I love productivity porn: seeing how things are organized, reading about better systems to attempt to deal with the unending influx of things to do. I love finding new ways to bring order to disorder – that’s my favorite part of programming.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been going back and forth between using paper or computer systems. Right now the pendulum is tilting heavily toward paper. It’s an unholy amalgamation of my vague recollections of GTD, DIY Planner templates, and the calendar on my phone.
As I indicated above, some of these come from GTD, some of them are rules I made up, some are probably ripped off from other productivity books. Many of these principles are surely one or more of the above.
- The system must not require me to write anything down more than once. A lot of planners come with monthly and weekly pages, but I cannot be trusted to consistently write the same piece of information down twice.
- Similarly, I just can’t get in the habit of looking in two places for one set of information – in the example above, checking two calendars won’t happen: I’ll check on and forget the stuff on the other one.
- I don’t have an office, so it’s imperative the system remain a size that is practical to cart around with me.
- The system must let me get the odds and ends out of my head and into paper. I have an awful memory – anything that exists solely in my head will not exist for long.
- I’m easily distracted. At any given moment, there are at least a dozen things I’d like to be doing. There are almost always dozens more floating around in the recesses of my brain. The rate at which I come up with cool stuff to do vastly exceeds the rate at which I can do them. This system is an attempt to cope with that.
The backbone of my system is a one-inch binder with roughly 5 sections. I say “roughly” because I’m so cheap that I didn’t want to buy more than one set of tabbed dividers, so the tabs represent general groupings. You can download the templates I use as PDFs or Open Office Draw files.
- Brain dump – This section consists of the sheet titled “Prioritizing table”. It comes before the first tab. I want to be able to open the binder, dump the contents of my brain, and go back to whatever I was doing with minimal distraction.
Daily Diary – I use this to both record information about the day that passed, and layout a plan for the day ahead. As a freelancer, I often experienced the blessing/curse of having an unstructured day, and I like to have a record of both what I intended to do, and what I actually did, so that way I can see how productive I was, or if things took me longer than expected. There is one page per day, double-sided. I usually don’t print more than a couple days in advance. If I have something to remember that is farther in the future, I rely on the calendar on my phone.
Projects – each project has its own page and they’re alphabetical by title. At the beginning of this section, there’s a list of projects and their next steps. I review my projects every Monday and write a new list for the upcoming week. Last week’s list – and any projects finished that week – get stapled up with that week’s daily diary sheets.
In Getting Things Done, David Allen describes a project as anything with two or more steps, but I find that definition to be a little unwieldy – I don’t want to make a new project page for every load of laundry. My guideline is anything I’m not likely to finish in one sitting.
This section is both the most used and most heavily under construction – a lot of projects are sub-projects of others, and paper just doesn’t deal with that well (at least not in a system that needs to be portable). I’m trying to live with the fact that the project pages are necessarily rough and imperfect, but I’m finding that surprisingly difficult to accept.
There are a few different pages for different types of projects
- General project – mostly just a checklist
- Reading project – I usually keep notes as I read a book, and I often plan to review it on the internet when I’m done. This sheet first serves as a home for my notes as I read the book, then as a guide while I write the review.
- Web project – includes all the steps that will be in every web project I do, whether it’s for a client or my own amusement.
Reference – This is mostly just a collection of lists – tools that are useful for new clients, skills I want to improve, random business ideas. There are also some really specific pages in here:
- Financial – as mentioned above, I freelance, which means that when tax time rolls around, nobody mails me a handy W2 summarizing what I made in the previous year. Every time I get paid, I enter it here. In the future I may expand this to include a detailed accounting of business expenses I planned to deduct, but right now, I don’t have enough deductions to make it worth my while.
- Password lists – I have like 3 pages of passwords just for my own person, and another few pages for clients. There is just no other way to keep all that information in my head (see above – things that exist only in my head will not exist for long).
Maybe/Someday – David Allen calls this a “tickler” file. Some pages are just lined paper of hare-brained ideas to consider when I have time (HA HA!). There are also some project pages in here – a lot of times, in my excitement, I make a project page and dump my brain out, only to realize a few days or weeks later that it’s not going to top my list of priorities any time soon, at which time it gets moved to the Maybe/Someday tab. I’ve always got about 30 things going on in my brain at once, and if I keep low priority projects in the projects tab, that means I’m routinely flipping past them, seeing them and getting distracted by them. This is a fairly new practice, so as of yet, nothing has moved from the Maybe/Someday tab back into the Projects tab. I’m open to the possibility that this section will become a place where projects go to die.
- Extra paper – Pretty self-explanatory. Some are template pages described above, others are blank. I try to keep at least one blank of any given template so that way I can copy it, rather than having to print from the computer (My printers has limited support for Linux).
On Sunday, I print a new “Project List” and “Weekly” pages. I culled a lot from the “Weekly” page that you downloaded because this will vary so much from person to person, but I tried to keep enough stuff there to give you an idea of what stuff you should add.
My first order of business Monday morning is to SKIM my e-mail and make sure there are no production servers in distress. Provided I don’t have any fires to put out – and I usually don’t – my second order of business is to fill out the Project List. This consists of flipping through the Projects section and ascertaining the next action for that project. If I don’t think to get to it in the next 7 days, I move it to the Maybe/Someday section. If I do plan to get to it, I write it on the list. Then, I go through the Maybe/Someday section and see if there’s anything on the back burner that needs work in the upcoming week. If so, it gets written down and moved up to Projects. I try to limit my Project List to one page, so that way I can double-side it with the “Weekly” page.
When that’s complete, I staple together previous week’s Project List, Weekly and Daily Diary pages and put them in storage with the other stuff I keep for sentimental purposes. As I typed that, I realized it sounds like kind of an odd pairing, but it works (see above about stuff that only exists in my head – I’ve already forgotten the exact phrasing I used when I wrote that section 20 minutes ago.)
Once or twice a day, I go through the brain dump section and copy the items to project pages or whatever. Not everything needs to be a project – for example, if I want to call a friend on their birthday or text them a funny story. You may think, “Who writes that on their to-do list?” See whatever I wrote up there about my brains being unreliable.
If I have an especially hectic day or week ahead of me, I’ll use a Prioritizing Table to try and prioritize all my activities (thus, the name).
It’s very much a work in progress. Since I first drafted this post 3 weeks ago, I’ve started rereading GTD and revising this system. I may post updates to this system. I know I totally love geeking out on other people’s systems, so I hope I can provide others with the same thrill.