Monday, September 24, 2012

Streamlining Systems Follow-up

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel very official writing a follow-up to last week's post. Since then, I have had not one, not two, but three (3) lengthy conversations with pals* about list streamlining and system management, all of which boil down to the need to define what you want to get out of a system, and the truism that the best system is the one you use.

These binder clips are organized rather neatly
With those dictates in mind, I have modified my own systems in a few ways.

Mostly, I needed to understand how different list items, and therefore different kinds of lists, should work for me. There are checklists I need to consult regularly and to-do lists I need to interact with regularly. There are some lists that can be discarded when I am done with them and some that I should keep handy. There are longterm goals that I can accomplish (deliver a paper at the conference next month!) and longterm goals that are ongoing (collaborate generously with colleagues!). There are also things that I don't want to list - habits I'd like to form without needing to write them down. Different systems are appropriate for different goals and activities.

I also needed to acknowledge that there are some tools I like better than others. I like Post-it notes. The square ones that are about as big as the palm of your hand. Those are the best. Also, as I've mentioned, I like two-column steno pads. They are also the best. These are the two physical tools I want to use in listing. I also use Google Calendar really heavily, and while I did not mention it in last week's post, I also use the alarm function on my phone to set regular reminders for myself.

In the last week, I have streamlined my tracking and logging systems by limiting the tools I use to the ones I already know and like, and rethinking how I categorize list items so that accomplishable goals are separate from daily reminders, etc.

Here's what I've got now (and yes, I realize that this is a list of lists).

Checklists on Post-it notes displayed vertically. Checklists are for recurring tasks that do not need to be listed and crossed off every freakin' time they occur.

  • Prepare! A checklist for bedtime on work nights. 
  • Friday Sync! A new checklist for a variety of weekly tasks organized into one session - syncing devices and calendars, preparing the week's to-do lists, meal planning, watering the plants, etc.
Steno notepads for to-do lists, logs, planning and goals. 
  • The one that travels with me - this contains not only the two-column to-do lists for the week at the front, but also a monthly spending log at the back, and now also a page folded over to differentiate it from the others labeled EPHEMERA on which I can record thoughts and ideas as they occur to me. A friend calls this a thought-catcher. When I have an idea, I don't have to worry about where it goes, but can instead just jot it down and worry about it later. One of the items on my Friday Sync! checklist is "TRANSFER EPHEMERA." 
  • The one for long-term planning - this has a page devoted to each semester (this Fall through next Fall, for now) with the columns divided into major and minor goals for that block of months. I consider a minor goal to be one I can accomplish in one or two days (submit paper abstract to journal!) while major goals may take weeks to accomplish (write paper for conference next semester!). This is at the front of the notebook. On the back page I list things I'd like to be true about me all the time. Aspirational, unrealistic things like "take one full day off from work every week." Since these continue to be aspirations, I don't want to cross them off, which is why they live in a separate list. This notebook lives on my desk and gets consulted once a week or so. 
  • The one for meal-planning - I use one column to list what I have to use this week (farm share chard! Use up cheddar!) and the other column as a shopping list for things to supplement what I've got. I don't think I addressed this last week, but this system is unchanged. This notebook lives in the kitchen. 
Digital assistants. Until I have a robot valet
  • Google Calendar. I use this a lot. Now I also sync it once a week. 
  • iPhone alarms. I use these a lot, too, for habit forming and maintaining. For things I don't want to bother listing and logging, but that I want to do regularly.

Scrapped. These systems were not working for me and thus I no longer use them. 
  • Making lists of goals on full-sized binder paper. It's just intimidating for lists. It's so big! And there are not enough columns. There should be two (2). 
  • Making an annual list. The calendar year means very little to me. My life goes Fall, January, Spring and Summer.  
  • - checking in once a day to say whether I had or had not done a task was not motivating me to form or maintain habits. Having an alarm go off at an appropriate TIME to do them, however, is useful for me. I still think chains are a great system that works for many people! 

*Dudes,** you can comment here. There's a button for it.

** I am from California. "Dude" is a gender-neutral term.


  1. Super Sticky Post-Its were one of the best discoveries I ever made. Yay organization!!!

    1. Confession: Sometimes I tape Post-its to things.

  2. I use the alarms on my iPhone to remind me of things a lot, too. I'll sometimes set three alarms for one thing, like if I'm supposed to solidify plans with a specific person closer to when we plan to do a thing together (since I rarely know more than a week in advance if I'm available & work generally comes first), I set an alarm a week in advance to remind me to solidify. Then two days in advance to confirm, then an hour or three in advance to remind me again. I try to categorize the types of reminder by sound but so far my brain can't distinguish anything other than "wake up" alarm and NOT "wake up" alarm.

    I can't seem to make myself use GCal. For work we use one of those monthly at a glance calendars from Staples and the visuals are much better when we're talking to clients. Then there's a whiteboard calendar at the home office but it really only gets used during the busiest months so Ronnie can tell immediately when she's free to schedule another appointment. It has been a struggle to get her to use digital solutions to a lot of our problems. (She's very good about using systems once we successfully implement one, though!) Maybe we can work on that when I don't, you know, live down the hall anymore. I tend not to stress too much about the calendar - I just have her tell me the night before what time I need to be ready to leave in the morning. If I have important plans to make (out of town guests, for example), I tell her about them in advance and she notes I won't be available. If I'm making more short-term plans, I ask her a few days in advance what time we should be done for the day and tell her why I want to know. Then she tries to avoid scheduling anything important so I can come to all the important things. This works fine for me because, other than long-term goals, I'm not great with long-term plans, anyway. But it would be awesome if, when I was making plans with someone, I could just pull up my calendar and make the plans right away instead of having to merely pencil people in and then confirm. Anyway, for a lot of my systems, the key seems to be finding one that resonates with both me and my boss.

    1. Also, hooray! Successful comment posting!

    2. Also, more physical tools: We are all about the three-inch sticky notes, too. We use those for anything we need to attach impermanently to our paperwork (like CCNs, which are shredded the moment we don't need them). For notes on phone calls, writing directions to sales, any other stuff that comes up when we are in the car, we use little books with tear-away pages that mimic the style of our receipt books (and were therefore easy to adapt to), then tear them off & transfer them as needed. Our system for listing items we need to research further involves simply writing the list on the back of a sheet of labels because they are conveniently there when we are doing the pricing of the items we don't need to research.

    3. I agree, yay successful comment posting! And I, too, differentiate merely between "alarm that needs to wake me up" and "alarm that needs to alert me to something when I am already awake." How do you set the alarms so far in advance? As far as I know, mine only go a week out.

    4. I set them through the phone's calendar instead of through the clock!