Feel like you’re falling behind your daily schedule? Do you wish you had more hours in a day to have time to do what you like? In truth, each of us gets (more or less) the same amount of time to spend on Earth; it’s within our power to organize our life and try to spend as much of this time as we can doing something we care about.
This post describes the free digital tools I use to organize my day-to-day and long-term plans. I believe in using the right tool for the right problem, and therefore I describe which applications I use and how they work together.
Disclaimer: I make absolutely no profit from recommending these sites. I am merely expressing my opinion on why these are superior to their alternatives.
Why Use Digital Tools to Organize Your Life?
You can skip this section if you’re already convinced of the benefits of using electronic devices to track your activities
Perhaps you’re old school and think post-it notes on the fridge are superior. Perhaps you don’t trust these companies with their dubious privacy policies.
But the truth is no man is an island and no amount of physical reminders will help you if your mind is distracted by some other upcoming event. Humans evolved survival instincts, so we’re pretty good at determining when we should eat (we feel hungry), but far too often we get the feeling we forgot to do something but we can’t remember what.
If you can afford to pay a personal assistant to follow you around and write down your meetings or remind you which bills you have to pay, then good for you. If not, you shouldn’t risk forgetting about your friend’s birthday or about that exam coming next week — it’s safer to get an automated reminder on your phone.
First and foremost, start using one of the many free calendar apps. I chose Google Calendar since it’s tightly integrated with my Android phone and it also has a web interface I can access from any computer. It also integrates well with mail software (for example, if I get an email about an event from Meetup I can add it to my calendar with a click).
No matter which app you use, here is some general advice:
Mark down events early, even if you don’t know the exact date/location. The primary objective is to avoid scheduling something else on top of your existing plans.
For example, when I plan to leave on holiday I place an approximate event over several days so I can easily spot it in Calendar when planning other events.
Don’t set up reminders for things which you ought to do daily. When I started working out I set up Calendar to remind me to exercise for 10 minutes every day. I got used to delaying or just ignoring the notifications. Eventually I realized my phone wasn’t going to provide the motivation I needed. Instead, you have to force yourself to do these task every day and they will become routine.
Just like you don’t need a reminder to brush your teeth, you shouldn’t need a reminder to exercise.
Having a well-organized calendar is the first step to budgeting your time and helps you always be on top of future events.
Trello is my primary tool for organizing large projects or just keeping my thoughts together. Even though it has a huge amount of features and integrations, I use it to store links to relevant stuff or create long checklists (checklists are so satisfying).
The gist of Trello is that you have boards, which are pretty large and usually focus on one specific theme/project. In these boards you have lists (usually one per topic), which are named columns of cards. Each card has a short title and a longer description, and can have documents, links and checklists attached to it. Cards can be easily shuffled around if you feel they don’t fit in their original list.
Some of my use cases:
I like reading research papers on various topics and I have a board where I collect their links and group them by topic.
Me and my friends (who also play guitar) have a shared board where we put links to various songs’ chords and tabs or awesome guitar tutorials.
We also started learning to cook (eating out is expensive), and we have a board with three lists: recipes we’ve tried and are tasty, recipes we’ve tried but would rather not eat again, and recipes we haven’t yet tried (but look promising).
This kind of segmentation of lists into tasks which are done / which are being done / which haven’t been started yet is inspired from Kanban boards.
When starting out, you could use a board for each project you are planning. If you’re a student, you can use a board to keep all your course notes or useful links related to school. As you use Trello more you will start getting a feel for how general or specific you want your boards to be.
While Trello is great for those times when you have the possibility to plan ahead, sometimes you don’t feel like creating a new board just to write down a grocery list. Keep is a simple note-taking app with a mobile app and a web interface.
One mistake I made when I first started using Keep a few years ago is that I took too many notes and started getting lost in them. While Trello scales well if you have complex projects, Keep simply wasn’t designed for that kind of data. Avoid having more than a dozen (active) notes or you risk getting lost in them.
It’s easy to make fun of Excel, but you should not underestimate the simplicity and power of spreadsheet software. My spreadsheet software of choice is Google Sheets, since it’s free and it syncs all your documents with the cloud. For those who miss the old Excel interface, there is also Microsoft Office Online.
Sheets can be useful for budgeting. While lacking in automatic features, this system is very simple to set up and maintain. Most spreadsheet software also comes with tools to create beautiful charts. You can easily move your data onto another platform later if you want to.
Tip: if you’re not yet accustomed with all the charts in your spreadsheet software, take a while to familiarize yourself with the various graphics you can draw. Humans are pretty bad at making out details from numerical data, but we’re quite good and interpreting bar charts — take this from a data scientist.
Spreadsheets are easy to learn but hard to master. When starting out, you might be tempted to fill out most cells manually and compute averages by hand, but the more you start getting used to the various formulas and macros available in your spreadsheet software, you will improve your productivity. And the next time you have to do some accounting you will fill out sheets like a pro.
If you also like reading books (or, like me, you push yourself to read because it’s good for you), then GoodReads has got you covered. Their site is the equivalent of a digital bookshelf where you can track which books you’ve already read, which books you are currently reading or want to read in the future. On top of this, GoodReads is also very good at recommending new books if you’re looking for something to read.
Other Specific Ways to Organize Your Life
The tools listed above are quite general and should help any sort of living organism who wants to get a hold on their life’s schedule.
Note: These recommendations might be a bit biased towards developers people involved in the IT industry.
Start a Blog (or a Journal)
I knew blogging was about creating content and sharing it with the world, but I never though it could be beneficial for the writers themselves (I’m not talking about making profits here).
Writing thinks down forces you to maintain a clarity in your thoughts. It forces you to think back on the decisions you took. It’s a great way to remember what you did over the years.
If you don’t feel like sanitizing your thoughts and posting them publicly, at least start a private journal where you write down your activities and thoughts.
Keep your LinkedIn up-to-date
Might seem weird to talk about CVs in this post, but I have an important tip related to organization. You never know when a new opportunity for a job might arise, and if you need to take a few days off to clean up and update your CV you could miss out on that offer.
As soon as you get a certification in anything, add it to your CV. As early as the first day at the job, add the new workplace to your CV. And if you don’t feel like firing up Word or a LaTeX editor, at least update your LinkedIn.
Remember that the only way a CV gets updated as your life progresses is if you add things to it. Periodically making some time to clean it up and remove old / unimportant achievements also helps.
There was a time I tried organizing my ideas for a programming project using Trello, and I quickly discovered how much it hurts to lack integration with the platform on which you’re hosting/developing the code.
The whole point of the Git flow is that you write down stories/ideas in issues, and then you close them by merging pull requests. As your project grows, new ideas show up as old features get implemented.
Also, remember that issues are also meant for discussion and as a future reference for people who want to request the same feature. How easy do you think it is for new contributors to start discussing an idea on a Trello board?
I use issues to track what I plan to improve on my site / blog. I also keep issues for the sort of content I want to create. Not necessarily specific posts, but to track what things I would like to write about.