The root cause of many problems is information overload. This can be eased by exporting your thoughts to paper or specialized software. To keep your data organized for maximum productivity, you need just 3 tools:
- A place to capture notes (for everything you need to remember).
- Task manager (for things to do).
- Calendar (for events that have a specific date and time).
Whether you use a paper notebook or specialized software for this, the important things is making a decision. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing the perfect productivity apps. Instead, fit the tools to your system.
Speaking of which, the system I use involves the following steps:
First, capture everything you need to remember. This could be communication, errands, ideas, goals, shopping lists — whatever has your attention, put it to writing and get it out of your head.
Next, you need to regularly review what you’ve captured so you don’t miss anything important. The purpose of this review is to remind yourself of the things you captured and act on them.
You will then either execute directly (remember the 2-minute rule) or categorize the item you’ve captured. Generally, this will be either something to do or something to remember.
This is where the task manager and calendar come in. Things to do go in the task manager and calendar while things to remember stay in your note-taking system.
The purpose of the review is to allocate the items you’ve captured to the relevant category. Below you will find my 5 rules for organizing information along with the tools I use to do it.
Ready? Let’s go.
Rule #1: Everything goes in Evernote.
Emails, Slack messages, ideas, tasks, events — everything I need to remember but can’t do immediately goes in Evernote. There are alternatives like Google Keep and One Note which also do a good job of this. The main reason I choose Evernote is the amazing paper scanner it has. I like to write on paper notebooks but often things I write just pile up. Now, if I write something that’s worth remembering, I snap a photo with my phone and Evernote turns it into a beautiful PDF that’s better than the original version. Here’s an example:
You can also annotate the image and share with anyone by generating a URL.
If you’re using Android, there’s a widget you can put on your homescreen and capture notes in seconds (tap>capture>save). It’s important to minimize the barriers to capturing notes in order to develop the habit. So make sure your note-taking system makes it fast and easy to capture anything and that it’s mobile.
Rule #2: Review your Evernote inbox twice a day.
It’s important to establish “Start work” and “End work” routines. These prime your mind for work and then help you relax, respectively. They are also the ideal time to clear your email inbox and your note-taking system. Every time you do a review, you need to reach inbox-zero.
To do this, I use an Inbox folder in Evernote. It’s where all my web clips and mobile notes go. My job is to review these twice a day and clear them off. But where do they go?
Rule #3: Notes remain in Evernote.
If the item I’ve captured is a reference/something I need to remember, it stays in Evernote. This could range from my utility bills to favorite quotes and projects to undertake in the future.
To categorize easily, I pay attention to two things:
- What is this item?
- What does it relate to?
The answer to the first question can have multiple faces. I use tags for this and here’s a snapshot of my current setup:
The goal is to categorize your notes in order to make them useful later. I say useful because it’s easy to search and find things in Evernote. What I’m aiming for is to be able to open up, for example, all of my checklists in the future and turn them into a workbook that’s shareable and easy to replicate. Or create a list of all my business ideas, or review all of my plans for the future. You get the point.
The second question “What does it relate to” normally has fewer options. If you’re like me, you keep things simple and try to focus on as few areas in life as possible. For most people, these boil down to 5 things:
- Health — your physical well being and energy levels.
- Relationships — the quality of your connection to friends and family.
- Contribution — your work, finances, volunteering etc.
- Growth — your mental well being, learning, having fun and so on.
- Admin — everything that supports the above but does not belong to any category (most chores fall under Admin).
You can use any other classification for these like Fitness, Social, Work etc. The important thing is that it makes sense to you and it’s easy to categorize all of your notes. Sometimes you will have temporary items for projects, like my recent Trip to Nice.
The blurred items above are clients I work with but generally I bundle work-items in one notebook stack. The Personal notebook combines my Health and Relationship notes in one place (they are not as many as to justify entire notebooks).
But for some notes, I prefer using different tools because they make it more visual and easy to track — these are my tasks and events.
Rule #4: Tasks go in TickTick.
While doing my review, things to do will go into TickTick. The only question I ask is this:
- When should I pay attention to this task?
Many people will have elaborate systems for categorizing tasks based on project, personal, work etc. I found it’s easier for me to have one list that’s based on timing.
So for today, I only see tasks that I need to pay attention today. I don’t care about tomorrow or next week.
Also, I often group tasks according to their nature — Left brain (analytical) vs Right brain (creative); and Heavy vs Light (see my drawing at the start of this post). This minimizes the wasted energy from switching between tasks of different nature.
So I’ll normally take care of heavy tasks in the morning and lightweight tasks in the afternoon. Similarly, analytical tasks will get done in the morning and creative in the afternoon, usually after a nap.
Another principle is based on anxiety — I try to prioritize whatever makes me most uneasy (kudos to Tim Ferriss for this tip).
Rule #5: Events go in Google Calendar.
If something has a specific date and time, I put it on the calendar. These are normally events, meetings and so on. The calendar makes it easier to visualize your day/week and plan ahead.
So that’s about it. To wrap up, remember the following:
- A bad decision is better than no decision, especially when choosing your productivity tools.
- Have strict rules for how you organize data and processes to minimize repetitive decisions.
- Find an easy way to take notes and review them often.
- Categorize the items you capture for maximum usability.
- Find a task manager and calendar you like to keep track of things to do.