How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.

6 thoughts on “How I took back my life

  1. Pingback: How I took back my life (View from the Potting Shed)

  2. I wonder if you’ll be quite so organised when the kiddies arrive?

    :-)

    Children devour time, so you should replace the in-tray with a shredder (one you can lock of course).

    This will free up the filing cabinet to store toys/nappies etc. You can forget about the computer (it’ll be hogged by a small person wanting to play games) & your PDA will probably be dropped in the loo by a 1 year old or drawn on with a crayon (daddy does it, so why can’t I?).

  3. You’ve given me the incentive to go back to my Green Box! For several years it served me excellently well as an In-tray when I was working in quite cramped conditions, and didn’t have room for an In-tray on my desk. it was big enough to contain everything in transist, and keep a small working space tidy, but not so big things got lost in it.

    I’ve now got lots of space, but have been quite badly disorganised as a result. Something to do with too many places to look for things, I guess. Which I’ve got away with for a while, but now need to be better organised.

    So, the Green Box is proudly back in situ, but on one of the shelves I cleared today, rather than at my feet, as in days of old.

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