Getting Down With the System: An Overview

In this post, I will give a basic overview of my time management and organization system.  I don’t have a catchy name for this system (yet), so for now I’ll just refer to it as “The System” (not to be confused with “The System” that revolutionaries, counter-culturalists, anarchists, conspiracy theorists, and yours truly claim is oppressing us all).

Here are its basic tenets:

  1. A place for everything and everything in its place.  This applies to every aspect of my life, not just the physical.  Mental things must have a place.  Digital things must have a place.  Tools, in all of these realms, must have a place.  When I pick something up (in any of these realms), I should immediately know where it needs to go (or be able to narrow it down within seconds).  Mail, for example, comes out of the mailbox and is immediately opened, then either recycled, responded to, or put in a place where I’ll know to look if I need to respond to it later.  Email, same thing.  An idea, same thing.  We’ll go over the usual “places” in a moment.
  2. Balance.  Again, in every aspect of my life.  My schedule must be balanced between rigid appointments and discretionary time.  My energy should be balanced between work and play (one of my bigger challenges).  My time commitments must be balanced with the flexibility to rearrange when life inevitably happens and interrupts them.
  3. Review.  Every other tool is use is entirely pointless if I do not frequently and consistently review my System.  I have to schedule time for review into my weekly and daily schedule.  There will be a post devoted to this soon.
  4. Take what works and leave the rest.  I have given (and will continue to give) many tools and strategies a fair shot – usually a week or a month, depending on the intensity or need for cumulative effect.  If it works, it becomes integrated into The System.  If it doesn’t, it gets discarded.  If only one out of its 8 key points works, I keep that one and leave the others.  If, after a time, something stops working, I let it go and find something more effective to replace it.
These are its essential tools:
  1. Idea capturer(s).  If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.  This is the place where my ideas, reminders, and to-dos go.  The primary purpose of idea capturers is to eliminate mental clutter.  They do this in two ways: (1) by ensuring that any ideas or tasks that come to my mind get recorded in tangible form, and (2) by keeping them in a central location where I cannot lose them.  For a while, this was the only consistent organization system I had; it is still the most important part of mine.  I take it with me everywhere I go: work, meetings, social events, grocery shopping, travelling, bus, and so on.  This may be a notebook, index cards, a notepad app on a smartphone or iPod, some combination thereof or something else altogether.  I use two primary idea capturers:
    1. Pocket notebook + mechanical pencil.   This is my catch-all for ideas; I prefer blank pages so that I can capture a sketch for a painting or draw out a mind-map of an idea without pesky lines interrupting my flow.  I swore by Moleskine for many years (the knock-off brands always seemed to fall apart on me), but I recently switched to Ecosystem, whose products are made of 100% post-consumer recycled paper and made 100% in the US (no sweatshops, no economic drain).  It’s important to me to use products that are in line with my values, a topic I may address in further detail in a future post.
    2. Springpad.  This is a recent addition to my toolkit, and it has quickly become my favorite.  I started using it after watching Michelle Nickolaisen’s video post that gave a thorough overview of how to use it to keep track of everything in your life.  It’s accessible from my phone, any computer, and a Google Chrome extension for my browser; I can capture anything from webpages to sound bytes to good old-fashioned text notes; I can make checklists and shopping lists; and I can organize it all into folders (i.e., errands, blog-related, work, my big move) and cross-reference them.  Check out Michelle’s tutorial for an in-depth look!
  2. Lists.  I’ll eventually show you several of these, but the important thing to know about them is that they are NOT to-do lists (see earlier post on Next Steps).  My three primary lists are:
    1. Projects list.  This is a master list of all projects (defined as any task comprised of more than one step) that I have going, be it “Renew my driver’s license” or “Move to Paris.”  Keeping a list and reviewing it regularly ensures that all of my present tasks stay fresh in my mind.  It also relieves my mind of the exhausting and futile chore of keeping track of them all.  Ideally, I review this once a week.
    2. Next Steps list.  See the first post on this blog for a full account of this crucial part of my organization system.  If I could only keep one list, it would be this one.  I review this at least once a day.
    3. Maybe Later list.  This is a holding tank for anything I’d like to do that isn’t a priority/possibility at the present juncture.  I have mine subdivided into “Books to read,” “People/places to visit,” and a general category for things like “learn to dance tango” and “take a world history class.”  By devoting a space to these things, I honor those ideas that may currently be pipe dreams without abandoning the dream, and make sure I don’t forget about that brilliant business idea I had that I have no time to pursue at the moment.  I review this list about once a month.
  3. Calendar.  I swear by Google Calendar.  It syncs automatically to my phone, and I can make different calendars for different things and view all of them at once or separately.  The calendar is a keystone of my organization system.  I have three main calendars on my account, each coded by color:
    1. Regular Recurring Appointments (the default calendar – green).  This is for things like my work schedule, weekly meetings, and other recurring appointments.  It forms the basic structure of my schedule.
    2. Special appointments.  This is where I put one-time events like doctors’ appointments, coffee dates with friends, irregular meetings, and so on.  I made it red so that these events will stand out from my regular schedule at first glance.
    3. Day-specific and time-specific tasks.  This is the only instance in which I put Next Steps on my calendar: If they must be done on a certain day or at a certain time, or are otherwise time-sensitive.  For example, I wouldn’t put “Call Dad to catch up” on the calendar, because I can do that anytime I have a free block of time; I would put “Call insurance company to renew policy before 5:00 p.m. on Friday,” because if don’t do it by the close of the business day, I can’t get to it and I will lose my coverage.  I would also (and this is one of those significant departures for ADDers – more on that later) put “Buy dog food” on the calendar if I were nearly out, because if I didn’t do it that day then my dog would go hungry.
  4. Checklists.  These are extremely handy for routine check-ins on things that habitually trip me up.  A great example is a Departure Checklist.  I use this to make sure I have everything I need before I walk out the door – lunch if I’m going to work, things to be mailed, house keys, phone, wallet, etc.  There are a variety of other applications that will, again, be covered in a future post.
And, with that, voila!  An overview of the System.  The in-depth view will be included in my upcoming e-book.  In the meantime, I’ll be explaining each component and tool of the system in its own post.
Which of the above tools have you used in the past?  What has worked for you?  What hasn’t? What would you like to know more about?
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2 Comments on “Getting Down With the System: An Overview”

  1. […] November, you will begin to see new series of posts detailing the components of the system I have already outlined, the process by which I have gone about simplifying my life (which, among other benefits, […]

  2. […] touchstone in my Daily Reviews (a practice I have yet to detail here, but to which I referred in my overview of the System).  In the morning as I look at the day ahead, I am naming one thing I can do in at least one of […]


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