I'm quite bad at multi-tasking and have a terrible memory for appointments and todos. To compensate for this, I’ve developed a system to help keep me organised.
It started as a bastardisation of GTD (Getting Things Done) and has morphed and evolved over time as I've worked out all the kinks. The essence of GTD is still there and I think its a great philosophy: don’t rely on your mind as the place to store things, write everything down onto lists and review these lists regularly and religiously.
I'll say this up top: this system by itself will do nothing to keep you organised, only discipline with the system will keep you organised.
The high level structure of the system is simple. There are three parts: an inbox list and then Next Actions or Reviews, which each contains a series of lists.
The Inbox List
Everything that I need to action, to remember to do or want to do in the future (excluding what belongs in email or in my calendar) goes into my "inbox" list. This list includes anything and everything that comes up in conversation or pops into my mind over the course of my day: music I should listen to, something to look up on Google, booking a dentist appointment, a book recommendation to checkout, some idea for a creative project, some strategic thought for my business, even that I need to call my Mum - everything.
There is no hierarchy or organisation for the inbox, its just one long list or items, entered mostly on the fly in basic point form, just enough to remember what they're about.
Periodically I will then review and sort these items into either Next Actions, for things I want to do soon, in the next week or two, or Reviews, for things I want to do at some point in the future.
Next Actions contains a series of sub-lists broken down by context, these are:
- Home, for everything non-professional
- Work, for everything professional
- Waiting For, for anything I’m waiting on someone or something else before I can action,
- Qwilr Discussions, for things I need to discuss with different folks at work
I keep these context lists at a maximum of around 10 - 15 items (if you want to make sure something never gets done, just put it on an overly long todo list). I keep these lists small by filing items into my Review lists when I don’t need to take immediate action on them (more on those below). This constant pruning and gardening is important for making the system sustainable and effective.
Quick digression: there are things that *don't* go into my inbox. Communications live in my email and social apps (i.e. I don't have "reply to X" as a todo item, I use email/apps themselves to remind me of that) and I use my calendar for anything I need to remember to do at a specific time or place (appointments, meetings, calls, social occasions etc). But for everything else: to the inbox list it goes.
Okay, so what are the Review lists? These lists are about keeping tracking of the things I’d like to do at some point in the future, but not right now, not this week. These help keep the "Next Actions" lists short and easy to prioritise, so I'm working and focusing on the things that matter most.
These review lists have different time scales:
- Next Fortnight
- Next Month
- 3 Months
- 6 Months
- Someday (aka Yearly).
The idea is: if I look at an item in my inbox and think: “I don’t think I really need to do this for a few months” then I might file it away into my "3 Months" list.
Reminders To Review
The final piece of the system is a set of periodic reminders to go back over these review lists. I have a reminder setup to review the context lists in Next Actions every Monday morning, so I can think about what I want to get done with the week, and reminders on a fortnightly, monthly and 3 and 6 monthly cadence to review those lists.
I'll go over the items in the review list and either place them in another review cycle, leave them where they are (i.e. "look at this in another 3 months") or I'm ready to take action on them, I'll put them into a context list in Next Actions.
The Discipline Is What Matters
That is the system in a nutshell - like most things that are good for you (exercise, diet etc), it’s fundamentally very simple, its the diligence that's hard, and is much more about the discipline of doing it, making it an ingrained habit than any specific detail of this implementation.
One thing I will say on this note: getting into the habit of putting everything, really and truly everything, into your inbox is not easy and it took me a number of months. I was having to catch myself constantly whenever a todo popped into my mind: hey, don't keep it in your brain, write it down, capture into the inbox. Now, it's an automatic response.
One App To Rule Them All
Finally, this system is entirely agnostic to what app you use. Use whatever you want. Yes, you could even use paper if you like, but I find being able to browse, edit and add to my system from my phone, laptop and tablet to be very useful - but since it always comes up as a question: I use an app called Things.
And... Why Bother?
Perhaps you're thinking: this seems like a lot of work, why bother with it all? The objective is to minimise distraction and maximise focus, to be continually clearing the mind of "todo clutter" so I can focus more fully on whatever chosen task is at hand. And at a more emotional level, in the busy lives we all lead, it has helped alleviate that ambient sense of "isn't there something I'm forgetting to be doing right now?".