I did quite some research to improve the way how I organize myself. My personal workflow is mostly based on productivity guru David Allen’s famous “Getting Things done” approach.
Although software can be outdated after some time, since new and better products may enter the market, I will also mention the tools that I’m using.
The “Getting Things Done” approach recognizes that our brain is not meant for storing information and is rather suitable for doing creative work and generating ideas. Thus it suggests to keep all data which may have any value for us in a system which we trust. By feeling assured that our data cannot get lost and we can find and retrieve it easily any time, we can achieve greater peace of mind and focus better on our work.
Any information that we don’t want to forget has some value for us. This doesn’t mean that it is connected to a monetary value. It can be things such as an appointment that we want to remember, a gift that we want to buy or a recipe that we want to keep.
Information that we want to store is usually either time-bounded, for reference or a task. To achieve that such data is always available for us without the need to keep it in our heads, we have to use applications which both synchronize the data between our devices and which allow us to access our data via a web interface independent of the device that we are using.
Of course one should be aware that when storing personal data at a web service, one’s data is at risk to be leaked. Thus highly sensitive data should not be stored with such software or additional security measures such as encryption should be applied.
When you want to initially adopt my workflow, the required effort might be intimidating and it takes some time to acquire the discipline for using the system properly. I faced the same difficulties, but now it works like a charm and knowing that I cannot forget anything anymore feels awesome. I waste less time with searching for stuff and I get a lot more done. I find that it’s definitely worth the effort.
I use Wunderlist to manage my to-dos and I love it. I use the default inbox for all the tasks that I’m currently working on or that I want to do as soon as I find enough time in the near future.
I have a lot of other to-do lists for things which are less urgent, but which I want to remember. Some lists are related to certain people, others to places. I have a list for readings that I consider to read in the future, a “maybe one day” list for things that I might want to do in the future and a “waiting for” list to remind me of things requiring a response or action from someone else.
Usually I check my inbox every morning and whenever I’m done with a task to look for new task. One day per week is my planning day and I go through all lists to check whether everything is still up-to-date. This is especially important because of the “waiting for” list. If something hasn’t been done which is important to me, I may have to react.
Also I have a list of to-dos with reminders. These are things which are not important for me yet, but which may become more relevant at a certain time. Since they are not time-bounded and don’t have to be done at an exact time, I don’t save them in my calendar.
The screenshot shows my current list structure in Wunderlist. Additionally to the inbox and list for starred to-dos I have a folder containing lists concerning certain people. For example I have a list for my mum where I save things that I might want to discuss with her. When getting groceries, I usually check my “errands” list. Also I have a folder with lists for my different projects such as websites that I’m working on. The folder “places” includes lists like “at home” for things that I can only do at a certain place. However if it is a very urgent to-do, I put it in the inbox. “POSTECH” is my folder containing lists related to my Master studies and has a list for every course that I’m taking. Lastly I created a folder for lists that I share with others e.g. with my family members.
Before I reworked my self-organization style, I used to pollute my calendar with to-dos and stuff which shouldn’t be there, if one wants to be very effectively. Now I only save time-bounded events in my calendar. I make only an exception for to-dos that I want to do at a certain day. By putting them in the calendar I can get a better overview about my commitments for this day. Usually I check the events of the current and some following days every morning.
The calendar of my choice is Google Calendar. When I schedule something in my calendar, I select a certain color for it depending on the kind of event. For example everything related to my university that I should attend like lectures is in grey. Special events however like presentations, exams or deadlines are displayed in red. Recreational things happening regularly, but which are not highly important for me, are in yellow and for appointments with people I usually pick purple.
This way I can quickly recognize if something especially important is happening on a day. Additionally I’m a great fan of the reminder function of Google Calendar. Since I use my calendar both on my smart phone and on my web browser when I’m at the PC, I get a notification for example ten minutes before a lunch appointment on both devices. This way I can focus on my work and don’t have to worry that I might forget an important event.
I’m especially proud about how my email inbox looks like, since I have completely restructured my workflow. I follow the zero-email inbox approach. This means that I always aim for an empty inbox and whenever I open an email, I will also remove it from the inbox.
I manage all my emails with Gmail. I also have email addresses at other email providers, but I import them all to my Gmail mailbox.
I use labels to organize my emails. Labels in Gmail work like tags offering the advantage that one can assign several to an email, if it is related to various topics. I have two special labels: “@action” and “@waitingFor”. I prefix the “@” symbol, so that these labels is shown on top of the label list in the Gmail interface.
All emails which require some further action from my side, but which I cannot or don’t want to do immediately, receive the label “@action”. Additionally I may create a to-do in Wunderlist.
Just like my “Waiting for” to-do list, I label emails with “@waitingFor” to remind me that I may have to intervene, if I don’t get a response or things don’t get done. All other emails, that I want to keep, get at least one descriptive label. Thanks to Gmail’s great search functionality I usually find what I’m looking for very quickly.
Notes & Documents
I try to follow Tim Ferris’ productivity advice to save most of my documents and notes in Evernote. Tim Ferris suggests digitalizing any paper being relevant to me such as business cards or bills e.g. by taking a picture of it and to save it in Evernote. The search functionality of Evernote can even recognize text on images or in PDFs. This way I don’t have to deal with paper anymore and due to Evernote’s great search mechanism and by using tags, I can find what I’m searching for efficiently.
Evernote also offers notebooks which are like folders for notes, however I only use the default inbox for new notes which don’t have any tags assigned yet and one notebook for all other notes.
A major challenge is how to organize tags. The most convincing method that I found is to structure tags by using super tags labelled “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “how”. For each category I create corresponding sub-tags with varying hierarchy levels. I have to admit that I don’t have any tags under “why” and “how”.
A further hack to enhance this tag structuring approach is to prefix tags in each category with a different special character. For example since I prefix all “where” tags with “#”, the auto-completion mechanism only suggests tags of the “where” category, when I type “#” in the field for adding a tag to a note.
The screenshot shows some of my tags in Evernote. For example I have the super tag “What” which contains further super tags such as “Food” containing the tags “:Recipe” and “:Restaurant”. Note that “:” is my prefixed identifier for “What” tags.
A further Evernote feature that I like are note links. For example I have one note with links to all my notes related to blog articles.
Additionally to Evernote I use Dropbox to store important documents, especially relatively large documents such as PDFs and presentations. All files that I want to access easily and that I want to be backed up, such as pictures or Photoshop files which I may want to edit on several PCs, are also in my Dropbox.
Other cloud storage providers such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive serve the same purpose.
Passwords and Bookmarks
To manage passwords I use LastPass and for bookmarks I use Google Chrome. Thanks to the synchronization feature I have always the same bookmarks on all my devices.
The effectiveness of using several tools depends to a high degree on a smart integration of them.
When I’m at the PC, I use Wunderlist as Chrome Gmail plugin. This plugin shows my to-dos in a resizable panel next to my Gmail inbox as wells as next to my Google calendar when I open it in the browser. There exists also a LastPass Plugin for Google Chrome which I highly recommend.
On my smartphone I use a calendar widget and a Wunderlist widget that I position above each other in one tab, so that I can see my to-dos and upcoming events simultaneously.
Furthermore stuff can be sent to Evernote and Wunderlist via email and Wunderlist reminders can be sent as notification emails.
Depending on your tasks and preferences there are many options to fine-tune your workflow. Thus when getting started with new tools, it’s important to invest some time to study and try out the features.
Feel free to leave a comment, if you have additional tips or suggestions how to improve my workflow.