Probably everyone has at one point in their life stumbled upon the term “Getting Things Done,” abbreviated GTD, a book by David Allen. It’s become kind of a go-to solution for anyone who wants to do exactly that: get things done. However, it is also kind of problematic, not because it’s not helpful, but rather because it dumps upon you a condensed litany of tips and tricks on how to organise your life. While this is certainly helpful for many people, it can become burdensome, especially if you’re a newbie to organisation.
I never really read GTD, but I did read “How to Take Smart Notes” by Söhnke Ahrens, which is kind of the special edition of GTD for academics. I also ready on the PARA principle of organisation, I would describe myself as knowledgeable when it comes to Kanban and AGILE project management, although I’ve never understood how Waterfall works.
As you can already see: The business world is full of people who throw some kind of cool new organising principle at you. It seems that anyone who can’t do anything big in their life falls back to describing that one single moment where they felt productive in a book. Fancy new term inclusive. And that’s certainly not helping you, who just wants to get some form of organisation in your daily life and doesn’t want to become the Marie Kondo equivalent of computer organisation.
So where do you start? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that you won’t get around reading at least some of these texts and books describing organisation. And you certainly won’t get around that painful year or two in which you try to do everything right and become so unproductive that your life will seem stagnating. What I want to show you in this article is how to reduce the time of questioning your existence and give you some pointers as what I figured works best for me; maybe some of that works for you too!
- Applications in this article: iCal Maker, Nextcloud, Reminders.app, Calendar.app, Thunderbird, Kanboard
- Open Source? Partially
- Supported Platforms: macOS, cross-platform
- Alternatives: GNOME calendar (Linux), GitHub Projects (cross-platform), Windows Calendar
- You probably don’t need any dedicated app for To-do lists. If you want to up your game, you can use some plugins for VS Code, use a Markdown Editor (I obviously recommend Zettlr) or see if there’s a built-in solution for your operating system.
- You probably won’t find many alternative dedicated calendar apps, because many apps integrate them alongside with other functionality, for example Thunderbird
- The organisational app market is heavily financialised, so many start ups will try to sell you useless functionality. The important point to remember is: You can achieve everything using Open Source, sometimes even with the built-ins of your operating system. Be alert so you don’t suddenly find yourself paying for essentials!
Where Do I Start?
The biggest question you might have right now would be where to start. But that’s something really difficult to answer. I’d simply suggest to start somewhere. And with somewhere I mean that issue that you can already clearly identify. Maybe you’re fed up with all your files cluttering your desktop? If so, then a good start might be something that deals with file organisation, for example the PARA principle, which I’m using fairly productively.
Or you’re fed up with having all your reading notes all around the place? Then it might be a good idea to start with “How to Take Smart Notes”. Or maybe you forget all your deadlines and meetings? Then GTD might be the best start.
Whatever you do, the most important point to remember is don’t overdo it. You can attempt to organise your life down to the atomic level, but that will really just prompt mental health problems. What I figured at some point is that some chaos is inevitable and actually good. If you attempt to organise everything, you’ll soon be just organising and not working. And if you attempt to organise nothing, your progress can feel creeping forward. (I do have to add here that some people, most notably older professors, seem to be able to retain the overview over knee-high mountains of printed out paper, and I honestly have no idea how they do it, but apparently they can.)
So whatever you do: Always remember to shield yourself from too much advice, never organise too well, never organise too much. You cannot organise too less, so don’t worry about that, but it’s frighteningly easy to overdo it.
Organising Tools Should be Providers
Now, let’s get started. First of all, some general thoughts about the tools I’m going to present to you. There are two observations I made while writing this article. First, always use more than one tool. It doesn’t really matter how many exactly or what tools, but you should have more than one tool for organising your things. Your life fits in a few categories, but not just one. For instance, you don’t need many rules for organising your files, but only one single rule is definitely too few. The same holds true for meetings and your To-do list.
Second, your tools must be providers, not gatekeepers. This second insight derives from my experience with software development, and it basically states that your tools must be available at all times, but never be required for organising. For example, sometimes I note deadlines down in my To-do list, but sometimes I add them to my calendar — basically it depends on what is quicker for me. But all tools are available to me, and they will remind me of anything I have in them when it’s time. So I don’t have to use them, they don’t stand in my way.
This is also some important thought that refers back to the advice to not overdo it: If you don’t feel like adding some event to your calendar, don’t. Do not try to force yourself to fit everything in your organisation system; some things don’t fit, and as soon as you have to weigh up the pros and cons, it’s best to listen to your gut feeling. That little stomach of yours is surprisingly often right.
Different Ways to Organise
Now after the disclaimers are out of the way, let’s get to thinking about what you would can use to organise. This is a pretty comprehensive list, but you should be suspicious if someone tells you they use all of these tools productively. Because nobody can — unless, maybe, Marie Kondo. But then ask yourself: Is your first name Marie and your last name Kondo? No? Thought so.
The Classics: To-do List
Among the most classical things of organisation is a To-do list. I have no idea where it originated, so no history session today, but it’s ubiquitous and almost always helpful. So if you’re going to use only one way of organisation, use a To-do list. To-do lists are so ubiquitous, it has become kind of the Utah teapot or graphical user interfaces: If you want to learn some framework for building user interfaces, it’s almost guaranteed the first thing you’ll learn is how to build a small To-do list (see, e.g., the VueJS tutorial).
So you can either use a literal piece of paper or some highly advanced dedicated To-do list application, and you should really choose the format that works best for you. If you’re more the paper type, then it won’t help having a cool To-do list app on your phone if you’re never going to add anything in there. As in many things, always ask yourself: Where is it most easy to add To-do list items for you?
I: The Basic List
I can’t show you a paper To-do list here because I don’t use one, but there are many different ways of doing it. Some people add dedicated checkbox items, some don’t (because it’s definitely time-consuming to draw a box). Some have several categories, some just have one huge list where everything is intermingled. You will find on the internet many people who will recommend that you have dedicated categories, e.g., for grocery shopping, your work, and private To-dos. But I definitely think that you don’t need those categories, since the To-do list is something personal and you will remember where something is written. You will know if that item that you knew you had to do is more on top of the long list, or at the bottom.
Instead of using paper, you can also do other materials. From time to time, if I have a whiteboard available, I do use that one. But most of the time, I use a digital To-do list, which I have on my server, so I can access it on any device. Here’s a screenshot of how it looks right now:
As you can see I do use checkboxes, but only because it’s much easier for me to press
Cmd+T than it is to draw a literal checkbox using pen and paper. Also, you can see that I sometimes do experiment with different categories and ways of writing down To-dos, but none of this is hammered in stone. In fact, those categories are so weak, the second I have the feeling I don’t want them anymore I immediately abandon them. This is because taking notes should never require to think too much. If you have to think for one second into which category your item fits, it’s one second too long, and you should just abandon your existing categories. After all, what matters is that you check those boxes, not into which categories you put them.
II: The Advanced List
This brings me to the second category of To-do lists. There are numerous To-do apps out there, the most famous probably being Todoist or Wunderlist. These promise you some more advanced features, reminders, and all those bells and whistles you can decide to actually spend money on. I personally would say if you pay money for a To-do list you’re doing something wrong, but who am I to judge?
Anyway, aside from my classic list which is completely written in Markdown, i.e. somewhere which is not intrinsically designed to be a To-do list, I also use a dedicated To-do list app, namely macOS’s Reminders app.
As you can see: A dedicated app only allows you to create list-like items but offers you some goodies such as deadlines, marking something as important and add more info (such as links or additional notes). These additional features vary from app to app, but in general they’ll follow a specific line of work. However, I know some To-do apps allow you to tag your items, and I’m pretty sure that if you actually have to use that feature, you have too many To-dos and, as such, a much bigger problem than that of organisation.
Which app or which way you use to note down your To-dos doesn’t matter. The only important aspects you should strive for are the following:
- Your To-do list(s) must be accessible to you at any time and no more than a few seconds away. The reason is that you will sometimes remember things you almost had forgotten and need to immediately write these down. Also, try to think of situations in which you don’t have your laptop or smartphone available: How do you do it in these situations?
- Use whatever is available. If it’s just a bill from the grocery store or some nuclear-powered super-computer doesn’t matter. If you know where your To-do items are, use whatever comes in handy.
- Do not dive too much into the art of To-do list taking, and don’t listen to those people on the internet that tell you whatnotelse — your To-do list is something temporary, not something as important as your firstborn.
The Digital Awakening: Calendars and iCal
The next stage of organisation regards any scheduled events. Be they work meetings, going to dinner with friends, or a doctor’s appointment — calendars are incredibly important, and since we now have digital calendars, it’s easier than ever to keep your schedule organised. As with To-do list, of paramount importance is that you have access to your calendar at any time. Since a calendar is a little bit more complicated than a To-do list, you probably won’t be able to use your nuclear-powered super computer, but have to settle for something.
Luckily, the underlying standard, iCal, is pretty universal, so you still have a lot of options. I would advice against anything from Microsoft. The reason for this is that Microsoft has also completely locked up their calendar services, and it’s almost impossible to share events between Microsoft and non-Microsoft. In fact, I would recommend you to use a third-party service to manage your calendars.
I personally use a custom Nextcloud installation as my calendar service, since it integrates nicely with Thunderbird, Apple Calendar, my iPhone, and allows me to share my calendars with people on Windows and Android easily. Furthermore, even if I have none of my devices at hand, I can still edit my calendar online using the web interface. This is as close to universal access as it gets, and it works perfectly.
If you don’t have a server lying around (how dare you!), you can either subscribe to a Nextcloud server provider for as low as $5 a month, and this money is definitely worth it — especially since Nextcloud is primarily a cloud storage, so you can ditch Dropbox and OneDrive for a much better alternative. But nowadays, most email providers also offer Calendar servers, so you should be able to manage a calendar with your primary email address as well.
Unfortunately, I can’t share a screenshot of my calendar, since there’s not just my stuff in there, but I made an interesting discovery: For the past five years, I’ve always kept three different calendars: One for work, one for my university stuff, and one for private events. That worked out very well. But since I’m with my girlfriend, and we share a calendar, something has shifted: Now she’s using the green calendar (Volunteering work) and I’m only using the cyan calendar (university work). This shift is interesting, because it highlights an important fact about organisation: It will shift many times, and will always adjust to what works best. Unconsciously, we have adjusted the calendar usage so that we can now tell by colour who has some event scheduled, and don’t have to read the actual event names anymore. In general, we switched from a type-based colour coding to a person-based colour coding. If you notice something like that, always remember: Don’t push against these changes! They are part of organising!
One additional benefit of using digital calendars comes in handy when you need to invite others to events. For example, we have an institute seminar where the IAS invites scholars from across the world, and since we all wanted to participate in these events, I quickly created an iCal file that I could share with everyone. Most apps allow you to import such a file with a single button, so everyone would profit from this file. For this, by the way, I used the free online iCal generator which I also link to in my resources section. I can highly recommend that if you need to invite people to some events. It’s much easier to just attach an iCal file to your mail rather than hope that everyone will manually add the event details to their calendar.
And if you’re hardcore: iCal is a plain text format, which I know because I once built an event organising plugin (here’s the controller that builds the iCal file). So you can just do it manually (example taken from Wikipedia):
BEGIN:VCALENDAR VERSION:2.0 PRODID:-//hacksw/handcal//NONSGML v1.0//EN BEGIN:VEVENT UID:email@example.com DTSTAMP:19970714T170000Z ORGANIZER;CN=John Doe:MAILTO:firstname.lastname@example.org DTSTART:19970714T170000Z DTEND:19970715T035959Z SUMMARY:Bastille Day Party GEO:48.85299;2.36885 END:VEVENT END:VCALENDAR
It does look ugly, but then: the format is several decades old.
Going Nuts: Kanban and AGILE Management
Let’s enter the end boss of organisation: Kanban and AGILE project management. This won’t be really useful for you personally, but might help in organising your group. Trust me, do not use Kanbans for your personal stuff, I tried it and failed horribly.
Kanban is the grandmaster or organisation, developed in Japan (probably by the ancestors of Marie Kondo?) and can be used to keep large projects organised. Many start ups and modern companies use it, but it can make sense for smaller projects as well. The general principle works as follows: You have a grid with rows and columns. The rows are called “swimlanes” and contain one project each. What counts as a “project” is certainly up for debate, and should be fluid, but in general it’s “one large portion of work” that needs to be divided into sub-tasks. These subtasks can be emulated using post-its if you’re using an analog version of a Kanban board. These sub-tasks must be moved from left to right (hence the “swimlanes” metaphor) across the columns. The columns then should denote several stages a single item can be in, e.g., “ToDo”, “In Progress”, and “Done”.
One really well thought-out application is Kanboard. You have to install it manually on a server, but apart from that it’s incredibly easy to use. I’ve attempted to use it for several projects I’m involved in, but I noticed one specific thing: Kanban organisation is a whole task in itself, so you need to have a certain size of stuff to organise; otherwise it’s a complete overkill. Furthermore, the success of a Kanban rests and falls with the initiative of the whole team. If nobody really uses it, you can develop all you like, but the Kanban will never actually work. This leads me to a final point:
Scale up, not down!
Whatever you use to organise your events, deadlines, and To-dos: Always scale up, never scale down. Never start with some full-fledged monstrosity of an app and then use less and less until you’re at a comfortable point. You must always begin with a ridiculously simple solution and then move your way up. Only switch to a dedicated To-do app if you are absolutely certain the pen-and-paper list that helped you through high school doesn’t do the trick anymore. Not a single moment before.
If you begin with dedicated apps and listen to the siren song of advertisers, you’ll likely go out of the experience frustrated and less productive than before. I fell for that before, and so my absolute recommendation is: Always use what’s at hand for as long as possible, and only switch to a bigger solution once you have objective proof your system is lit up in flames.
Besides Task Organisation: The PARA-Principle
One last point for today: Obviously, at a certain point you don’t need to organise your tasks, but also files on your computer. No, having all of them on your desktop is not a viable solution. Use the folders that are meant for that shit! But apart from that, it also doesn’t help if you just clutter all your stuff in your Documents-folder. So what to do?
I figured out a system that gives you much leverage without completely hedging you: the PARA-principle. PARA simply stands for “Projects, Archive, Resources, Areas” and that denotes a set of general folders you might want to use. In “Projects” only those files go where you are currently working. My Projects-folder currently contains four projects: One where I take notes on my curation of the big data set I’m working on right now, one for my current paper project, and two for the university courses I currently take. Once these courses are finished, these folders will go into the “Archive” folder, which contains anything that you probably never need, but still want to keep around. That’s the dreaded “all-in-one” folder. But there are also things you like to work on that do not have fixed deadlines. These are what goes into your “Areas” folder. For me it’s one folder for my PhD, one for my work on Zettlr, and one for the Soziologiemagazin. Lastly, the “Resources” folder contains generic files, but unlike the “Archive” folder these need to be structured more since you actually have to find files in there.
For my files, I have figured out I don’t need anything besides this. As I mentioned in the beginning: A little bit of chaos is neither avoidable, nor bad for your (mental) health. Your brain is better at remembering where certain things are than you probably think, so don’t worry about a little bit of chaos!
Conclusion: Organisation Works Best if it’s Fuzzy
Organisation is hard, but all those guides on the internet that try to sell you a single method as “absolutely essential” probably lie. While you’re probably very unproductive if you don’t organise anything at all, you are not Marie Kondo, and that’s perfectly fine. After all, you should at all points remember that you will always impose a certain amount of organisation on everything you do. We people are simply wired to do that. While the kinds and sizes of the categories we form in our heads vary with socialisation and social environment, the fact that they’re real is indisputable. So if you want to pimp your organisational game, it’s best to follow what works for you. You probably would freeze in horror upon seeing my file organisation below the PARA-level, but then I would probably do the same if I were to see yours.
I personally deem indispensable some form of keeping one or several To-do lists and a digital calendar that you can access (almost) everywhere. But apart from that, the sky’s the limit. What is important, though, is that you don’t let some people on the internet sell you their method unaltered, and that you don’t overdo it. If some method just doesn’t work, no matter how hard you try, it’s not because you’re too stupid for that, it’s simply because that method doesn’t work for you. And that’s fine. You’re not a mess just because you can’t roll with one single organisational method.
So if you are sure you want to read some of the organisational blockbuster books out there, always remember that it will not work for you as advertised, and that you likely don’t need 90 % of the stuff that’s in there. Furthermore, with regard to organisation there’s plenty of apps – and all of them have Open Source alternatives. Before throwing money at some spurious folks who try to sell you a To-do list for five bucks a month, make sure to check the free alternatives. Organisational apps is some of the easiest stuff to code, so you can be sure that from these 5 bucks, 90 % will be pure profit after tax and server costs.
Allow yourself some fuzzyness!