I have looked and looked for a system to help me organize my life. A place where I can add everything relevant, keep it in order, access it easily, and keep it for posterity. A place for meetings and appointments, phone calls and emails, links and photos, contacts and calendars, lists and notes. Something that will actively or passively tell me what I should be thinking about next.
The only way to accomplish all of this is to hire a personal assistant. Since that is not happening, I am still looking!
The problem with all organizing systems is that they simply manifest the mind of the person who is doing the inputting. If I don’t have clarity, how can my organizer? Any attempt to use a formal system is really retraining my brain to fit the system, rather than the system adapting itself to fit my brain. Not sure if that is good or bad!
I’ll start with my job. My workplace requires that I use Outlook for email, and maintain a shared Outlook calendar. Other managers can query me to see if I am busy, and send me meeting requests which show on our calendars. Outlook has a “Task” feature which allows the use of To Do lists with time and date stamps, reminders, alarms and overdue messages. I find it is good for discrete events such as “attend a meeting”, but bad for ongoing or nebulous activities such as “think about customer service improvement.” It is necessary to break everything down into tasks and give them a time line (er, hence the name “Task” feature?) Outlook integrates with Microsoft’s notekeeper program, OneNote, which is a better option for capturing ideas. My current version of Outlook requires me to tab between Email, Calendar, Contacts, Task or Notes, so I can only see one of those areas at a time.
I keep my personal appointments and email completely separate from my work Outlook account. Work owns that account. As a municipal worker, everything I do there is part of the public record. My employer has no interest in snooping into our email, but I wouldn’t want to accidentally leave personal email open on my desktop, or mistakenly send something personal to a work contact, so I just don’t go there! My workplace offers to buy me a day planner or calendar every year but I prefer to buy my own. That way it is mine alone and not my employer’s property. Again, I am not monitored, but I would hate for my daybook to be subpoenaed by a grievance committee (for example) and for all of my personal, financial and medical notes to be on display!
I have tried all sorts of organizational tools: old-fashioned diaries, undated journals and notebooks, desk calendars and wall calendars, a big refillable DayTimer system, annual planners with a page a month, a page a week, or a page a day; the ancient Lotus Organizer software (1990s), Hotmail and Google calendars, Evernote, and more recently, the Cozi and Trello apps. Yet I’ve always had to combine multiple products to actually organize my life. Sometimes I think the makers of these products don’t have lives to organize: businesses, or tasks, but not lives.
I still use a daybook for my personal records. It is a page-a-day planner with a soft cover and a spiral binding. I repeat all of my work commitments (from Outlook) into this book, and add all of my personal appointments. Everything upcoming is written in pencil. If it never happens, I erase it. If it does occur, I rewrite it in ink. Every workday, I add some notes about things I have accomplished. I keep a brief record of things like car maintenance, medical appointments, hair cuts, birthdays, book club books, vacation time used, and workouts. But it’s not a journal in which I relate any feelings (other than the occasional happy or sad face!)
A print daybook has a few advantages. It is portable, low-tech and offline. On the negative side, it is not secure. I have to bring it with me everywhere, and I do fear leaving it behind and having my very personal details out there. And every year, I manage to spill coffee on it! I am growing impatient with the bound/printed format which doesn’t allow me to insert lists, photos, links or attachments. Unless I literally insert slips of paper between the pages! So I am trying out various apps.
I’ve had an iPad Mini for 3.5 years now, and while I don’t take it everywhere, I am comfortable with loads of apps. I tend to use specific apps for each function rather than using simple list and note apps. For example, I have MyStuff for my home inventory, Menu Planner for meal planning and grocery lists, StyleBook for wardrobe info, Fitbit for fitness records, Goodreads for listing books I’ve read, and so on. When I just want to make a list (like a home To Do list), I had been using Evernote. I don’t use any calendar, reminder or alarm apps.
Lately I’ve tried out Cozi and Trello to see how they’d work for me. Cozi is a home organizing app for families. Each registered person can add tasks to a common list, start a new list, or check off items that are completed. It can be viewed from the device of any member. The screen prompts you to keep a shopping list, a grocery list, a collection of recipes, a To Do list and a shared calendar. A launch screen shows partial views of multiple lists, acting as an overview. I was turned off by the ads in the free version (both from Cozi and sponsors) and the frequent exhortations to upgrade for more features. Some of the features in the paid version seem basic enough that they should appear in the free one, such as birthday reminders and full-month calendar views. I think this would work if spouses/partners updated it and checked it rigorously, multiple times a day, in a true concerted effort. But if they were that cooperative already, maybe they wouldn’t need the app 🙂
This is my second go-round with Trello after using it a few months ago. Trello is like an online cork board used for project management. Team members can post “cards” to “boards” which are displayed in neat columns. This is my favourite app yet because I can see multiple full lists on the screen at the same time, so it instantly gives me a snapshot of everything I need to think about. I am the only member of my team (I don’t share my boards). I have made several work-related lists (on the left of the screen) and a few personal lists (on the right of the screen). I can add any number of lists, and scroll right to view them. Each card has room for a title and a description which can be seen at a glance. You can also click a card to view more details or attachments such as links, pictures, checklists or files that I’ve uploaded.
It is possible to add a deadline to any card and post it on a calendar. When it is due, it shows up in red. But then it stays red forever, as if I have ignored the item. The only way to deactivate it is to remove it from my calendar or “archive” it so it can’t be seen. This is fine if my lists consist of things like “do the dishes” for which I don’t need a record! It is not helpful when I have a card such as “send grant application.” I want a record that I have completed it on that date. My fix for this is to have two “boards” for every month – things to do, and things that are done. When I finish each task, I drag it to the “done” board. It is quite satisfying to see the Done boards getting longer and the To Do boards getting shorter! The other option is to use a checklist. I can check off things that are done and they show with a
strikethrough. Checklists are on the “backs” of cards so you click a card to see the checklist attached. Here’s an example:
We have just completed everything on this list and the painters are due to arrive this week! I didn’t mark them as done so you could see the items better 🙂
I really like Trello. I keep it open at work in a browser tab behind Outlook, and frequently add or update tasks or appointments. At home, I can use the desktop version or the iPad app, which are always in sync, and add to it when I’m on the go. Brilliant!
Someday I will spend hours creating art journals, but I am happy with my practical little system right now 🙂
I would love to hear what tools you use for personal and work organization. Does anyone else out there like to keep a record of things that are completed?