In addition to a basic structure to your week and some helpful lists for projects and next actions, there are some helpful supporting components to any planning system.
Journals: Keeping Track of Ideas
Sometimes you have an idea that isn’t actionable, but it’s not something you want to forget, either. It seems like you should keep it somewhere or somehow for reference.
For example, let’s say you are interested in leadership, and you have lots of ideas that come to mind on how to lead better. Where do you keep those?
It’s simple: keep them in a journal.
Journals are for keeping track of ideas that are not actionable, but you want to preserve.
Journals are Not Just for Life Events
Most people are accustomed to the idea of keeping a journal for their life. But you can extend this concept for keeping track of ideas as well by creating a journal for each area you want to keep ideas on.
I have about thirty different journals (not kidding!). They include:
- Life (this is my journal for life events and activities we do, and general reflections)
And several others.
When I have a thought on one of these subjects, I open the journal and put it in there. This is also a handy place to keep links and quotes on the subject you want to keep for future reference, but for which it is not worth saving into a file.
Jonathan Edwards Kept Journals
Keeping track of your thoughts and ideas on various subjects puts you in company with some of the best minds in history—including Jonathan Edwards. Here’s what one scholar had to say about Edwards’ habit of keeping journals:
Perhaps no person ever lived who so habitually and carefully committed his thoughts, on almost every subject, to writing, as the elder President Edwards. His ordinary studies were pursued pen in hand, and with his notebooks before him; and he not only often stopped, in his daily rides, by the wayside, but frequently rose even at midnight, to commit to paper any important thought that had occurred to him.
Where to Keep Your Journals
I am pretty low tech with these journals. You could keep these in Evernote, but I found that I actually prefer keeping them in Word. Each journal is a distinct document. I keep them all together in a file called “journals,” and then I have a shortcut to access them from my menu bar on my Mac.
For each journal entry, I give it a title in bold that summarizes the thought, and then I put the date beneath:
November 30, 2006
Leadership style needs to adapt with the situation.
The entry can be short—like that one—or go on for very long.
Someone might say “why create a separate journal for each subject? Why not just create a single document?” Some people might prefer that. I find that I just like keeping these subjects distinct. It’s easier when I go back to find ideas and information to have everything on one subject directly together, rather than having to scan through entries on a bunch of different subjects.
At one time I thought Evernote was a better alternative to just keeping Word documents—and you might find that. Evernote allows you to create each journal entry as a distinct item, and then you can tag it and put it into a folder—and thus each folder effectively becomes your “journal.” You can also view all entries together, or separately by folder (journal). The date is automatically captured, and even location if you do this on your iPad or iPhone.
All that sounds great. So why don’t I like it? I’m not entirely sure—I just don’t! It feels a bit too much like email to me. I think the main thing is that the way it’s laid out, you actually just see the title of each entry, and then you have to click into the actual entry to read it. I want to just have a document that I can scroll down through, seeing the length of each entry at the same time as I see the title because, for some reason, that helps me decide what I actually want to review.
So, for now, I’m content with still using Word for these. And if I ever get the urge to make them portable, I can just keep them in Dropbox—making them accessible from my iPad and iPhone.
Capturing Ideas That Come Randomly (which is most of them)
One other tip here. Ideas that you want to capture come at all sorts of different times—while driving, while in the shower, while running, while at a friends.
If you always have a capture tool with you, one thing you can do is write down your idea in your capture tool, and then transfer it to your journal when you are at your computer. I found this to be too time-consuming, however.
A better idea, I think, is to write down the thought right away in something like Evernote, which is portable on your iPhone or other mobile device, and then you can just copy and paste into your journal. Or, just jot a note of the main idea, and write up the actual entry when you are back at your computer.
The best practice, if you can, though is to just journal it right away. If you are at your computer but still in the middle of something else, write in the journal the topics you want to journal on, and you will see that and do it the next time you are in the journal when you have time and energy. This is a good practice: putting the “when you can do it” actions right where you would do them, rather than on a master list. This allows you to think in terms of routines and work types, rather than distinct actions, which I find annoying.
Files: Keeping Track of Information
One key to minimizing friction in your workflow is to have a good filing setup—both on your computer and in a file cabinet for paper-based.
A good setup is critical for keeping your workflow free-flowing and unclogged. But, it’s hard to get figured out. My files always used to bug me. I would try different ways of organizing them, but was never satisfied.
So eventually, several years ago, I decided I was going to figure this out. I was in the process of re-organizing and redesigning the Desiring God website at the time, and had sought to learn everything I could on good principles of categorization. So I took a week toward the end of December and sought to apply these concepts to getting my files organized in a way that I liked as well.
After a trial and error process, it worked. My files never bug me anymore, and it’s easy to find anything in about 10 seconds or less.
Some people don’t think filing is worth it any more, since you can just search. I actually disagree with that, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, I’ve found good filing and a good search mechanism both have their place.
Here are a few principles for good filing:
- Use the same system for electronic and physical files. You don’t want to have to think in two different category structures when using each. Your physical file structure should mirror your electronic.
- Use the same approach for work and personal files. Your specific categories will differ, but the overall approach should be the same—again, so that you don’t have to go back and forth between two different systems. This, if you file by department at work (which I recommend), then file by area at home (which I also recommend).
- Distinguish projects, operations, and general reference. I have a division for projects—where each project that has stuff I need to keep gets a distinct folder—and then a separate division for operations. Projects are initiatives with a start and stop—they are temporary. Operations, on the other hand, are ongoing areas of responsibility. I found this distinction is super helpful because it keeps all my projects right together. General reference is information I want to keep on hand, but which I don’t use to execute any of my responsibilities (which would go in operations). For example, the maintenance schedule for our cars is in Operations > Auto. But a cool article I found on “How Cars Work” is in General Reference > Autos. The reason is that I regularly update the former, but the latter is just useful overall information. Also, there are lots of general reference categories that wouldn’t make sense in your operational files, such as “Science,” “Current Events,” “Geography,” “Information Design,” “Marketing,” and so forth.
- Don’t file A-Z. David Allen recommends just filing A-Z, that is, not grouping your files into categories (this is how encyclopedias work). I found this approach maddening. Things that I wanted to access together were spread out over several different letters. I recommend category filing rather than A-Z filing. The best way to do this is to file by department at work (example: finance, human resources, internet, marketing, executive management, etc.) and life area at home (for example: autos, banking, career, children, church, cooking, education, entertainment, financial management, health, planning, utilities, writing, etc.). Within each of these, you can have further sub-categories if needed.
There isn’t room to go into more details on filing here, but you can learn about the system I developed and have found incredibly effective at my blog: [link to series on filing]. I’ve also included a full outline of my filing setup in the bonus materials.
Contacts: Keeping Track of People
Your contact management tool is a key part of your productivity system. Just two points here.
First, don’t overlook the value of the note field for keeping track of things you want to remember but that are easy to forget—such as the names of people’s kids, who referred you to the person if someone else suggested you connect, and so forth.
Second, since contacts naturally organize well by A-Z, and programs do this automatically, it’s easy to keep them organized. But there are also some groupings to create that can help you be intentional about staying in touch with people and reaching out to people you’d like to meet, but haven’t. In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi discusses several different groupings that are helpful, and I’d point you there for more on this (see chapter 8, “Take Names,” and chapter 20, “Pinging—All the Time”).
Workspace: Creating a High Performing Workflow System
Setting up your workspace and desk well matters for several reasons.
First, when you have your desk set up well you minimize resistance to carrying out your work and thus can get more work done. That’s the key principle here: Set your desk up well in order to minimize resistance so that you can give your focus and energy to actually doing your work.
Second, you will simply work better if you have your desk set up well and know how to use it. Which is another one of my aims here: A desk is a workflow system. Therefore we ought to approach it with intentionality and purpose. We can be more effective when we know how to use our desks and are intentional, rather than ad hoc, because we deal with them every day and have to use them to get all sorts of important things done. The principle here is: Understand your tools and know how to make the most of them.
Third, when your desk is not set up well it creates drag and thus drains time, energy, and focus. I like how they put this in Organizing for Dummies:
You don’t need to be an efficiency expert, interior designer, or feng shui master specializing in the Chinese art of placement to know that the right work space can set you up for success, while a whatever approach to your workplace layout can sap your time, energy, concentration, and creativity.”
Or, to put it another way: “Clutter sucks creativity and energy from your brain.”
Fourth, when you make it easy to act, you will do more. I like how the author of The Personal Efficiency Program puts this: “Most people act when it’s easy to do so. The better organized you are, the easier it is to act and the greater the tendency for you to do those things that should be done, when they should be done.”
Fifth, you use your desk about every day, and knowing how to use it is not hard to figure out. So the benefits you get from this are large, but the cost involved is small.
Sixth, it makes work more fun when you know how to use your desk. A well-run desk is a work of art!
You can read the full series of how to set up your desk and workspace on my blog. Here are a few key principles:
- Your workspace should be like a cockpit. You want it to be an effective, efficient home base for dealing with stuff and executing work. Thus, it needs to be lean and function with ease. You want to be able to move quickly with minimal drag.
- This implies that you should have fingertip access to the things that you use and do most often, and enough surface area to do your work and create (temporary!) groupings as needed on the desktop (which you clear away when done).
- Clear space is good. Do not aim to occupy every fragment of space. A desk is for working, not storing stuff. So be a minimalist when it comes to what you have on your desk permanently.
- Everything at your desk falls into just a few categories: equipment, supplies, decoration, reference, transient stuff.
- The desk is for doing work, not storing work or remind you of work.
- Create work centers. On your desktop, the key centers will likely be phone center, computer center, capture tool center, and work center. There are also principles for best orchestrating the flow of work in your work center. In your drawers, centers include: writing center, mailing/finance center (if needed), and stapler/filing center. In your files, the major divisions (= centers) are: pending, projects, operations, reference, and archive.
- Have interchangeable centers at home and work.
Although so much of what we do now is electronic, physical “stuff” will always be with us in one form or another. And that means there is a need to have some physical tools to help us work as effectively as we can.
Good tools matter for at least three reasons.
First, if you have good tools, you often times want to use them. This in turn makes your work a bit more enjoyable, and this pays dividends for your productivity. David Allen makes a good point when he writes: “one of the best tricks for enhancing your personal productivity is having organizing tools that you love to use.”
I really like using my Moleskine journal [link to them through Amazon affiliate program] as my capture tool, for example. I could just use an (ugly) legal pad or utilitarian spiral reporters book, but that would be boring. I like using the Moleskine journal, and this in turn inclines me to use it more.
Second, bad tools get in the way. This creates unconscious resistance to getting things done. Having the wrong kind of pen is the worst offender here. Bad pens are annoying and make you not want to write anything down.
Hence, my five rules of pens are:
- Never use a Bic pen (they skip frequently)
- Get a pen that doesn’t skip
- Get a pen that writes smooth
- Get a pen that isn’t annoying to hold
- Get a pen you like to write with
Third, physical tools are important because it is a matter of making your workspace in general a place you want to be. The tools you have at hand are part of that environment, and thus contribute to your overall sense of satisfaction with your work environment. If you have tools that you enjoy using, you are that much more likely to enjoy your workspace in general – which enhances your ability to get things done.
There isn’t space to go into more detail on physical tools, but on my blog you can read my full series on Recommended (Physical) Productivity Tools. [link: //www.whatsbestnext.com/2009/08/recommended-productivity-tools-an-introduction/
Here is a quick list of some of the main tools I use:
- Laptop: MacBook Pro 15″
- Email: Mac Mail [I bring my Gmail and work mail into here]
- Calendar: iCal
- Contacts: Mac Address Book
- Task Management: OmniFocus
- Capture tool 1: Moleskine journal
- Capture tool 2: OmniFocus or iPhone Voice Memos
- Mobile device: iPhone
- Web browser: Firefox
- Feed reader: NetNewsWire
- Keeping up with Twitter: Tweetdeck
- Twitter on my iPhone: Tweetie and sometimes Twitfire
- Office tools: Microsoft Office for Mac [but considering a switch to iWork at some point]; also use Google Docs a lot — great for sharing documents without doing attachments
- Diagramming, creating flow charts and org charts and etc.: MindManager and OmniGraffle
- Financial Management: Quicken [have to run this on Windows on my Mac – I don’t recommend the Mac version; I’ll be doing a post on financial software for the Mac coming up]
- Running Windows on my Mac: VMWare’s Fusion
- Computer backups: Time Machine
Note that most of the above software is for the Mac. When I was on Windows, I used Outlook for email, calendar, contacts, and task management — and was relatively happy with it because I customized things very heavily (for details, see the David Allen Company whitepaper on Customizing Microsoft Outlook for GTD)
Having become interested in desk and workspace setup as an extension of my GTD practices, I found that they quickly and easily extended further to organizing my whole house on the basis of some simple principles. This is a bit strange, I know! But it has saved us a bunch of time over the years and made it easy to get (and put away) what we need when we need it.
We don’t always keep everything perfectly picked up. (In fact, my wife does much better at this than I do—as our kids started getting a bit older and it seemed like nothing would stay put for more than a few minutes, my motivation decreased significantly!). But we always know where everything goes when we do want to get things picked up all the way. It’s still a bit annoying to see how often things can get messy when you have 3 young kids, but when we do put things away, at least we don’t have the added resistance of not having a place for things.
I recommend the book Organizing for Dummies for learning how to organize your space for optimal efficiency and effectiveness. It goes through every room of your house and is by far the best book I’ve seen on organizing space. Best of all, everything revolves around a simple set of five principles that you can use to organize anything effectively. I’ve found these principles to be useful time and again. You’ll see them in the box, “How to Organize Anything.”
|How to Organize AnythingOrganizing for Dummies introduced me to a 5-step process that I’ve found incredibly useful:Purge. Get rid of what is unnecessary, especially pens that don’t work.
Like with like. This means that you group like things together, just like you learned in high school English. This is really the central principle to organizing anything.
Access. When you have your groupings determined, you place them according to your access needs. This is why, for example, extra supplies go off in a supply closet or other out of the way place, rather than in your drawers. You don’t want stuff you don’t have to access as much getting in your way when accessing stuff you do need a lot.
Contain. Don’t just let stuff run loose. Use drawer dividers and other types of containers when relevant.
Evaluate. When you are done, step back and contemplate how you like it and make sure it works well for you. Make any adjustments.
The last supporting component to pay attention to is not really a component at all: you have to manage your energy.
Alternate Periods of Exertion and Recovery
The best books on this so far are by Barry Schwartz, such as The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. One of the best points Schwartz makes is that we are designed to work with alternating periods of exertion and recovery.
In other words, being always on, with no rest, is counterproductive. Think of weight lifting: if you lift the same muscle group every day, you are not getting twice the benefit. Rather, you are working against yourself because your muscles have no time to recover and grow. Likewise, we need periods of rest in order to recover our energy—and this builds our capacity.
On the other hand, having no exertion or stress is not good, either. Think again of the weightlifting example—if you never work any muscle group, it won’t grow, either. Likewise, we need alternating periods of exertion and recovery.
Schwartz takes this to the point of recommending that you go through your day in 90-minute cycles. I actually don’t like that idea. I like just working until I feel like I need a break. This might be contrary to some of what he’s saying, but I don’t like having such a regimented schedule. Nonetheless, the point on alternating periods of exertion and recovery is excellent.
Be Like Jonathan Edwards (Again!)
And Schwartz isn’t the first to pay attention to the importance of energy. 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards was ahead of the game by paying close attention to even the foods he ate in order to maximize his energy and alertness for study. Here’s an interesting entry from his diary:
“By a sparingness in diet, and eating as much as may be what is light and easy of digestion, I shall doubtless be able to think more clearly, and shall gain time: 1. By lengthening out my life; 2. Shall need less time for digestion, after meals; 3. Shall be able to study more closely, without injury to my health; 4. Shall need less time for sleep; 5. Shall more seldom be troubled with the head-ache.”
As one of his biographers noted, he “carefully observed the effects of the different sorts of food, and selected those which best suited his constitution, and rendered him most fit for mental labor.”
In addition to his diet, Edwards also was intentional about exercise. In the summer he would often walk in the woods or ride on horseback for hours at a time, and in the winter he would chop wood. Edwards is often regarded as “one of the greatest minds America has ever produced.” It is significant that Edwards assisted his mind by attention to energy, exercise, and diet.
Time is the New Scarcity
Last point on energy. As of this writing, in the year 2011, it seems that many people still act as though we are living in the Great Depression. Now, in some sense, it could possibly be argued that the recession that we’ve been in is a mild repeat! But the fact remains that physical resources and finances are still far more abundant today than they were at any time in the past.
Nonetheless, many people still focus on saving money as if it were the most important resource. It’s not.
Energy and time are also resources, and they are far more important now than money. Why? Because the scarcest resource is the most valuable one. And today, we are shortest on time and energy.
There is a relationship between these three resources—to save money, you have to use either energy or time (or both). And since time and energy are now typically the most scarce of our resources, it is actually not good stewardship to focus on saving money. Instead, we should be willing to use money to save time and energy.
|The BoxCore Point: Use journals to keep track of ideas, files to keep track of documents (physical and electronic), and contacts to keep track of people. Know how to set up your workspace, choose the right software tools, and choose the right physical tools. And know how to organize space in general, and your energy.Core Quote: “Perhaps no person ever lived who so habitually and carefully committed his thoughts, on almost every subject, to writing, as the elder President Edwards. His ordinary studies were pursued pen in hand, and with his notebooks before him; and he not only often stopped, in his daily rides, by the wayside, but frequently rose even at midnight, to commit to paper any important thought that had occurred to him.”|
 Obviously many online articles are most easily saved in to Delicious or such, but it’s helpful to put the link in a journal if there is also a section you want to paste in there as well as a key quote for future reference.
 For more on this, see my message “The Gospel and Money” from The Gospel Coalition 2009 National Conference [link].
 From the introduction to Charity and Its Fruits; p. iiv.