve written about Evernote several times on Unclutterer, and for good reason — it’s a fantastic service. I use it as my external brain, having it “remember” things for me, same as a scratch pad, text editor, or journal.

Many people, myself included, use Evernote as a to-do manager. I combine the to-do item with the photo notes feature, and I’ve got a visual to-do list.

When you create a new note in Evernote, you’ve got five options: Text, Photo, Reminder, List, and Audio snippet. In the instance of a visual to-do list, create a Photo. Using the Evernote app on your smartphone, simply take a photo of that long-lingering project: the baseboard that needs replacing, the drywall that could use a patch, the past-its-prime laundry basket that needs to be put out to pasture. Now you have an image representing the task that needs to be completed. But you’re not done yet.

You can add text to any note, so be liberal with the notes. “Buy two-by-four to replace this baseboard” or “Get a laundry basket while at the mall” will do nicely. Take it a step further by adding tags. Try tags like “high priority” or “low priority” and then sort when it comes time to do things. Or, tag by context with terms like “errands” or “home.” Perhaps you’ll sort by tasks for work and those for your personal life.

Now, a visual list like this won’t work for everyone, but often times quickly glancing at an image will quickly jog your memory. Also, you don’t always have time to stop and write things down. Snapping a quick reference photo can fix that problem. Additionally, Evernote is so ubiquitous that your list can be instantly synced to almost any device.