My favourite organiser consists of a piece of cardboard and post-it notes.
For the last four and a half years, I’ve been using the Getting Things Done approach to keep my life organised. In its simplest form, GTD has two parts: (1) capturing all things that you want to get done in a trusted system outside your head, and (2) making decisions about new inputs (emails etc) when they arrive, rather than letting them pile up. The GTD seminar that got me started on this path, and the book that goes with it have made a great difference in my life. I thought I was reasonably well-organised before, but this is so much better.
The second part of GTD is a matter of discipline and routine; the first one requires a physical system. Initially I used Outlook and a Palm Pilot for most of my organising. But over time I realised that while they were great for keeping my calendar and address book up to date, I didn’t like them for keeping track of my outstanding projects and tasks. I couldn’t get an overview, I couldn’t scribble notes on them, I could only reorder them based on rigid categories and priority levels.
So I moved to a paper-based system that gives me more flexibility. My organiser consists of an A4 piece of cardboard and post-it notes. Different categories and/or priorities get separate post-it notes. It’s simple, dirt cheap, easy to reshuffle, and I can see everything at the same time without scrolling. Adding an item is also much faster than going to Outloook and creating a new task. Some large projects get a whole temporary page of their own; likewise if my list just grows too large for one page. I usually have about 2 to 4 of these on my desk at work.
I tried to use the same for life outside the office, but for some reason it never took off. After a month or two, the list got neglected and out of date. I think this happened because I didn’t use this one list for all my non-work projects and next actions – some were still in the Palm Pilot, some just in e-mails – because I wanted to be able to see them when I was at work or out on town, or because I thought of them when I was at work.
Now I’ve finally decided to get rid of the Palm. I’ve used it very little lately, and it takes up too much space in my handbag. The first step is to move my tasks and to do lists out of the Palm. I’ve also migrated my passwords database from the Palm to a PC application (Password Manager XP). Address book, general notes and calendar are all important too, but I don’t use them constantly like I use my task list, so these can all wait until later.
The Palm had an advantage in portability over the A4 sheets – they just won’t fit into a handbag. So I’m currently experimenting with a smaller format of my paper-based organiser. The initial prototype is roughly 10 by 15 centimetres, which is just about the same size as my wallet, and large enough for two standard-sized post-it notes or seven mini-post-its. There’s a cardboard cover shaped like a book, six loose cardboard leaves inside, and the whole package is held together by a small bulldog clip.
For a prototype it’s worked surprisingly well. It’s pleasantly physical, and very convenient, so it’s more up to date than the previous solution ever was. I can add an item as soon as I think of it, because the organiser is always with me in my handbag. It’s easy to spread out all the pages to get an overview of what’s on my list.
The cardboard cover is not durable enough for long-term daily usage, so I plan to make a leather version soon. The final version will also have pockets on the inside of both covers for spare post-its and for more permanent lists (phone numbers and such). And it will hopefully be more pleasing to the eye than simple grey cardboard!