I’ve talked about the planning system I’ve recently adopted in a few of my progress reports, but I realized there wasn’t a single place I could refer people to if I wanted to explain it to somebody. Since the system is still evolving, I thought it would be helpful for myself to summarize it, as a way of figuring out where I might still need to tweak things. A lot of these ideas are based on Getting Things Done (if you haven’t read the book, see a short explanation by LifeHacker) with additional inspiration from podcasts, blog posts and conversations with others like Felienne and Noeska.
The goals of the system are to
- keep me focused on important projects, but not forget everything else
- give me insight into how much I’ve already done
- not overschedule my time / say no more often
- not get overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done
- eliminate decisions on what to do next
Ultimately, get more important things done in less time and with less stress! A rather ambitious goal, and the system is definitely not doing all of these things for me yet, but it’s a start. Rather than the five steps of GTD, I see my system as just two steps: capture and organize. As I was writing this post I realized it’s a bit more information than I thought, so today I present only step one: capture everything!
I have never really had problems with forgetting to do something I promised, failing to start a project on time, or missing a deadline. So when I read GTD year ago or so, the “capture everything” idea seemed a bit unnecessary to me a first. But it has been a life changer!
My rule is: as soon as I think of something I (might) need or want to do in the future, no matter how vague it is, I have to capture it in Todoist or Evernote immediately. I tend to use Todoist for actions I’m quite sure I will do, like:
- send a reminder to a collaborator
- upload my recent paper to arXiV
- buy printer paper
Evernote, on the other hand, is for ideas and “maybe” actions:
- idea for a project around the house
- an article I want to read
- a piece of advice I want to remember
The most important thing, however, is to just choose one of the two (or even just always use the same one) and not spend too long thinking about it. The capturing must happen as soon as possible, so I tend to only add a keyword or two, and then organize later (this is what part 2 of this post will be about). The capturing happens in several ways below.
Quick access widgets on my phone
Both Todoist and Evernote have awesome widgets for your phone (Android in my case, but I’m sure there are other versions too). When I drag the top bar which houses all the tiny icons like battery downwards, I see the following:
So within two clicks (dragging the bar downwards and then tapping the “Add task” or “Add note” widgets), I can start capturing!
I use these widgets extensively when I’m walking somewhere, doing things around the house, and in conversations where I wouldn’t normally be taking notes. For example, I’ve started doing this with all sorts of recommendations from others, for example for podcasts. In work meetings I actually tend to use pen and paper because I write faster and I don’t want to use my phone the whole time, then transfer everything into Todoist/Evernote as soon as I’m in my office again.
Todoist plugin for Gmail
A trap that’s easy to fall into is to let your email dictate your day. Most emails have some todos associated with them, and it’s tempting to handle these first, before starting “real work”. Not anymore with Todoist plugin for Gmail. This plugin adds a button which lets you create a todo from an email. I do this for two types of emails – emails that will need time to respond to, and emails I need to follow up on.
As an example of emails that need time to respond to, I’m using a reminder email to complete my reviews for a conference (I had returned the reviews already at that point). Since I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do this when I received the email, I would create a todo out of it by clicking the Todoist button (right of the Labels button).
This opens up a Todoist window, which already has the email’s subject (as description) filled in, and possibly dates that might be involved. For example, here is reminder email (I returned my reviews already, but as an example) about returning reviews where I have already pressed the Todoist button:
The subject is automatically used as a description, and July 16th is highlighted, because Todoist extracted this from the email’s subject. Since this date is now in the past, Todoist suggests today – July 22th, instead. From here, you can edit the date and description, add any projects or labels associated with the todo, and click “Add Task”. I tend to only adjust the date to when I intend to do the task, and the description.
This description is quite good already, but I would still probably adjust it to something with an action verb, like “Complete last NIPS review”. Once I add the todo, I archive the email! This way the email is out of my inbox (inbox zero is awesome!) and I don’t have to worry about it until later when Todoist will remind me about it. In the meanwhile, I can focus on important projects. This archiving was scary at first, but this goes away with time.
Another way I use this plugin is for emails I need to follow-up on. These are typically emails where somebody promises to do something I need by a certain date, or emails where I’m asking for something I need first. Then I add it to Todoist with a “Send reminder about X” description, and a date at which the reminder feels appropriate.
This part of the system isn’t as smooth, since it can only be done on existing emails. If you are sending the first email of a thread, you will have to go to “Sent” and add the email to Todoist from there. Another issue is what to do after an unsuccessful reminder – you have completed the todo of the sending the reminder, but still haven’t received the information you need. Now I just reschedule the todo, so I can send another reminder later, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what I actually did. Any ideas on how to handle this are welcome!
Email forwarding to Evernote
If an email contains some information I might want to use, but I’m not sure exactly when I will need it, I forward it to Evernote. Some examples:
- Procedures on how to do something, e.g. filling in reimbursement forms
- Newsletters with great content which I might want to use as inspiration someday
- Happy emails, e.g. “thank you” emails or papers getting accepted.
Share to Evernote
Evernote offers more ways to save to it, such as the Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome desktop, and “Share via” option that many Android apps have, and where Evernote comes up as an option if you have it installed. Some examples:
- A website I like the layout or structure of and want to use as inspiration
- A website of a person I might want to contact
- An article I might want to read
- An article I already read, but want to share with others
- A Twitter thread with good advice or opinions
- A picture of the opening times of a store I always forget the name of
- A picture of an item I might want to buy
- A picture of an event poster, that I might want to attend
Perhaps I should mention here that another rule I have for capturing is that I HAVE to use Todoist or Evernote. Not “leave it on the table where I will see it”, “I’ll just write it down over here” or “I’ll just add it to my favorites”. This part isn’t always perfect, but I’m improving, and writing this post actually helped me identify problem areas (leaving things on the table). Thanks! 🙂
Phew! Now all the thoughts that might bother me when I should be writing, are safely stored in Todoist or Evernote. But, it’s all bit messy at the moment – two inboxes full of random todos, ideas, articles and whatnot. Stay tuned for the next post where I will talk about the organizing part of the story, and where Google Calendar finally comes into play.