Because of the changes brought about by COVID-19, many people have had to find healthy and productive ways of working remotely.
Some have been sent home and can continue doing their work from there, but the "art" of remote work is not just about staying at home and trying to be as productive as possible. There is a whole range of techniques and best practices that can make you super productive without getting tired or exhausted.
The idea for this article came up when people asked me how I get organized and don't freak out creating articles and publishing content weekly (in addition to dealing with other issues like communities and events).
At first I didn't understand what the big deal was, as I didn't see it the same way – until more people started asking questions, as well. So I realized that this was a topic of interest to the community at large. That's when I decided to write about what I do with the hope of helping everyone who reads this.
This article isn't necessarily the be-all-end-all resource, but is rather intended to be a set of best practices and tips that I've collected and organized over the years.
Note: This article is totally based on my individual experiences, so I may be missing or leaving out some things because I just haven't lived them.
In addition, all the tools that I mention throughout and the opinions about them are completely mine, based on my use and my experience.
If you have had different experiences or have a different view on personal organization, I would love to read about it in another article or on social media.
That said, let's move on to the content!
My History with Personal Organization
For those who don't know me, my name is Lucas Santos. I currently work at Microsoft as a Cloud Advocate, but I've been working with technology and development for almost 9 years.
But why am I telling you all this? Because I want to show where my ideas about personal organization come from and why I think they're particularly important.
During my career I have held various positions in various areas, from support to leadership. And throughout all my experience I have never worked only with development.
In other words, my work was never my only job – I've always been very involved with development communities, events, meetups, teaching programming, writing articles, making videos and podcasts...all while trying to manage my personal life.
Since I was little I was always a very anxious person. I was always very curious to find out how things worked and I always wanted to have control of everything. I had to know the whole process of things to be sure of what they did. It gave me a feeling of security, of knowing where I stood.
During elementary and high school, this was never a problem. But when I got to the job market and college, it started to prove quite impracticable. It is easy for you to know everything in a small company, but when things start getting big, it is out of your control. Trying to regain full control of everything is like trying to hold back a moving train with your own bare hands.
And, of course, I believed I could hold the train...
So, 2016 and 2017 were some of the most stressful years I've ever had in my entire life. I had to manage my college (at that time studying UFABC) and also my job, which had recently moved to a location in São Paulo called "Vila Olímpia". It was far away from my home and public transportation to get there was a pain.
This was one of the most difficult tests I had to pass. It took me almost 2 hours to get to work, so I woke up every day at 5:40 am and went straight from work to college returning at 11 pm.
Needless to say, I needed to find a way to organize everything I had to do – study for exams and my hours of sleep and leisure. But I failed miserably. In the same year, I had several health problems and several anxiety attacks. I still take an anti-anxiety pill every day.
From that point on I started to realize that it wasn't the volume of things I did or didn't do, but what I thought of them. I always thought I wasn't doing enough and that I wasn't getting where I wanted to go.
That's where that I realized that the problem was not me, but my lack of organization. And since then I have tried to evangelize personal organization to as many people as I can so that no one must go through the same problems that I went through.
Why Personal Organization Matters
Firstly, being organized matters because it helps to reduce (if not eliminate) your anxiety about seeing things get done - but we'll talk a little more about that in another section.
This is great for your health because it helps you avoid a lot of problems that anxiety can cause. You know that you can relax because things are planned and, if you follow your plan, everything will be ready when it should be.
Everything in life requires organization and planning, from the smallest things like your hamster's birthday to large and complex problems like distributed systems using Kubernetes with AKS.
You might be wondering - do you have to organize yourself to do everything in your life, is it an obligation? No, you can just go through the tasks one by one and do them in the order you want, storing everything in your mind. But eventually, it will end up weighing on you.
Last but not least, getting organized is a way of doing more things in less time. So it could be that those 5 things you were planning to do during the week could all be resolved in parallel in 2 days. Then you would have 3 days to do other things.
Also, getting organized includes not only having your work organized but also your personal life and your leisure time. Yes! Leisure is as important as any article or project you are going to do in your life. It needs to have time in your agenda at any cost. But if you do not plan for it, you'll always end up pushing it to the last priority and then your anxiety will come back again.
Advantages of Personal Organization
Let's summarize what we talked about in small topics. What are the advantages of personal organization?
- Reduces anxiety and stress caused by not having control of things
- Creates a growing organization mindset that allows you to extend your organization psychology to other areas and other people
- Increases your efficiency, enabling you to do more things in less time
- Frees up time to accomplish more things and, consequently, gives you more time for yourself
- Creates healthy organization and filing habits that allow you to search for and find things much faster
- Generates responsibility
- Induces self-control and discipline
Difficulties of Personal Organization
Getting organized is not a simple task and therefore takes a long time. Personal organization goes far beyond calendars and task lists – we have to create habits. And it has already been proven that a new habit takes at least 21 days to be formed.
We also need to create discipline, avoid procrastination, and do a lot of other things that involve not only a mental but also a physical change.
Many things can undermine our personal organization that we don't even notice, for example:
- Procrastination, the act of leaving something to be done later when there is no punishment for not performing a task
- Mental tiredness
- Physical tiredness
- Lack of prioritization
- Lack of definition in tasks
- Problems with self-discipline (after all, not all people can organize themselves to the point of creating discipline and taking people seriously)
And a lot of other stuff.
Let's make it scientific and see how our brain works.
The Psychology Behind Personal Organization
The brain is an impressively complex computer full of secrets that we have yet to discover. However, we have managed to create analogies very similar to computers.
Just like you often have a series of tasks running at the same time on your personal computer – mine, for example, now has a browser, the editor where I am writing this article, and some communication apps - everything seems to be running at the same time. But in fact, the processor is switching between tasks very quickly, that is, essentially it is running only one task at a time.
The same is true of our brain. Although it appears that we can perform several tasks at the same time, the brain can only perform two cognitively complex tasks simultaneously.
So many people think that the act of multitasking is beneficial and efficient when, in fact, it is more harmful than beneficial. A classic example is trying to talk on the phone while typing something different. Or writing an email while talking to someone about another subject. This is because the channels that process speech are the same and there is only one of them.
And that explains why we can tie a knot or play a song and sing at the same time: the voice and the motor channels that are responsible for the movement of the strings are different.
When we do this unconsciously, we call it task switching, otherwise, we call it cognitive shifting.
Besides, there is this concept called your attention span which is the measure of time that a human being remains focused on a particular task. Microsoft Canada published a study in 2015 which says that the average time that a human being remains attentive to a task is about 8 seconds. And this is super important for what we are going to talk about next.
Of course, this can change according to the type of task we are doing. Apparently, when a task is motivating or pleasant, we can have up to 20 minutes of attention.
And why is this important? Simply because we now have a time limit in which we must accomplish our tasks to stay efficient and organized. That is, we cannot create tasks that exceed 20 minutes.
This forces us to break larger tasks into smaller tasks. And that by itself forces us to detail everything we do, creating a better description of what we need to do. It also makes us eliminate useless tasks or ridiculous items that may seem important at first glance.
And that is the first step towards personal organization: Know exactly what you need to do.
When you have a cloudy task or one that does not seem very explicit, you simply cannot develop that task on time. So you need to create another task just to be able to think better about this first one. This means you have a task for the planning of the next task, which was exactly what I did when writing this article.
I wanted to write content about personal organization, but I didn't know where to start. So for two weeks, I leaned over it and researched possible topics I could talk about and write about, always taking notes.
Since I'm Brazilian, my organization notes are in Portuguese, but you get the point...
For this part of the article, I will focus more on the discipline you should develop throughout this process. We'll work on organizing ourselves as people, so I'll leave the discussion of specific tools and methodologies to the next part.
Everything I will talk about here is based on what I have experienced throughout the years.
Avoid half words and open contexts. Always know exactly what needs to be done
Make sure your tasks are very well defined to the smallest detail. "Talk to John" is not a well-defined task – you need to make extremely clear everything you need to do, with as much detail as possible.
For example, "Talk to John about the insurance policy and ask for the payment to be sent on the 23rd" is much more specific and clear.
Your brain is not a hard drive, it is not reliable
Do you remember what you were doing at this very moment 3 years ago? No? Of course you don't. Our memory is unreliable, so always note down everything AT THE MOMENT YOU THINK OF IT. Do not wait until later, and never say the phrase "Later I'll write this down".
Always write everything down in as much detail as possible somewhere to get it out of your brain.
One day I talked to a friend, William "PotHix" Molinari - who is also a developer on one of the organization tools I like most. He gave me one of the coolest tips:
"Your brain is made to process, not to memorize, so take everything you need to remember it and put it in another more reliable channel, like paper".
Personal organization is highly guided by self-discipline and responsibility, so you need to take it as part of your job.
Some people have a hard time turning something personal into a responsibility. Because, after all, nobody is going to fight with you or pull your hair out because you missed or delayed a personal task. You are your own manager.
But this is both good and bad, mainly because you need to be a little hard on yourself to be productive and efficient. Remember, the only person to blame for your failures is you and no one else.
Therefore, the responsibility of building up discipline – for both large and small tasks – is yours and only yours. So create consequences for yourself if you fail to meet your expectations: "I will not watch my series today because I have not completed my tasks", or "I will turn off the Internet because I delayed this task ".
EVERYTHING is a task
We'll talk about this later, but everything can be considered a task, from cleaning up the leaves in the garden to working towards world peace. So write down everything you need to do and make extreme use of to do lists.
Don't be ashamed to ask friends to send invites for that Sunday barbecue, and live by the principle: "If it's not on my calendar or in my to-do list, it doesn't exist."
Keep it Simple
We just talked about writing it all down. But there's no use in just putting down a task with the title "Achieve world peace". That's too big and vague. We will talk more about this below, but always try to break big tasks into small tasks – remember, 20 minutes or less. This way you'll always know what to do.
Everything has a deadline
I'm a programmer, and I hate working with deadlines because I want my system even more robust and more perfect. But unfortunately, in our lives, everything needs an end date.
All tasks you create need to have a date and/or time to finish. If you don't finish by then, you have failed your plan and need to rethink how you are organizing yourself.
It takes a while to understand your rhythm. For example, I am a human amoeba before 9 am, so I know I will not be able to complete anything very complex before this time. So I plan the most complicated and demanding tasks with greater cognitive load for after midday.
Before that I perform minor tasks such as: replying to emails, reading some articles I have on my read list, watching some YouTube lesson, organizing folders and files, and so on.
Grow beyond your fear of the future
This goes beyond the personal organization of tasks. But the big problem is that we think we will use something in the future and we end up keeping it – for example, I have a folder full of floppy disks here, which I keep only because of sheer nostalgia.
But professional organizer Mia Lotringer showed in this excellent article a very interesting way to organize yourself physically and virtually with your files:
- Overcome your fear of throwing things away or deleting files.
- Put everything you think you will need in the future in a box with a destruction date, usually 6 months from the current date.
- If you need to take something out of there and use it before this final period, take that thing out of the box and put it in another box with a longer destruction period, 1 year for example.
- If you need to take this item out of the 1-year-box again, then keep it, because you are using it for real.
- If not, when the date arrives, throw everything in the boxes away.
Do have a place to organize your tasks
We will talk about tools and software in a bit, but for now, always have a place to write down and get your tasks ready, with dates and descriptions. It can be a notebook, a calendar, a planner (which I never understood how to use), whatever. The most important thing is not the medium, but the habit.
You can write everything down on scratch paper, as long as you look at it daily. That is, as long as you create the habit of looking at and completing your tasks every day, no matter where you leave them, that's fine. But remember that we take at least 21 days to create habits.
Everything I'm talking about here seems to be linked to tasks and things to do, but your workplace and your physical space must be organized. Nobody can do anything in a very cluttered environment because it creates a lot of visual pollution that ends up distracting your mind.
Focus, strength, and faith. But mainly focus
Have focus on the things you are doing. For focus, I say: Do only one thing at a time. Don't try to embrace the world and do five things at the same time, choose one task, do it to the end, then go on to another.
Small tasks right away!
If you have a task that takes 2 minutes or less – like sending an email, answering a person, asking for information, changing something – do it instantly. These tasks don't even have to be on your to-do list, just do them as soon as you think about them.
This is an exception to the previous note where I put that everything should be on the list. Because the time it'd take for you to write a small task on the list is the same amount of time you would spend finishing said task.
Tools of The Trade
Since we've now covered a bit about what personal organization is, now we're going to talk about how to get organized – in detail! It's all about the tools you choose to make your life easier, and about your own self-discipline.
What Should I Organize?
We are always saying "Ah, we need to organize" but what needs to be organized? Your life. Okay... But what makes up your life?
This will vary from person to person, but try to do an interesting reflection exercise: Sit (or stand) and list all the things you usually do for a whole day. After that, try to list with what you interact to accomplish such a task, for example:
- Answer emails (the interaction here would be with email)
- Fix the calendar (The interaction here would be with the agenda)
- Pay bills (The bills would be the interaction)
And so on...
You will find that, in general, a person does not need to organize more than three things: e-mails, Calendar and Tasks.
However, it is important to say that within these items we can have a series of different categories where we can create other items that should be treated differently.
For example, I am constantly involved with events, articles, publications and code, so the tools that I use the most are the calendar, e-mails and text editors. But I can't just categorize everything as an event on the agenda – I have several categories that need to be treated differently.
In this way I prefer to say that the items that need to be organized are:
- Notes and documents
- In-person events
- Online events
- External work (freelance)
- Daily tasks (personal or work-related)
- Personal commitments
- Rest times (leisure, hobbies)
- Neutral time (free time)
So, we've arrived at the biggest controversy on the agenda: Should we organize and plan for our leisure time? Yes! It is free time like any other, and we will talk more about it in the following paragraphs. But the idea is that your agenda should not have "empty" slots. Everything should be occupied with something you would like to do.
And then we have another super valid question: But if I plan my leisure time will it stop being leisure time?
Well, why would it? Just because you put your free time on the agenda to do what you want, does not mean that you are methodically transforming it into a formal work-time that must be followed to the letter.
You see, the idea of personal organization is not only valid for work tasks – it is just the opposite. Personal organization means taking control of your time so that you know exactly how to make the best use of it. All your time must be contained in your personal organization methods.
You can only take control of your time if all of it is being planned, otherwise you will have planning gaps and this will impact your life.
We will now dissect these most important topics.
The agenda is your best friend in personal organization. Remember organization's biggest motto:
If it is not on the agenda, it does not exist
You just can't forget to add something to the agenda, because otherwise you will have an increasing number of things that "don't exist" and you will often forget things.
This will make it feel like the methodology you are using is not working, but it's nothing like that. It's all about habits, which we'll talk about later.
The work you do is as good as the tools you have, so let's talk a little bit about the scheduling tools we have available to us:
- Google Calendar: This is my choice for the sake of convenience. Calendar is already integrated with Gmail email accounts (which I use as my primary account), so it’s extremely comfortable to use
- Outlook Calendar: The same thing as Google Calendar for Outlook users as your primary email account
- Apple Calendar: Again, the exact same thing for users of Apple accounts as main email accounts
For these tools, I really recommend that you stick to one of these three for a few reasons:
- All are linked to an email account, which makes management easier. Remember: always try to use the smallest possible number of tools.
- They are all synchronized in the cloud, so it is very difficult for you to lose any of your data. Also, it is much easier to migrate from one device to another.
- All of them have web clients.
And now we come to the most important point: All the calendars support the import of external calendars. This is important because, most of the time, you will have a personal agenda and a work schedule. I also recommend that you have an agenda for each type of task that you do.
This means it's important that you center all your schedules in one single place. This makes management easier as long as the schedules are synchronized. This means that if I change, for example, my work schedule from my personal schedule it propagates the change to the original schedule.
Sounds complicated? Let's look at an example:
Let's say I change an event on my work schedule from my personal schedule. For example, from my personal schedule I change my RSVP from "yes" to "no" for a work meeting. This change must be propagated to the work agenda where the event must say that I will no longer be present.
This is possible because most calendars use the CalDAV protocol, which is a standard communication protocol for remote calendars.
If you are not happy with the default views of your chosen calendar you can always download a client that you can modify. You can even include other options and features.
For example, if you do not like to access via the web, Outlook has an excellent PWA (see how to do it here). It is also possible, through Chrome's web apps, to turn any website into a desktop application.
Organizing the agenda
Organizing your agenda is very important, as it will be from there that you get all of your own personal organization. Therefore, the agenda is the main point of all our "theory" here.
Have a different schedule for each activity
When we create a calendar in any of the tools described above, we automatically get a calendar called "Calendar". However, this does not mean that we must stick to a single calendar on the same agenda, and we shouldn't.
It is good practice to create a new calendar – or a new agenda, depending on your platform – for each type of activity you participate in. See how I organize my agendas:
Since the calendar is in Portuguese, I'll be putting the translated names in the list, and the original names in parentheses:
- Personal (Pessoal): This is the standard calendar that I renamed to be my personal calendar. In it I mark all my personal commitments and those that do not fit in any other agenda.
- Confirmed Events (Eventos confirmados): In this calendar I mark the events that I am sure I will participate in, such as meetups, lectures, conferences, webinars, podcasts...
- Unconfirmed events (Eventos não confirmados): Here are the "Save the date" for the events that I have submitted proposals for lectures or that I am on the verge of participating in, but are not yet fully confirmed.
- SP Events (Eventos SP): In this calendar I mark other events that I will participate but not as a speaker or staff, just as a listener. This is a shared agenda among several people who organize events in São Paulo, so it serves more as a guide for avoid scheduling events on the same days.
- Family (Família): This is an agenda that I share with my parents and other people in my family so that we can know the days that everyone is busy.
- Freelance (Freelas): Here is an agenda to schedule delivery dates for side projects and also important meetings with clients.
- Tasks (Tarefas): This is undoubtedly the most important agenda, as this is where I synchronize my tasks with my to-do list.
Add some color
It's much easier to identify and check what's going on when you add color to your calendars and tasks. This way it is possible to see much more clearly what is taking up more of your time.
It is possible to see through the colors of my calendars what belongs to which category:
Note that there are tasks to the left of other tasks – this is because they are items originally added to the calendar that have the color of this category. You can see that those items that have a gray border have been added to the "tasks" calendar. But I colored it myself with another color. I usually color each of these items by category, so I know right away what I will need to do on certain days.
In addition, coloring the items in your calendar helps you understand where you are spending the most time. For example, the light green items that are very present in the calendar are part of my agenda for work meetings (so you can see that my days are almost all permeated by meetings).
Outlook also allows you to add icons to your events to make them even easier to find.
Go beyond the task
Planning tasks on your calendar doesn't just include creating the item and putting it on your calendar. There are other factors that need to be considered:
- Travel time
- Ease of getting to the location
All this needs to be considered so that your planning is efficient. H ere are some important topics on how to think beyond what you need to do:
- Measure travel time: Some calendars (such as Apple's iCalendar) have the ability to add a travel time, so the event is filled with a bit of extra time that makes up the travel time to the location. If you don't have that in your agenda, create another travel schedule or try to always take into account that all tasks that are outside your home require some time until you reach the place.
- Make use of the address: Whenever you can, include the address where the event will be taking place. This way most schedules can already let you know how long it takes to arrive at the place in advance.
- The 15-minute rule: Always mark items on your calendar as starting 15 or so minutes before the actual start time, so you will never be late for an appointment.
- Make use of notifications: Add notifications when the event is coming, and always more than one! This can be configured by schedule as a default and by event.
Unforeseen events happen
Always be ready to revisit your schedule to reorganize your tasks daily. Unforeseen events happen, plans change, so the agenda can never be written in stone. You need to have a certain flexibility in everything you can do.
It is not a lack of planning to change your agenda. On the contrary, the ability to adapt to what is happening shows a remarkably high level of personal organization.
Look down the road
Do not stick to scheduling only events that will happen in the next week. Plan and schedule ALL the events that will happen and that already have a date, including events that will happen the following year.
There is no bad schedule
There is no task that cannot be scheduled. Always put ALL of them on your agenda, from your least favorites to the biggest conferences. Remember: "If it's not on the agenda, it doesn't exist"
Schedule your free time
As we said before, it is super important to schedule the time you have for you. So enjoy and schedule free time so that you do not schedule other things over it.
Also, always schedule your lunch time in your personal and company calendar. That way other people (and even yourself) are unable to schedule things at these times.
Be sensible with schedules
That meeting never starts at 10 am sharp...how frustrating. It's always complicated to work with other people and schedules, so try your hardest to stick to the time you planned for things.
But always try to give yourself some time between your tasks so that you don't get overwhelmed.
Every day, try to schedule some time just to focus. During this time, only dedicate yourself to what is scheduled. That is, don't respond to messages, don't answer emails (unless, of course, these are your focus tasks).
Outlook has an extension called Insights which, among other very cool things, allows you to schedule focus time weekly. In addition to it, there are other programs like RescueTime that allow you to analyze your daily productivity:
And this brings us to another important topic.
Look for tools that help you
The most important mantra I bring to life is that we must keep things simple. This means we should only use a small, but efficient, number of tools.
For several months I searched for and tested several tools, some of which did not give me much benefit. But I found others, such as Insights and RescueTime, that showed me super interesting things.
Understand your time
In addition to having insights, seeing the bigger picture is very important. Other tools like WakaTime allow you to have exact control over what you are doing and where you spend most of your time (and what you’re doing in the meantime).
Tools like this can help you get ideas on how to improve your personal organization on your own.
In the case of RescueTime, it has extensions for your computer, cell phone, and tablet that analyze the types of thing you do and classify them as productive time or not.
It's all configurable, and can show, for example, how many times have you taken your cell phone out to look at it during the day. It also helps you set goals that you can strive to follow during the week.
It is important to note that these tools work based on data, so you need to use them for a long time (at least two months) before deciding if they really work or not. So, give them time to adjust.
One of the great villains of personal organization? Emails. In the past 20 years, email has become one of the most popular forms of communication. However, they also fill not only your inbox but also your time. After all, they are many...
Time and necessity has led us to develop a methodology for dealing with e-mails called inbox zero in addition to other important techniques.
All emails are tasks that require action. Writer and podcaster Merlin Mann created the inbox zero model a long time ago and, to this day, it is one of the most efficient ways to deal with e-mails.
The goal of this methodology is simple: to zero out your inbox every day so that you don't have any pending issues.
For this, all e-mail can have four actions that can be taken:
- Exclude: Is there nothing you can do? Doesn't it concern you? Will you never need to return to this email again? Delete or archive it – always remember to never leave an email read in your inbox.
- Delegate: If the email came to you, but you are not the best person to resolve the demand, then forward this email to someone else who can resolve it. This does not mean that you automatically become the manager. In this 2016 article personal organizer Mia Lotringer says it is especially important to pass the ball over to the neighbor as you're able, avoid having pending issues.
- Send/Plan: The postponement - or, as I like to call, planning - of email is one of the coolest features that existed in the old (but gold) Google Inbox, which applied the inbox zero technique perfectly! If the email takes more than two minutes to respond, then it is best that you postpone it to a specific date where you can respond calmly and pick up all the items needed for a decent response. Today, both Gmail and new Outlook have e-mail postponement functionality. I like to go deeper than that, though – in addition to postponing the email, I also add a task for it in my favorite task system (both Gmail and Outlook Web).
- Do: Otherwise, if the email takes less than two minutes to answer or it can be answered right away, don't waste time moving it, just reply and file.
Schedule your inbox zero
Like any task, inbox zero is a daily action that needs to be performed. But most people have a habit of checking e-mails several times during the day. It's been proven by researchers at Columbia University, that checking e-mail just three times a day can greatly decrease your stress level.
In my case, I usually check e-mail once at nine in the morning, when I start to work. The whole process takes no more than 30 minutes, so at 9:30 am I'm already free. After that I check again after lunch, around 1 pm and, finally, in the late afternoon at 5:30 pm before marking the day as finished.
Emails are tasks
Do not forget that every email asks for an action. This action can be quick or time consuming. If the action takes time it becomes a task that must be scheduled in your task system and placed on your agenda.
We've now arrived where everyone thinks the problem lies: the task list! There are several very well-tested methodologies that'll help you make your personal organization work.
Initially we can say that task lists are very necessary, because humans adapt better when we have a list of objective and concrete things that we need to do. This way we don't always need to be thinking.
Your tasks should be:
Choosing your tool
Here are a series of tools that exist to organize tasks. As I said earlier, the secret to finding efficiency is to use as few tools as possible that you use well. And this efficiency comes from integrating your tools so that they all work as one.
Let's start with the native tools of the calendar systems we mentioned before.
- The first is Microsoft To Do which is already integrated with Outlook and, consequently, to the calendar. It also has mobile applications, in addition to integrating very well with Insights.
- Then we have Google Tasks, which is also integrated with both Gmail and Google Calendar and has mobile apps.
- Finally, we have Apple's Reminders, which perform the same functions. While it is not directly integrated with calendar, it is synchronized and native to all Apple devices.
These three tools make up the simplest integrations that can be done, as they are native to the platforms themselves. If you are a beginner (or even have been organizing for a while), I recommend starting here.
There are other options for those who want to follow a more Kanban-like model, such as Trello. Check it out.
However, when I first started working on personal organization these apps did not exist yet. So I ended up going to another tool, which is still one of the tools I like the most: Todoist.
For me, Todoist was the right choice because it is quite simple. It's just a task list that allows you to include some type of tags and create several categories, which are called projects:
I was looking for a system where I could write down all my tasks, as well as set deadlines and be reminded of them. Todoist gave me much more than I needed.
In addition to having excellent applications for web, desktop and mobile, it also has integrations with Google Calendar. This means that all events I create on a private calendar become tasks in Todoist and all tasks in Todoist become items in my calendar.
In addition, it allows you to tag your tasks to find them more easily later on. Also, if you are on a project with multiple people, it is possible to share one or more projects with other users for everyone to use.
Small tips about tools
Here are some small tips I picked up while using various task management apps.
You have a limit
We all have a limit on the number of tasks we can do each day, be it a time limit or a cognitive one. We cannot force ourselves to do too many complex tasks at once in a single day.
And this limit is defined by each one of us, there is no magic number. Do not try to include twenty-five tasks in one day, as you won't end up completing all of them. This will give the you the false impression that you have not organized yourself properly.
To try to find out what your daily limit is, try applying the Scrum point technique of applying tags to each task according to their difficulty. At the end of the week count the points for the full tasks and write them down. At the end of the month make an average of the number of points you tallied and you will have your estimated number.
One of the most helpful things we can do for our own personal organization is measure the amount of time we spend on each task. We can do this with tools like Toggl - which, by the way, has a blog full of amazing comics - and measure exactly how much time we spend on each of the tasks we perform. You can also integrate the tool with Todoist or others.
However, from my point of view, time measurement is a bit too extreme when we are doing personal organization. This is because, at least for me, it didn't give me any interesting insights, and I often forgot to start the timer.
The more detailed the better
As we said earlier, your tasks should be simple, but at the same time concise. So try to make your to-do titles very descriptive without writing too much. Then you can comment on the tasks and attach everything you need to carry them out.
I can't say much about the other task management tools, as I've never used them much, but Todoist allows us to add comments and attach files to our tasks.
So, when creating a task, describe it with a quick and concise title, but leave a comment with as much detail as possible. Also attach any files that are needed, even if these files are already elsewhere.
Let's jump to one example: I received an email about a document that I needed to review and return to the sender. But I needed to ask someone else to also review the document after my review. So what would my task flow be?
- Create a task "Analyze documents from email X" with a scheduled date and time
- I would add the task in a project in Todoist
- I would comment out the context for the task – that way I can return to it at any time and I'd know what was happening and what the context was that I have to follow
- Attach the document and email to the task
- Create another task "Send the document to Y" and comment on the context of that task by writing down the email and the person I must send the answer to in this same comment
Divide and conquer
As we saw in the beginning, the human attention span is approximately 20 minutes, so we can't create tasks that are too long. To help with this, most tools offer us a sub task system, where we can include a larger task and several small tasks.
Let's take the previous example and do it in a more organized way:
- Create a task "Analyze documents from the email X" with a scheduled date and time
- I would add the task in a Todoist project
- I would comment on a context for the task, that way I can return to it at any time that I will know what was happening and what is the context that I have to follow
- Attachment the email in the task
- I create a sub-task "Analyze document Z"
- Attach the document to the task
- I create another sub task "Send the document to Y" and comment on the context of that task by writing the email and the person I have to send the answer to in this same comment
We could create another sub task to follow-up with the person after a certain time or even another one to re-analyze and respond. All with scheduled date-time and included in the same project.
Notes and anything else
In addition to what we must do, it is important to know what we are currently doing and take notes. And, even more important than taking notes, we should keep these notes simply and efficiently so we can return to them later.
In this section I will just leave a list of tools that I have used, but you'll have to choose what works best for you.
If you have study notes or anything that is public, or even private, you can keep them in a GitHub repository - like I do - and they will be secure and versioned.
Keep is an excellent tool for organizing your notes on the post-its model – and it even supports to-dos! I personally used it for a long time before migrating to another tool that suited me better.
From my point of view, Keep is the balance between functionality and simplicity. The problem is that it is a bit heavy and does not have that many features.
I used Google Keep for many years until I discovered Notion. This is essentially a tool that includes everything. You can make tables, calendars, plan projects and everything. It is really an excellent tool and today it is my tool of choice for anything I need to keep. And it has apps for any platform.
I use this app today to organize my list of content that I am writing (including this article) and also that I will write in the future. I keep lists of talks and ideas for talks I have, streams, songs I want to practice, other important notes, and so on.
No, this article is unfortunately not sponsored by Notion ?
Another nice thing about Notion is that you can import content from other tools natively, and you can also count on a series of templates to create what you want without having to think too much:
It also has many forms of customization, including dynamic organization filters:
Yes, I delayed the publication of this article... But unforeseen events happen, and you need to be prepared for them.
You can also use the native notes application on your computer/cell phone. In the case of Apple we are talking about Notes, but all cellphones have a native notes application.
Now that we've talked about tooling, best practices, tips and tricks, let's jump into the methods of organizing yourself.
Methodology is the study of a method, or a study of ways to reach a final goal. Methodologies help us follow a path in a more organized and concrete way instead of trial and error. After all, they are precisely the study of these attempts.
It is important to say that if a methodology fits perfectly with what you are doing, then you are probably doing it wrong. This is because the methodologies were created to give us a guide on how to behave, but not to dictate how we should carry out our tasks. In most cases a methodology will need to be adapted or even modified according to your needs.
Why to use a methodology?
Over all the years I tried to organize myself, I tried to create methods and activities that would make me more efficient in personal organization. But this is not always the best way to go about it – we often discover very efficient methods, but impractical, and vice versa.
After a while, I found out that other people had the same problems as I did, and had different ideas on how to treat them. So I started to learn a little more about methodologies.
Methods of organization
In general, anyone working with software development is quite used to the agile development method, Agile, Scrum, Kanban, and other famous methodologies. And these Agile methods can also make your life very, well... agile.
That is why, many times, personal organization "borrows" productivity techniques from these methods that were created to help people accomplish a lot in a brief time. The most successful methods, I think, are:
However, over time, people began to take Agile methods, which were originally created for complete teams, and turn them into individual methodologies for managing and fulfilling tasks. Hence other methodologies emerged, the best known being GTD (Get Things Done).
In addition, several techniques such as using a Pomodoro clock have been developed and can be combined with methodologies to obtain an even more effective result.
Let's talk a little about each one and how they can be applied.
Scrum in personal organization
Scrum is an agile continuous feedback methodology. In it, a Product Owner, a Scrum Master and a development team perform evolutionary iterations about a product so that it is developed together with the client's participation in each process. This is unlike the older waterfall model that was based on a step to step process.
The team is organized into sprints, which can last 7, 14 or more days. In these sprints all tasks to be performed within that timeframe are already described and nothing else can be changed until the next sprint.
Every day the team holds a 15-minute daily standup and at the end of the sprint the team performs a review and a retrospective.
Of course we have no way to incorporate team meetings into our personal organization methodology unless you have a talent for discussing things with yourself. But the sprint model is widely used (with some facilitations) to help us further improve the way we can organize our time.
Below are some points that we can think about when developing our methodology:
- Use 7-day sprints. Meaning, plan your entire week on Sunday
- Use sprint points (which we talked about in the previous paragraphs) to measure the number of tasks you do per sprint. This way you will know when you exceed your limit.
- Remember: Unforeseen events happen, so relax the rule of not changing anything in the sprint so that it allows additions and removals during the week.
- Optionally at the end of the sprint do a retrospective checking what you did well or not that week so that you don't repeat the mistake the following week.
Kanban in personal organization
Kanban is another interesting model that is often mixed with Scrum. In this model, visualization is the key, so we have the so-called Kanban Boards, as follows:
The entire Kanban methodology is based on flow control. So instead of having someone telling you what to do, people put their needs in a backlog and the team will take and perform the tasks as there are slots available.
This is because, in Kanban, we have a limit of work that can be done at a time, and usually one person cannot do more than two tasks at the same time.
That is why the board is necessary. Having a view of what is blocked, what is being done, and what needs to be done gives interesting insights for those who are managing the project.
Again, if it's just you, you're not working on a team, so some parts of the methodology, like having someone producing and asking for tasks that are added to the backlog, must be done manually. So here are some other tips:
- Use a board to organize your tasks
- List everything that needs to be done and add the tasks as they arrive
- Reprioritize the backlog whenever a new task is added to it
- Use work limitation to focus
The GTD (Get Things Done) was created by David Allen, an American who dedicated his work to discovering how to be more productive. In my opinion, GTD combined with other methods can be an extremely effective way of making things, in fact, happen.
The GTD is divided into a few steps:
- Capture: Get the task or action that needs to be done and write it down in a more reliable way, as we talked about in the previous paragraphs.
- Clarify: The time you take to define and describe all tasks.
- Organize: Keep the list always organized and easily accessible
- Reflect: Review of tasks and setting priorities
- Engage: Get to work
You don't have to follow all the steps to the letter. I, for example, do not have a moment in my day when I clarify all tasks, because I will never remember everything. So, I capture and clarify at the same time. Organization and reflection are also done the moment I add a task to the list (something I borrowed from Kanban).
The entire methodology is well explained with the following diagram:
We are constantly receiving input from the environment, both new tasks and everyday items. As soon as we receive one of these inputs we have to think: "Is there anything I can do with this?", If the answer is "no", then you have three options:
- Throw Away: You will never use this (a spam email or something like that)
- Reminder: You will probably use this at some point and already know the date. So, you can defer this task to when you believe you will be using it
- Reference: If you believe that this item will be reference material (a document, certificate), store it in a very well-organized place so that you can find it super-fast.
If you have an action that can be performed on the task, let's go back to the previous article, where we can perform three types of actions on that task:
- If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it!
- Delegate: And, as soon as you delegate, create another follow-up task for a future date
- Postpone: When we don't need to take immediate action, but we know that we will need it in the future
See that we are applying the inbox zero techniques that we saw in the beginning with the techniques of this methodology. That is, we are adapting the techniques of each one so that they work better as a whole.
Another interesting concept of GTD is that of "projects". Any task that requires more than one step to complete is called a project. These projects are groups of tasks that need to have all the necessary information at hand.
Finally, we are not going to talk about a methodology, but a technique. Pomodoro was created by Francesco Cirilo in the 80s.
This is a somewhat radical technique: it requires that you will have to do your tasks in timeframes of 25 minutes each. That is, for each task you need to be completely free of distractions for 25 minutes, at least. This timeframe is called a pomodoro.
After a pomodoro, you take a five minute break. And after four pomodoros, a 30-minute break. This technique can be combined with any of the previous methodologies to complete your productivity, since it avoids procrastination.
Whenever you finish a task, write down how many pomodoros you took and cross it off the list. This, over time, helps to understand how long it takes you to complete your tasks.
However, like any methodology, it has pros and cons. One of the biggest cons is that if you are in a "flow" state, where everything is flowing and you are producing continuously, the timer can end right in the middle of your productivity. Then it can take you longer to get back to where you were or even completely lose the idea.
In these cases, the ideal is to adjust the time of a pomodoro to a longer span, so that you can concentrate without any interruption.
As has been made clear since the beginning of this article, habits are very important. There is no point in having the best organizational methodology but not having the habit of looking at lists.
A habit takes about 21 days to create, and cannot be removed, just replaced by another habit. So, to create habits we can use our own willpower and force ourselves to do the same things that we want to keep, for 21 days in a row, without interruptions. But this is very difficult for everyone, so we can all use a little help.
There are several tools that can help us with creating habits, one of which is Habitica, which turns your life into an RPG adventure.
It also has a board that allows you to define your habits, your tasks, and also what you want to do daily:
Create your own methodology
In the end, it will all come down to creating your own way of working. Do not worry about strictly following the ideas of all methodologies because that will not work. The ideal is that you adapt each one of them and look for parts that make you organize better and feel good as you apply your own methodology.
In my case, I try to follow the GTD methodology. So whenever I'm working on something very important, I turn off all electronic devices and focus until I finish the task. It's more or less like the pomodoro, but without the timer – because I've used that technique and I didn't adapt very well to the breaks.
Whenever I have a new task or a new email, I go through the process described by the infographic, but I don't have an "incubator" for tasks. I can simply do it or not do it, and tasks that are not done end up going in the waste bin.
In addition, all my tasks have a time and date set – I never put a task in "as soon as possible". If the task is urgent, it must be done right after this task or right now.
To organize myself, I usually make constant revisions to my calendar to adjust to any changes and I am always working to improve it. This hasn't been very productive lately, so I'm going to make a change so that I can apply a quantitative assessment (like sprint points) weekly and review it every Sunday, which is when I plan the next sprint.
I don't like the "projects" in the GTD because it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. So, in Todoist, I end up using projects as categories to define what kind of work I'm dedicated to, such as: Studies, Personal, Articles, and so on.
Finally, I like to keep the idea of Kanban, so I organize all the tasks in a single "inbox" that would be my backlog. After that, I search and take the tasks one by one and organize them all into categories until there is no new task in the box.
Besides, I don't plan a single week at a time. I try to organize the tasks so that they fill up at least two to three weeks. I always fill in a concise description and an expressive title that help me to remember what I need to do every moment.
There is no best methodology, because the best one is the one that suits you. Try to mix a little of each one to create what works best, and don't be afraid to test and make mistakes. After all, you are in control.
Once you have reached your ideal level of personal organization, you will know that your whole life is organized. And, no matter what, as long as you get on with your tasks, you will know that everything will work out, because you planned it! This is the ultimate goal.
I hope my story and tips have helped some of you get organized. If you have other tips, let me know. Let's create a better methodology together! : D
I also have a personal Blog where I post a lot of content about development and my own thoughts. If you feel like talking to me, you can visit there or my website which has the links of all my social networks. Feel free to follow and reach out.