Feel like you’re falling behind your daily schedule? Do you wish you had more hours in a day? Each of us gets (more or less) the same amount of time to live; it’s within our power to organize our priorities and spend as much time as possible doing what matters.
This post describes the free digital tools I use to organize my daily activity and long-term plans. It’s critical to use the right tool for the right problem, therefore I also describe my workflows.
Disclaimer: I make no profit from recommending these sites.
Why digital tools?
Skip this section if you’re convinced of the benefits of using software tools
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 nobody has perfect memory, 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 remind you of your your meetings or which bills you have to pay, then good for you. If not, don’t risk forgetting your friend’s birthday or that deadline coming up 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. You want to develop a habit.
Having a well-organized calendar is the first step to budgeting your time and helps you stay on top of future events.
Trello is my primary tool for organizing large projects or just keeping my thoughts together.
It has a huge amount of features and integrations, but I only use its basic functionality: storing links or creating 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:
Grouping interesting links and resources by topic on different boards.
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.
Started learning to cook (eating out is expensive), and I have a board with three lists: recipes I’ve tried and are tasty, recipes I’ve tried but would rather not eat again, and recipes I 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 don’t underestimate the simplicity and power of spreadsheet software.
Sheets can be useful for budgeting. While lacking in automatic features, this system is very simple to set up and maintain. You can easily move your data onto another platform later if you want to.
You might be tempted to fill out cells manually, or compute averages by hand; but as you start getting used to the available formulas and macros, you will improve your efficiency. And the next time you have to do some accounting you will fill out the sheets like a pro.
Most tools also have the ability to create beautiful charts. Once you start accumulating some data, try gaining insights from your patterns.
Tip: take a while to familiarize yourself with the various graphics you can draw. Humans intuition is pretty bad with numbers, but we’re quite good at interpreting bar charts.
If you also like reading (e-)books, then GoodReads has got you covered. Their site is the equivalent of a digital bookshelf where you can track books you’ve already read, are currently reading, or want to read in the future.
On top of this, it’s also very good at recommending new books if you’re looking for something to read.
Other 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.
Start a blog (or keep 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 down your thoughts forces you to maintain clarity. 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 CV up-to-date
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.
Your CV gets updated only if you improve it. Make it a habit to regularly clean it up and remove old, unimportant achievements.
Note: this is more useful for those working in the IT industry.
I once tried organizing my ideas for a programming project using Trello, and I quickly discovered the pain of lacking integration with the platform on which you’re developing and hosting 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.
Remember that issues are meant for discussion and as future references for people who want to request the same feature. They help ease the mental burden on the maintainers, and make it easy for new contributors to do useful work.