Monday, November 17, 2014

How I (attempt to) stay organized

A discussion on a listserv that I participate in resulted earlier today in a request that I share some of the methods and technological tools I use to stay (somewhat) organized and focused as I go about my work and personal life on a daily and weekly basis. So, what follows is a quick and pointed summary, for whatever it may be worth. I'm going to mention several applications to which I might otherwise be inclined to provide links if I were not trying to be really quick about this. So ... that's why God made search engines.

Most of my work is generated by email, or requires the use of email at some point in the process of its completion. I use Gmail. My diocesan email account is configured to deliver messages into my personal Gmail account. Gmail is rock solid in terms of downtime (i.e. lack thereof), spam prevention (i.e. it is virtually spam-free), and searchability. It allows me to either originate a message or reply to one from either account, as seems appropriate. I am not particularly fond of Google's design aesthetic, including and especially Gmail's. So I have, at various times, experimented with alternatives to the Gmail interface. So far, I have always returned to the interface I don't like the looks of because of its sheer unmatched functionality. Lately I'm auditioning Google's still-in-beta Inbox. It has a couple of features I need for it to acquire before I can put the classic Gmail interface out to pasture, but I generally like it--especially the "snooze" feature, which allows me to kick a message down the road to a time when I will be better able to deal with it.

So Gmail is the foundation of the entire system. The other two critical elements are Evernote and GQueues.

Evernote is the gold standard note application available today. It operates on a "freemium" business model and is very affordable any way you use it. It uses both categories and tags and is completely searchable--not only the notes that you type in, and not only editable attachments, but even graphic files. It is both highly functional and very easy on the eyes. It also plays extremely well with Gmail. There is a Gmail extension called PowerBot that allows me to clip either entire email messages, or just attachments, directly to Evernote, including categorizing and tagging without leaving my Gmail screen. There is also a browser extension (I use Chrome, by the way) that allows me to easily send web content--full pages or portions that I select--into Evernote, retaining hyperlink functionality. Evernote rocks. I mostly use the web version, but there are desktop (Windows and Mac) clients, and iOS and Android apps, so it is usable seamlessly across the array of devices. My goal is to be as paperless as possible, and a Fujitsu ScanSnap digital scanner allows me to scan hard copy directly into Evernote. Correspondence, invoices, and most anything else that lies flat goes that route, and is then disposed of.

GQueues is a task management app designed to play well with Gmail and Google Calendar. At its heart, it tries to be compliant with the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done, which has a sort of cult following. So the program makes it easy to capture ideas about actions and projects right when they occur to me (provided I'm not in the shower, which, alarmingly, is where a lot of important ideas do tend to occur to me!), and have them available when I'm able to do further processing and organizing. There are iOS (and Android) versions of the app, which means I can use my phone's voice recognition abilities to create new tasks on the fly. GQueues supports both categories and tags, handles recurring actions with great flexibility (a non-negotiable for me), and is nice to look at. It also has a Gmail extension that allows me to turn an email into a task almost effortlessly, which means I can immediately kick it out of my email inbox. But here's the best part: GQueues can be configured as a Google calendar, which comes in handy when I do my weekly review (per GTD best practice) on Sunday evening. I go to my monthly calendar view, make the GQs calendar visible (it's usually turned off, for appearance purposes), and then I can drag leftover tasks from the previous week to new dates, turn off the GQs calendar, and forget about those items until their assigned date arrives and they appear in the "Currently Active" "smart queue" that I have created and configured.

At a lower level, I could also mention Dropbox, which I use every day--but it could just as easily be Google Drive or iCloud. Dropbox is just what I happened to fall into.

So, since Tuesday morning is the beginning of my work week, here's what will happen when I open up my Macbook over morning tea tomorrow: First I will look at my email (using Inbox), both for new arrivals that need to be converted to tasks, and items from today or earlier that I snoozed until tomorrow morning. Then I will go to my GQueues tab and navigate to my Inbox (my GQs Inbox, that is), where those tasks will be waiting for me. I will process them by assigning a category, perhaps a tag, and a "start" date (that is, when I want to begin seeing them on my radar--in the case of newly-arrived emails, probably the same day). Then I will open my Currently Active category (defined as all tasks with dates of today or earlier) and select some that either must be completed that day, or that I would like to complete that day. These I move into a category called Next Actions (GTD lingo). The system allows me to drag and drop them into a ranked order. This Next Actions list, then, is what drives my work day, apart from scheduled meetings and unforeseeable developments.

One last thought: I am grateful that the nature of my work enables me to integrate my vocational and personal lives. I don't keep two different systems. Tasks and calendars and contacts are all integrated, personal and professional. I realize not everybody can do this, but I sure am glad I can. So I may do "work" stuff while home in the evening, and I may sometimes do "personal" stuff while at my desk in the office. It all evens out.

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