Essential advice from a productivity coach
Quick! Give me that napkin; I have an idea!
You are hereby excused from napkin-stationery shaming. In fact, I consider you brilliant for having a pen nearby and capturing your thoughts when they happen.
But unless your musings and reminders are transferred to a task list, project folder, or a reminder on your calendar, they're probably piled up into a disorganized mess of jottings. That's OK if it works for you, but you're reading this because it's not working well enough.
Your thoughts may be captured on paper, but they're useless beyond that.
"Help! I need a system!"
There are lots of ways to solve the quest for the best way to organize your thoughts, tasks, and appointments.
Sorry, I can't give you a perfect answer. There isn't one.
The BEST system is the one (or two) methods you'll use regularly.
But I can offer tips that help you find what works.
I know you'd like to just click and buy a paper or electronic system and suddenly be organized. But there are things you'll need to consider.
It's easy to fall prey to buying yet another "perfect system guaranteed to organize your life in one place and turn you into a productivity powerhouse."
Admittedly, it is convenient to have all your essential information in all paper or all digital systems, but it's not required. It's quality, not quantity, that works. Otherwise, it's just more clutter.
Think of it this way, you don't need 11 different styles of cookware to make soup. In fact, too many kitchen gadgets are confusing.
Choosing which of the 11 pots in your overstuffed cabinets will make the soup taste better is distracts from your purpose. The quantity of cookware is not producing what you want: soup. You are.
Too much of anything distracts from the main ingredients to create savory dishes: planning, high-quality ingredients, and most importantly—the time to cook. (Read more about decluttering here.)
If you're investigating digital systems to buy, ask what your productive friends use, what they like about it, and how they would improve it. What do you use at work? Is it workable for your personal use?
Capturing the essentials
The advantage of pre-designed electronic planner systems is the lists are easily edited, and the essential four information types are integrated.
Digital or paper, simple is best.
Whatever your system is, it must have a place for four types of information: appointments, tasks, supports, and ideas.
Appointments are activities allotted to a specific time, usually with other people. Appointments require a dated calendar.
Next are tasks. Some are single tasks, like wash the car, pay bills, or make appointments. Others are multi-task projects, which we still note as individual actions. Build the house requires many tasks, each of which must be tracked and have time allotted.
The biggest mistake I see people make when capturing and planning tasks is underestimating how much they can accomplish. It's easy to write line after line of optimistic intent, call it a to-do list, and stop there. I catch myself doing it too. After all, it's a task in itself to gather thoughts and plot plans.
But it's far more efficient to compile tasks in a general master list and project lists first and then assign them to time blocks on the calendar to complete the task's work.
Obviously, tasks are different from appointments, but plotting them on a calendar shows you how to spend your time. They are appointments with yourself.
Whether paper or electronic, use a different color than 'real' appointments.
If you're using digital calendars, delete them or edit them into all-day appointments when a task is completed, making them rise out of the timed calendar area.
It's also your present self telling your future self how you spent your day because the tasks are still recorded.
Judgement-free zone note: It's fine and even fun to list your tasks with the sole intent of crossing them off!
Supports and ideas
These are the third and fourth information types.
You'll need a way to contain supporting information for your appointments, tasks, and ideas. They range from concert tickets and doctor's forms, to reference materials for equipment or hoped-for trips.
As enticing as a paperless system sounds, most people use paper for quick captures that appear from conversations, planning, and idle creative thoughts.
Drop supporting paper information like maps, brochures, and clippings into paper folders associated with current and future projects. Three-ring binders are still practical and economical.
Use what you have consistently
Populate your calendar with appointments and tasks. Note on your calendar where to find the supporting information and keep it handy.
Review your plans daily and identify the obstacles that will get in your way.
Synch your phone and computer calendars.
Use what you already have: Paper calendars and lists free form or in simple notebooks.
Design your own using Microsoft or Google documents or charts. Here's my daily planner page I sometimes use in addition to my digital calendar.
About those sticky notes and scribbled napkins
Keep grabbing them when they happen! Some of the best ideas you'll ever have occur when you're doing something else.
Keep post-it notes and pens in your car for quick scribbles and reminders for the way home.
Have a tablet by your bed for recording dreams and other ideas because we know when you're fully awake they'll be gone forever. Then put the note in a more usable place like a dream notebook, task list, or calendar.
Consider keeping a simple notebook to paste the sticky notes with inspiring quotes and other quick thoughts.
Write on your hand. Despite the teacher's warnings not to scribble on your hand because it would look like test cheats, grab a pen and scrawl. The best place is at the base of the thumb on your non-dominant hand. If on the back of your hand everyone will giggle and ask; if on your palm you won't notice it before it wears off. (Don't laugh, these are essential tips.)
Put a reminder where you need it most, like near the stairs to remind you what to get when you go to another floor.
The goal: Mastering your self, one step at a time.
First, if it's working, don't change it, no matter how unconventional someone else thinks it is.
But, if it's not working, ask and investigate what you need and why. Needs and preferences change, but the basic systems don't.
Think about the size, shape, and function of what you need. If it won't fit in your bag, is too hard to open, or has functions you don't need or understand, it won't work for you.
Try something new. You can always go back to what you had before. Do your research, though, before you fall prey to expensive products that aren't better than what you have. Simple is easiest.