Organization and time management tricks

As part of my reflection over the past year, one item I decided to focus on was getting better at goal setting and following through with goals.  As a result, I decided to do some research on tools to help organize tasks.  I have been using Kanban style boards for organizing work for many years now, so thought it might be a good fit for organizing my personal life.  And so far, it has been great.  There is a section later in this point that has more details on my current at home Trello flow if anyone is interested.

As I started down this path, I noticed that many areas of organization and time management skills are commonly neglected, both in work and in day to day life at home, so thought I’d share some other tricks I have learned along the way.  Keeping on top of the surrounding chaos is a skill that is acquired, and therefore is something that needs to be worked at regularly.  Just like getting better at anything else, the process requires constant feeding and attention.  My own workflow and style is still constantly evolving, as I still try new tools and techniques regularly.  As always, if you have any good advice or useful tools please feel free to share them.

In addition to my Trello discovery, this post will mostly be a brain dump of some of my thoughts and ideas about the processes and tools that I have come to enjoy using in my daily planning, various workflows, and just my overall approach to time management and tasks.  I realize that everyone is different, with their own styles for breaking down work and organizing their thoughts and ideas so don’t take this post as the best way to do any one thing.  I just want to point out things that I have found to work over the years and hopefully people can take bits and pieces that fit well into their current way of managing the chaos.

For whatever reason, I have always enjoyed organization, attention to detail and meticulous planning.  As such, I have read quite a bit about organization and prioritization, including the book that really kick started my interest in getting organized professionally – Time Management for System Administrators: Stop Working Late and Start Working Smart, which I highly recommend.

The conclusion I have come to is that there isn’t one right way to do things for everybody.  You have to experiment with different approaches until you find a set of tools and workflows that suits your tastes and makes your more productive.  Most importantly, if somebody already has a tool they really like, don’t force them to change the way they do things.  Instead, re-fit your workflow to accommodate.

Connecting the dots

The most important aspect I have found for creating your own style of organization is to experiment and just use what works best for you.  The tools and apps I mention in this post all work well for me.  As an example, one thing that is important to me is that I can access all of my tools, notes, tasks, whatever easily across different devices.  Having the ability to view Trello boards is great when I’m on the go but need a quick reference for something I’m working on.  Likewise, I pretty much only use Keep to track and update my to-do list items or add new events to calendars, but these tools are also available on any computer I use if I need to look at something quickly or update a list.

A number of these tools also integrate with each other, which helps further improve organization.  For example, Google apps and Trello integrate nicely, so Google calendars can be configured to keep track of various Trello boards.  Trello can also hook into Google Drive so that online documents can be attached to cards.  There are a number of other Trello integrations which I haven’t explored yet but look useful, including Zapier, Dropbox, Slack, Outlook, Gmail, etc.  Since Trello is so flexible it can be tailored to work with other tools and workflows.

Simple to-do lists

Simple lists for keeping track of lists and small daily tasks has become invaluable to helping me stay on top of my responsibilities.  I keep these quick lists on my phone in Google Keep and none of them usually ever have more than 5 items at a time.  If I see that the task is more complicated I will move it into something that is easier to organize and prioritize.  For example, I might add a to-do item for fixing the dishwasher.  I have discovered that lists can quickly get cluttered and become messy, which will basically work against you and make you not want to use them.

Therefore, if any task or item in my to-do list takes more than a few hours of messing with and/or parts need to get ordered or prioritized or anything that can get more complicated and take more than a day to do, I will move it off the freshly minted to-do list into Trello.

Trello

As described above, Trello is a great tool for organizing a variety of different activities.  Trello is flexible so can be used for any number of use cases you can imagine, which allows for some great use cases.  As I said, my main objective for using Trello was to more effectively track my goals and tasks as well as those of my family.

In the past I have tried to use documentation and note taking apps to organize and prioritize things I would categorize as “projects” but it has just never stuck very well.  Trello really adds another dimension to organization and prioritization of tasks that you just can’t get with something like OneNote, even though I love OneNote.  These tools just slightly overlap I would say and Trello is just much better suited towards driving work.

My board relies heavily on labels for doing different kinds of filtering between goals and tasks.  If I want my wife to know what’s going on with trip planning for example, I can add a label for her and I can also add her as a subscriber so that she can easily receive updates/changes via email, or if she wants to look at all the progress just open up the card (the mobile version is really good at this).

family trello board

Notes, attachments, lists, etc, all are being used so I am least leveraging some of the other features that make Trello useful.

All said and done, I am very happy with how easy Trello is to use and how easy it is to track progress of my various happenings.  The board I came up with is fairly simple, but I’m looking forward to getting better at it and adding “features” in the future.  I know that Trello can do much more for project and task planning so I will be looking into beefing up my board with some of the integrations.  For now, the bones are there at least.

OneNote

I have written about OneNote and technical documention in the past so won’t cover it in a lot of detail here.  Suffice it to say though, I use this tool on pretty much a daily basis.  Pretty much everything I write down goes into OneNote.  Including all of my notes, documentation, thoughts, journals, etc.  Any time I have an idea or take a note, it goes into OneNote.  I like to have separate notebooks for organizing anything from my personal journal to notes about finance and investing to technical documentation and useful links in my daily work.

OneNote is great at handling things likes screenshots, checklists

One word of wisdom if you are thinking of using a note taking app for organizing notes.  Your notes really need an INTENSE amount love and care to make them useful and easy to reference, which means constantly updating them, moving pages around, as well as deleting and merging pages that are no longer relevant.  The notes are a living and breathing document and are pretty much in a constant state of change.  If you don’t keep your thoughts organized and up to date then things will quickly get unwieldy.

I have used Evernote in the past but strongly prefer OneNote because it matches my organization style more closely and the sharing and syncing features fit well with all my other workflows.

Google Calendar

Getting a good calendar app to keep track of daily time and date commitments is crucial.

I really like Google calendar because it is easy to use, is very portable and cross platform.  For me, everything that has a due date goes into Google calendar.  As an added bonus I can easily share my calendar out to family members as well (assuming they also use Google) and can view their calendars which allows everyone to stay in sync that needs to and helps tremendously with keeping on top of things that are going on, day to day.

There is a fantastic section that covers the topic of using a calendar to stay organized in the Time Management for Systems Administrators book, which I highly recommend if you aren’t really sure how or where to get started with organizing your own calendar.

Honorable mentions

Here are some of the other tools I have found useful as organization and productivity tools but don’t really fit well as time management tools.  If you are interested, feel free to check them out.

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Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.