There’s not a lot I can say about organization software and methods that hasn’t been said many times over around the web, but in establishing and tweaking my own organization system one of the things I found most helpful was reading a number of different accounts of people’s organization systems, how they worked, and why the worked well for them. In that vein, here’s how I try to keep track of things.
I know a lot of people swear by David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, and I’ve periodically considered giving it a try, but its always seemed a little more intense than I was really willing to commit to. At the same time, my Google tasks list was not cutting it. There was not good system for assigning priority, or for breaking down large tasks into smaller ones. “Write prospectus” is not a useful entry to have on my to-do list, but the million small tasks that make up that large one would overwhelm both the list and me.
There are several popular GTD software options (Lifehacker has a run-down here), particularly OmniFocus, but I found them either not customizable enough or, in the case of OmniFocus, too expensive and too daunting. I finally settled on Things, in large part because of this ProfHacker review. The review has a lot of great tips that I won’t repeat, except to say that I adopted the method for hacking conferences and CFP’s whole cloth and have found it exceptionally helpful.
Things lets you organize your to-do lists into areas (for me these include Teaching, Dissertation, Conferences, Home, etc.), and then organize those areas into subdivided projects (I set up a different project for each class I teach, for my prospectus and each chapter of my dissertation, for my writing group, and so on). You can select a due date and priority for each item in your to-do list, as well as assign it tags and include extended notes. You can also set up recurring tasks, a feature I use to remind myself to pick up the CSA box each week, as well as to respond to student comments every MWF morning. All of your tasks get organized into an easily-navigable inbox:
You can view tasks that are due today, or see upcoming tasks organized either by project or by due date. You can also view all the tasks in any given project or area. In addition, Cultured Code also sells a Things app for iPod/iPhone. This is key for me, because it lets me add tasks whenever I think of them. On the bus this morning, I remembered that I absolutely have to do laundry this weekend or else I will be teaching class on Monday in either a bridesmaid’s dress from two years ago or a pair of jeans that I’ve had since high school and a John Deere t-shirt. I pulled out my iPod and added laundry to my task list, significantly reducing the chance that I will forget about washing clothes until Sunday night.
Externalizing every single tiny thing I need to do helps keep my anxiety level down and lets me focus on whatever I’m working on at the minute, because I don’t have the constant nagging feeling that there’s something else I need to be doing. If it’s not on the list, I don’t need to worry about it. This is, I think, the major innovation of the GTD approach, and for certain personality types, it makes all the difference. The downside, of course, is that if I forget to add a task to the list, there’s a very strong chance it won’t get done. I’ve forgotten to take the trash to the curb two weeks in a row. But the slight decrease in short-term retention, which was never all that great in my case anyway, is well worth the peace of mind that comes with systematic externalization.
I’ve found that, like writing, an organization system is most productive when it’s habitual. It took some time to find a system that worked and integrate it into my daily workflow, but once I’d done that, I felt more comfortable committing to more responsibilities and was willing to step up and organize various groups and meetings without the worry that I’d fall behind or forget something important. In other words, I’m more confident in my ability to actually behave as a professional in a professional setting.