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Organizing a Life of Learning and Action

Do you ever feel like you have trouble keeping up with all of the great ideas, personal projects, and priority items that will help you achieve your goals? When you’re trying to focus on your work, do you find your mind racing with random thoughts and to-dos? If so (or even if you’re just looking for ways to become more “productive” and put your mind at ease), then this post is for you!

A few basic premises

People often express the desire to become more “productive.” I’m not a big fan of this word. For some reason, it makes me imagine people as machines who just turn inputs into outputs, or raw materials into products. Human beings are so much more than that.

The human brain is not a filing cabinet - if you try and stash everything away in your head until you need it, a lot of stuff is going to fall through the cracks. What the mind excels at, however, is focusing on a bit of information at a time and thinking deeply and creatively about how to use that information.

With the internet, we now have access to a wider assortment of information than ever before. It’s a bit of a fire hose - so if you don’t want to drown in information overload, it’d be a good idea to build some systems for keeping track of what’s important to you.

Let’s get things done

For dealing with all of our to-dos, tasks, and projects, we’re going to use technology to do exactly what it’s good at: storing information and making it easily accessible when we need it.

In order for this to work, let’s take a step back and think about how we engage with our to-do list throughout the day. If you take even the most casual foray into productivity world, you’ll come across a methodology called “Getting Things Done,” or GTD. The details of this methodology are laid out in David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but the key concepts are easy enough to grasp. For a quick primer, I’d recommend you take a look at this post from Lifehacker. That post goes into more detail about the philosophy - so I’m going to focus on how I implement a workflow that works for me.

The basic steps of a GTD workflow are:

  • Collect
  • Process
  • Organize
  • Review

Like I said, I’m not a strict GTD adherent, but I’ve borrowed the key concepts to reach my goals more effectively. The basic idea: throughout the day, you’re going to ask your brain to do a lot for you. At certain times, you’re thinking in a very generative way - what you might call “brainstorming.” These are the times when you tend to jump from topic to topic, trying to make sense of the different tasks you’ve got to complete and the different goals you want to pursue.

The Collect phase is where you jot down all of these disparate to-dos and ideas, in order to ensure that they are captured so that you can focus on the work at hand.

During the Process phase, you sit down and look at all of these individual items that you’ve captured, and figure out what to do with them. Don’t spend a lot of time considering each item - just ask yourself this question:

Is it actionable? In other words, is this something I actually have to do… that will help me achieve my goals? If not, maybe you should just trash it. That’s ok - sometimes what sounds like a good idea might just be a distraction. Maybe it is something important, but not something you can really do anything about right now. You’re going to find a way to file this info away for you to reference later - we’ll talk about how below.

Once you figure out what’s really on your plate, it’s time to get Organized! Take a look at your tasks, and think about the following:

  1. Is this a simple task, or is it really something bigger?
    • If it’s a complex, multi-step process, you’ve really got a Project on your hands, not a simple task. Take a moment to think about what a successful outcome looks like, and then try and split it up into individual tasks. We’re using the word project here to mean any multi-step process - so here’s an example: Maybe you’ve decided you need to buy a new car. This isn’t really the type of thing you look at your to-do list and check off in one clean sweep. Maybe you have to 1) check your credit, 2) research new vehicle prices, 3) research reputable dealers in your area, and 4) set aside time to go shopping. By breaking this large project into individual tasks, you make the project much more approachable - you know the exact steps you need to take to achieve your goal.
  2. How should I tackle each item?
    • If it’s something that’ll only take a minute or two, you should probably just do it. Don’t procrastinate! Move this low-hanging fruit off your to-do list.
    • Maybe it’s something that’s important to you, but you can’t really do it yourself. In this case, you should delegate it. Figure out who’s responsible, and communicate the need to them. This isn’t necessarily an office situation, where you’re doling out tasks to people. You can probably think of a few personal examples: maybe you’re buying your first home, and you need your agent to communicate your offer to the seller.
    • Lastly, you’re going to of course have many items that you need to complete, but they’re more time-consuming and need your dedicated attention. You’re going to defer these items and put them on your list of next actions or try and schedule them for a time that makes sense.

The last phase is Review. At some point, it’s a good idea to sit down and look at what you’ve checked off your to-do list, and figure out whether you’re making good progress towards your goals or not.

Building out a toolkit

Now that we know what the workflow looks like, let’s think about tools we can use to make this all manageable.

You’re going to need some method of managing your tasks. You have all sorts of options here: paper and pencil, piles of post-it notes, google docs, or dedicated software and web apps.

You’re also going to need some repository for filing away all of the important reference information you acquire. This could be something like dropbox, or a note-taking app, or whatever else works for you.

I use two main tools for managing my life: Todoist and Evernote.

Using Todoist for task management

There are two main reasons I chose todoist as my task list manager: it’s available everywhere (web, email plugins, browser extensions, smartphone app, etc), and it’s simple and straightforward to work with. You can see a great intro to using Todoist within this system here.

When using a to-do list app, it’s really important to embrace the idea of universal capture. If I’m walking around and idea suddenly comes to me, or if I’m working on something else and suddenly remember I have to do something, I just pull out my smartphone, tap the Todoist “Add Task” icon on my homescreen, and jot down the item to deal with later. If I’m browsing the web and I come across a link to an interesting article, I click on my todoist browser extension, and click “Add Website as task,” so that I remember to check out the article later.

All of these items go straight into my Todoist inbox. By having a common inbox, I can collect all of the random tasks that occur to me throughout the day, and process them later when I have time and when I’m in the right mental state.

When it comes time to process my inbox, I follow the workflow steps I laid out in the section above. If it’s a significantly complex, multi-step task, I’ll probably create a new project for it in Todoist. In the screenshot below, you can see a good example of this from where I decided that I wanted to “Learn arduino.” Obviously, getting started with physical computing isn’t something you knock it in a single blow, so I created a new project to hold tasks related to acheiving this goal. Sometimes, I also create simple “ongoing projects” for parts of my life that I like to keep organized, like “finances,” “reading,” etc. At the very top, you’ll see that I have project simply called “To-Dos.” This might seem a little odd and Inception-y (“A to-do list inside a to-do list”), but this project is simply a space for me to keep track of items that don’t really fit inside a project, but that I’ve deferred for later.

Justin's Todoist

When I’m processing items in my inbox, I slap a due date on them if it makes sense, otherwise, I just organize them by dragging them over to the correct project.

Use recurring tasks to manage your To-Dos

The review phase is one of the most important parts of getting things done efficiently. I have recurring tasks set up to remind me to periodically look through all of my projects and assign due dates to things as necessary, and to check out my “Someday” project. Someday is just where I put big projects, big ideas, and other aspirational goals that I’m not ready to tackle yet, but that I’d like to keep on the backburner. By setting recurring tasks that prompt me to go through my to-do list, I make sure that nothing gets buried and forgotten about.

Use due-dates in Todoist to flexibly schedule tasks

A great feature of Todoist is that it provides a “Today” and “Next 7 Days” view out of the box - this’ll grab all of your tasks that have a due date of today, or within the next 7 days (respectively), from all of your projects, and provide a nice list of action items.

So, usually every week I’ll get prompted by a recurring task to go through my Article Reading List, for instance, and schedule some articles to read throughout the week. That way, every day I’ve got a nice set of ready-to-read articles that I can jump on every day.

Avoid over-engineering

Todoist has a ton of other features that I haven’t touched on here: custom filters for tasks, tags, etc. The fact is, I don’t really use these right now. My personal preference is to keep things as simple as possible - if managing my to-do list feels like extra work, I’m less likely to do it.

Using Evernote as a web-clipper and reference app

Going off the example above, let’s say that I’ve assigned myself some articles to read throughout the week. Sometimes, I read an article and don’t feel compelled to save it, but most of the time I end up finding lots of cool stuff that I want to save for later (this is especially true when I’m reading articles about coding and web development). In this case, it pays to have a good web clipper.

My tool of choice here is Evernote. Evernote has an awesome browser extension that allows you save webpages directly to a notebook. I have notebooks set up for Coding Resources, Recipes, and whatever else I want to save for letter. In my opinion, using a notes app like Evernote is superior, for a few reasons: first, the article is actually copied and saved to my notebook, so if the webpage eventually takes down or moves the content, I won’t have trouble accessing the article. Second, Having articles in a spot where I can take notes is really helpful for organizing information.

What does this have to do with education?

As I started teaching myself web development and software engineering, I found that the amount of information out there was really staggering. I firmly believe that, in order to be an effective self-teacher, you have to find easy, approachable ways of organizing your life. It’s hard enough to make time for self-improvement. Having a constant stream of next actions I can take, related to my daily chores, professional development, and personal projects, ensures that I’m ready to make the best of my limited time.

Hopefully, learning more about my organization style is helpful for you as you think about how to achieve your goals. It’s important to remember, however, that what works for one person seldom works perfectly for someone else. Just think carefully about how you work, and see if you can find ways to get organized. I guarantee that it will pay dividends!

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