So as someone with a lot of irons in the fire, I've found that personal organization is key to making sure that things get done on time. This is a challenge for me, as personal organization has never been a strong point of mine. Even as a youngster I struggled to stay on task and pay attention to both details and deadlines.
In the workplace, there are plenty of tools to help me schedule. Things like Outlook and Google Calendar had enough alarms and notifications to make sure that I got things done on time. But as my life changed and things were added to my plate, I found myself having trouble keeping up with all of my personal and business commitments. Going back to school compounded the problem by adding class times, extracurriculars, and assignments, sometimes scheduled months out.
I tried to use a lot of mobile applications for organization, but I found that when I had something that needed to be jotted down for future reference, the note taking or scheduling process had too many steps to be useful. I had to open the app, pull up the day or the category, and then enter all of the needed details. When I didn’t have the time or patience to do that, I ended up struggling to remember all of these thoughts, concepts, and appointments.
Using an analog, or pen and paper system, made a lot of sense to me. It was a way to simplify data input to the point that it would be easy for me to do on the go. So I got myself a paper journal and started using it.
This started out as just a series of task lists.
But I found myself still trying to maintain a lot of stuff in my head, things that weren't tasks or appointments, and I suffered from the same constant mental noise that entailed, plus I now had to-do lists to check off. This resulted in an increase in anxiety and distraction, without any real corresponding increase in organization or productivity.
I still really liked the idea of analog organization; the simplicity of it appealed to me.
Then I had a revelation. The way I had been using the journal represented a misunderstanding of how the brain works and a failure to understand what productivity really is.
We generate ideas or nuggets of ideas out of pieces of information all day every day. Whether we realize it or not, we do. Our brains are chewing away at this constantly, even when we're asleep. Sometimes when we finally synthesize something out of that noise, we've already lost the root ideas that led to that synthesis. Sometimes we're so full of external noise, bus schedules, work deadlines, appointments, chores and grocery lists, that we can't hear the music of cognition anymore and we lose valuable ideas. That’s the part of productivity that I was missing; sure I knew I needed to write for one of my blogs, but where was the thing I was going to write about?
I realized that my initial struggle resulted from the belief, a belief entrenched by how capitalism currently functions in our economy, that productivity necessarily results in a visible or tangible output. This concept of productivity is at odds with how creativity seems to work.
So I started using my journal and pen differently. Now, I write everything of note down on a single daily log. It's true that the daily logs look like a mess; they end up kind as of an idea soup. I’m not the sort to keep a tidy journal; in fact, as someone who does creative work, I personally find that it's important to have space where it's okay for me to be messy. Because that kind of chaos, where disparate ideas have the opportunity to rub up against one another, is generative. Creativity, after all, is kind of the practice of seeing what ideas fit together to make new things.
At the end of the day, I sift through all of that idea soup. Tasks that are completed get checked off. Ones that aren’t are either discarded or moved to a different day. Appointments are entered into Google Calendar. Ideas, concepts, quotes, and research topics are moved to the appropriate lists or project outlines. I do still use those productivity and organization apps, but I use them much more thoughtfully.
And once something is written down on paper, I don't have to worry about forgetting it. It's safe; I can save that brain space and that anxiety for actual work. It keeps my head clearer and helps me stay focused on whatever task is in front of me.
This system is still evolving as I work to fit it to my life and working style.
How do you stay organized?