Organizing tools

Organizing Techniques That Actually Work

How a few good organizing techniques can help you get your most important things done

By Kevin Ferguson

Tell me if this sounds familiar. I show up at my desk in the morning with the best intentions. Today is going to be the day that I get my BIG goals accomplished! I log in and open my email. A couple things look urgent, an email thread from yesterday seems to have continued overnight so I catch up on that. This one looks like a phishing email, delete! Oh, but this sounds interesting — a new version of a library I’d been thinking of using is coming out, plus some tips on how to reduce boilerplate code.

Bing!, oops, looks like I have a bunch of Slack messages to catch up on, some cute baby pics in the random channel, some critical client feedback has come in. That reminds me, I should check the client survey…

Bing!, oops, reminder for the team standup on Zoom I’m almost late in joining.

And now my day is progressing, seemingly without a driver at the wheel as I careen from one urgent thing to the next. It was a busy day so I put in an extra hour to catch up and at the end. As I shut things down I give a glancing thought to the good intentions I had that morning…surely tomorrow I’ll get some time to start working on those big goals.

There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.
– Peter Drucker 

Sound familiar?

If that sounds anything like a normal day for you (as it did for a long time for me), I have good news. You are surviving. You are cultivating the energy needed to take that next step, to turn your goals into accomplishments. However, you just aren’t (yet) taking advantage of some organization techniques to make the best use of your time, your energy, and your attention.

Most of us are struggling to keep up. This means the important things in our lives, the meaningful things, are being pushed aside, relegated to later, and ultimately left undone. Organizing allows us to take more control. It allows us to allocate our time more intentionally. When we can drop the least important things in our lives, we can eventually use that space, that extra time, to rebalance and spend more time doing the things that are really important.

There are many techniques that promise to help us add more organization to our life and our work. There are a few I will introduce, but before I do, I’d like to break down the common components they attempt to address. They are:

  • Planning
  • Prioritizing
  • Estimating
  • Tracking
  • Reducing distraction (increasing focus)
  • Tapping into your natural productivity cycles

These components are important to consider as you decide which techniques are most compatible with how you tend to work best. They will also help you to address where you need some organization tools for support.

Level Up #1: Keep a “To-Do” list

Something as simple as a To-Do list is a good starting point. The simple act of identifying your to-dos for the day will start the ball rolling. Having a list of intentions helps us avoid going too far down a path that doesn’t lead towards our plan for the day. Will things come up that supersede items on the list? Sure, but having something to look at to compare the urgent things that come in puts us in the natural mode of prioritizing. And if all we do is cross off the items we complete for the day, we have a good start to tracking our time and effort.

A To-Do list helps for estimating too, as we may find we complete about five items from of our list per day. Sure some items will be bigger and some will be smaller, and one day we may do 10 and another we may not even complete one, but the average gives us a pretty good idea where we can draw a line between what we honestly expect to complete and what has a small likelihood of getting done.

So can a To-Do list solve all our problems? Maybe not, but it’s a really good start. Here are a couple gotchas to avoid with this simple method for organizing.

Avoid the infinite To-Do list

If you’ve tried organizing your day with a To-Do list before, you may have noticed how easy it is to just tack a new item on the end. Sal from marketing needs a new template? Add it to the list. Bryn from HR needs a follow up on an email? On the list. Eventually the list becomes a black hole where tasks go and never emerge. The advice here is to keep the list manageable. If it’s unlikely an item is actually going to get done soon, if not today, then this week, then don’t add it. Managing your To-Do list shouldn’t become an item on the list in itself!

Avoid the lack-of-accountability trap

The accountability trap happens when you let items on your list slip too much. Our To-Do list is a bit of a promise to ourselves, and breaking our promise too often will weaken its power. A lot of us really struggle to say no, but saying yes to too many things, or saying yes to things you really aren’t going to do takes time and energy away from the things we really need to stay focused on. Aim to keep it unusual that items on your To-Do list are not done in a timely manner and you’ll find many rewards.

Make it a habit

The terrible thing about habits is that they are hard to break. And the great thing about habits is that they are hard to break. If you are struggling to get a daily organizing habit going, this is the challenge. But we can also use it to our advantage. A pretty ingenious way to ingrain a habit is to tie it to a trigger we do every day. Maybe you always have a cup of tea or coffee when you get started working in the morning. Or maybe you take a few minutes to tidy your desk at the end of the day. If you can tie a few minutes of jotting down your plan for the day as part of a routine you already generally do, you might find it’s easy to get it going. After a few weeks you’ll be able to say that every morning you drink your tea and outline your To-Dos for the day.

Remember, for everything you say yes to, you’re also saying no to something else. Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
– Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method

Level Up #2: The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It has a cool sounding name that evokes images of classical Italian painters and engineers uncovering the mysteries of time. But it’s actually a pretty simple technique and the name is similarly simple. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato and it refers to a common kitchen timer in the form of that vegetable. The basic concept is to block time into units, 25 minutes of active, undistracted focus followed by five minutes of deliberate rest. After four pomodori take a longer break.

Pomodoro Technique - 25 min working, 5 min resting

The technique sounds very simple but it’s harder than it first seems. For one, 25 minutes of undistracted focus is non-trivial these days. Email, Slack, texts, the slew of instant notifications all trying to grab into our attention are ever increasing. So too is the notion that immediate replies are essential for business. Ironically, it can be just as difficult to adhere to the break requirement. However, just as rest days are essential to improving muscle performance, mental breaks have been proven to increase overall cognitive performance.

What benefits would we expect from using the Pomodoro Technique? The most obvious benefit is focus. Once we become skilled with the Pomodoro Technique we’re able to reduce the distraction and switch costs that come with continually shifting our focus from one task to another, without being able to fully get into the mental state of flow that allows us to become hyper efficient. Even before we master the technique, it’ll become apparent how much time we actually spend getting distracted each day. A few side benefits are more structured planning as we break up your daily tasks into distinct pomodoro blocks of time and eventually are able to estimate and track our time in these convenient blocks. We may also discover how much disciplined mental rest can improve overall performance and focus.

Level Up #3:  Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time tested technique pioneered by David Allen in the early 2000s. The idea is to use consolidation techniques to reduce the cognitive load we carry when we try to juggle many inputs for what we’re doing in a day. Then we can apply a consistent process to getting through the items. Going back to my original example, I may be receiving input on all the things I need to do from a variety of sources: Slack, email, phone calls, texts, applications, and so forth, as well as multiple instances of each. With Getting Things Done, you stockpile all these sources into a consolidated “inbox” where you keep track of everything. Rather than getting distracted by urgent requests, you can funnel each incoming task into a defined process that informs you about what you really should do next. Having a consolidated major “inbox”, or list means you can slice and dice your tasks. For each item, you identify what you need to do next, and whether you need to do it, delegate it, trash it, etc. It also allows us to maintain a list of tasks for any circumstance. If we’re stuck in the airport with shaky WiFi there are still items we know we can process. One of the benefits of GTD is having at your fingertips a cultivated set of next steps that you need to take on everything you want to get done. You don’t need to go fishing for your next item and possibly get distracted, you can always just pick up the next available action item from your pipeline.

The GTD Method

Getting Things Done is a pretty rigorous process, but will certainly provide a good structure for managing your time if planning is one of your bigger challenges. An additional benefit is that you can identify classes of activities that suit your working style and headspace. Need a couple quick wins to get you going after lunch? You can define a group of tasks that fit that criteria so they’re ready to pick them up when you need them. Do you find you can do your best work first thing in the morning when you are fresh? You can set up a group of tasks that require more intensive concentration for the time when that energy is available to you. The Getting Things Done technique can also be used in combination with the Pomodoro Technique. If you quickly funnel incoming requests into your pipeline, you won’t lose them and will avoid getting too distracted to complete your in-progress pomodoro.

Level Up #4:  Bullet Journal Method

The Bullet Journal Method is a very popular set of techniques developed by Ryder Carrol in the early 2010s. Bullet Journaling stems from an annotation technique that Ryder developed for identifying and recording tasks, notes, and events, as well as organizing to-dos for daily, monthly, and future action.

The Bullet Journal method is highly flexible to adapt to the way that find works best for you. Another benefit is a vibrant and active community that has grown up around the method. If you’re looking to solve a particular organizing challenge, there is a good bet that someone from the community has shared a template or custom process that they have used around a similar challenge.

Bullet Journal

The suggested basic annotations for bullet journaling are as follows:

· Incomplete
x Complete
> Migrated
< Scheduled
– Notes
○ Events

With the journal itself broken down into the following structure:

  • Index
  • Future
  • Monthly
  • Weekly (optional)
  • Daily
  • Custom Collections
    • Projects

The Bullet Journal Method is a good option to look into if your biggest challenges are around prioritization and tracking. Bullet journaling tends to take a pretty holistic view of managing priorities, and its somewhat free form (but still organized and indexed) format is great for keeping up with life as it happens.

Level Up #5:  Personal Kanban

When we’re ready to apply some really industrial strength organization to our days and weeks, look no farther than Kanban. Invented in Japan by Toyota for car manufacturing in the 1950s, Kanban has become a popular Agile methodology for teams looking to embrace high throughput in areas as diverse as software development, medicine, and education. More recently, the Kanban principles have been applied on an individual basis as people have realized the same process they use with their teams at work can be used to plan weddings, vacations, and even day-to-day activities.

Kanban works very well in combination with the other techniques mentioned. The principles convey well to individuals:

  • Reduce work-in-progress — focus on one thing at a time, through to completion
  • Optimize for cycle time — continually improve processes to reduce how long it takes to go from to-do to done
  • Focus on quality delivery — make sure the time spent is well-spent

If Kanban is a process you use with your work teams day-to-day, you’ll be familiar with the mechanics of maintaining a backlog and moving work items through the pipeline. But even if Kanban is new to you, I encourage you to give it a try. It can be very effective for ensuring you are spending your time as effectively as possible, as well as finding ways to improve how you use your time, which is something that we could all stand to improve.

Kanban board

We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week, and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day.
– Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

This doesn’t sound easy, why are we doing this again?

We’ve seen some really great techniques for better organizing our time and energy. But isn’t improving how we organize our time just another item on that to-do list when the whole problem is that we have more to do than we have time to do it? This is where the magic of organizing comes into play.

When you have a better picture of everything that you need (and want) to do, you can start collecting some real data about how you spend your time. You’ll probably find that the problem isn’t that you aren’t doing enough, it’s that you are doing too much. All the organizing in the world isn’t going to give you more than 24 hours in your day.

So why go through the trouble? Because knowing realistically how much you can actually do will allow you to make better decisions about how you spend the time that you have. You may find there are items you can delegate, or let go of completely. The key to getting your goals done is less about managing what you do, and more about being deliberate about what you don’t do.

Becoming better organized, with the tools mentioned above or others you uncover, will give you a more realistic picture of how you spend your time and allow you to make the decisions you need to spend it better.

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