I love organization and task management tools. Whether it’s a one-off task like returning library books or a recurring task like calling my parents, I know I can’t remember everything that I need to do. I need systems to remember for me, and I’m always improving those systems (with blog posts to prove it). Continue reading “Routines, Running, and Getting Things Done”
I’m obsessed with staying organized. I know how often I don’t commit something to memory or forget later, and I see life as a constant struggle against the chaos and idleness of disorganization. Having a system seems to be the key, and when everything can seemingly be solved with software, there’s an app for that. As such, I thought I would share a brief history into my own system.
Until I got to college, I didn’t have a system. I think we were required to have organizers and time trackers during primary and secondary school, but I never really used any of that. In retrospect, it’s astounding how much effort teachers put into teaching us reasonable skills (like time and task management), which we completely missed because we were some combination of not busy, conscientious, or understanding enough of why we should do it.
Regardless, I went through the motions as much as required but never really used any of that. All I had was a single, usually plastic, two-pocket folder. I had to carry binders of notes, spirals, time trackers, and whatever else, but the only thing that actually mattered was in that folder. At a time where most tasks were homework, which was often a piece of paper, it was an easy way to keep track of everything. Fill the folder over the course of the day, then empty it as I completed things.
I’m not quite sure how I factored studying for tests into that system, but when calendars only had to be scheduled at most a week out, it didn’t really matter. It was a simple system, but it worked because the scope was so small. In truth, my teachers, education system, and parents really kept track of anything important. They doled out my tasks and calendar in bite-size pieces that were easily represented with a folder.
When I got to college, I started using the Stickies widget on the OSX dashboard page. Presumably, the change of context from high school to college rendered the folder ineffective. I’m guessing I developed the habit when I started putting my random addresses into Stickies and evolved random notes into a single, very long TODO sticky note. Despite being somewhat rudimentary, it was effective for planning out when I would have to study for one class or work on an assignment for another.
I was extremely reliant on it. When my motherboard died, I wasn’t worried about any documents on my computer: the most important thing was recovering my Stickies so I wouldn’t drop anything within the week. Overall, it is perhaps the closest to a true TODO list as I have ever used: it had few recurring tasks and could easily be populated and scheduled out to about a a week. During college, most of my tasks were still relatively short-term and could easily be accommodated in this system.
Towards the end of college when I started working, I switched over to Evernote. I became an Evernote fan as a way to collect my dozens of random text documents on my computer, but it became the right TODO list tool because it was portable. When I had a work computer and a personal computer, I couldn’t sync up the Stickies widget, so I couldn’t do things or add tasks while at work.
The portability brought me over, but it was the checkboxes that kept me. As I transitioned into real life with errands and chores, I developed more recurring tasks, which I could check and un-check as necessary. This evolved into the regular TODO list, which I previously described. In brief, I divided up tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and irregular tasks, and managed it in a single note.
My Evernote system was good and probably sustainable if I hadn’t found a better task management tool in Asana within the past few months. Evernote is more of a swiss army knife, where Asana was built specifically for task management in mind. I started using it because unlike Evernote, it works with other people. I started recording tasks around the house with Julie, but I instantly became a fan of the system. It reminded me of the issue tracking system I use at work, except it stripped away a lot of the doctrine and boilerplate to make it very simple to add, organize, and complete tasks.
It was easy to transition everything, and it allows me to set tasks to repeat. This was particularly helpful for my regular TODO list: instead of having to reset at the end of every period, it resets on completion and files it away until that day comes up. Even better, it has the due date so I can see how many days I have skipped on a daily task (usually exercise).
I think there are a few other nice features to it that I’m not recalling at the moment, but ignoring the details, I think everyone should be using Asana. I honestly don’t get how any adult can get away without a task management system, and Asana makes it so easy for both personal and team use. With a task management system, it’s hard to guiltlessly fail to do something: there’s a task that won’t go away until it is completed.
One of my coworkers shared Bullet Journal with me, and she was right because conceptually, I love it. I love it because it’s an organization system. Moreover, it has 2 characteristics which I feel are missing.
First, it’s analog. Despite everything about my life, I still fancy myself a luddite and pretend like things would be better without computers. There’s something still satisfying about having a system in pen and paper.
Second, it has history. This blog and my advocacy for journaling are both symptoms of my interesting in recording my life. I have at various times tried to maintain lists of books I have read, events I have gone to, movies I have watched, and music I have been into, but none of it really stuck. All of it was more work than seemed immediately worthwhile. Having that documentation built into my regular flow sounds really nice, especially if it’s private and analog.
So I’m not sure what’s next, but at the current pace, in at most 3 years, I will have a new system because it satisfies some new requirement. Looking at my history, it seems that each change came about by a larger change in my life: first college, then work, then moving out. I’m not sure what is happening in 3 years, but I’m sure I’ll need something different.
I am, by upbringing, a planner. Recently, I have become a more self-aware planner, and a need to rebel has pushed me to be more spontaneous. The result is that I have rapidly gone through phases of more and less planning depending on what I’m reacting against.
Currently, I’m in a planning mindset, which has led me to my scheduled TODO list. A few months ago, I would set a daily TODO list at the beginning of each week and cross off items everyday. My personal life was amazingly efficient, but it also really started to look like work. I backed off from that, but over the past few months of limited computer use, I have found myself not doing very much. Evenings would just disappear after finishing dishes.
During that time, I have maintained a “floating” section to my TODO list, which are intended to be done anytime during the week, but I haven’t used it consistently. One problem is that it muddles the urgency and timing of many different things, so it takes some thought to determine what is important to address. When I start going through it, I mentally skip items I can’t immediately do, and the ones I can are lost in the mix. Also, there are many things I would like to do very regularly but aren’t part of a daily routine. As such, I have developed a new system.
My new system is to set TODO items as daily, weekly, or monthly. On those schedules, I check and uncheck items in evernote. It grants me the right amount of flexibility to not feel too regimented in completing things that I have handcuffed myself to do. A lot of them are also vague to encourage exploration.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Exercise – even if I don’t make arrangements to run or play a sport, I can at least do a quick workout at home or stretch out my arms
- Learning a 2nd language – it’s a New Year’s Hope, and language has to be used. I was doing German, but after talking to Julie, I don’t think that will be very useful. Instead, I’m going to pick up more Cantonese. Maybe it’s not globally very important, but I have missed out on enough family interactions by not speaking it, and with my sister’s wedding coming up, I’ll see all of them
- Read – It’s been amazing to get back into reading. Just putting it on my TODO list is enough to get me to open my current book, and then I’m sucked in
- Listen to iTunes U – still getting through classes. This one is a lower priority, but it’s a reminder to keep it up. It somewhat goes against my last post, but I need to keep moving, or else I’ll lose context for not keeping up with a class
- Relax with Julie – most evenings, we do dinner and catch up, but on some nights (like StarCraft night), we might barely say hi before heading off into different things. It’s worth the time to sit down and enjoy being together
- Read the news – I get the New York Times and Politico in my email inbox daily. I have let it pile up for 2 weeks, and it just isn’t as valuable when just catching up.
- Play StarCraft – join us on Tuesday nights!
- Play other video games – I have a video game backlog, too. It’s probably too much to do on weekdays when I’m on my computer all day, but it’s nice to play on weekends when I can
- Blog – I am become much less consistent over the past few months. My blog is where I do a lot of thinking
- Write in my journal – Maybe my life isn’t that interesting nowadays, or maybe it just doesn’t fit, but I haven’t written daily in a few years. I have since gone for months without writing. Weekly is a good balance since I can usually write Sunday nights and look back on the biggest thing that happened that week
- Watch TV – Agents of Shield, Cosmos, and whatever other show Julie and I are currently working through
- Work on my side projects – This is somewhere between daily and weekly. Currently, I’m mostly focused on Spawning Tool, so we’ll see how that goes
- Watch a movie – I also have a huge movie backlog. I have wanted to but been unable to successfully do movie night, but I know I have time to do it at some point during the week
- Cook something new – Julie and I cook a lot, but it’s pretty easy to fall back on the standards. At least once a week we should try a new recipe amongst our cookbooks and foodmarks
- Bake – I do enjoy baking, too, and it’s something I can do to brighten other people’s days
- Basic cleanup – Typically, we do a big cleanup right before some major event when people are coming over, but it would be less daunting to do one of the tasks once a week and keep things running
- Eat out somewhere new – I mostly prefer home-cooked meals, but there’s just so much good food out there, especially up in San Francisco, that i haven’t explored. If I do go out to eat, it’s usually with a friend, and I like to pick nearby staples. It should be easy, but I definitely need to make an effort to eat out
- Keep in touch with an old friend – Every time I catch up with someone, we both lament how poorly we keep up with people. Put it on a schedule
- Get out to do something – Go to a community event, join a meetup, see a performance, get outdoors, take a day trip somewhere. Find something new to do
- Run my RPGs – I have a Tekumel and a Forgotten Realms play group. We’re not that intense, but it’s easy to fall off track, so I’m shooting to play monthly with them
- Volunteer – Recently, I have felt a push to become more involved in my community. Volunteering is one of the positive ways to do it, but I haven’t really done any in Mountain View yet
- Play board games – My collection grew quite quickly, and it’s another fun way to hang out
- Do a more extensive clean – If anything hasn’t been touched in a month of weekly cleans, it should probably be cleaned
- Book club meeting – There’s enough structure around this that I don’t have to monitor it, but it’s just a reminder for myself
That may be the best high level look at my life. Let me know if you have any suggested changes in it!