Juggling work, personal and creative lives can get complicated. After years of trying to make it happen, I finally figured out a system that's both simple and effective.
Many people see me as an organized person, but I’m gonna let you in on a dirty little secret: I’m actually an incredibly unorganized person who constantly forgets things. I forget brilliant ideas I thought of five minutes ago and incredibly important tasks I need to do today. The only reason I seem organized is because my life would be a completely unredeemable mess if I weren't vigilant about having my shit together. I'm totally overcompensating.
It's important to keep things as simple as possible when organizing, but that's easier said than done; in addition to an office job that involves a lot of writing, I need to keep track of music projects, comic ideas, blog posts, to do items, grocery lists, amazing ideas for inventions that will make me a triillionaire and any other asinine crap that pops into my head. Plus, I need to remind myself to take the trash to the curb and update my fantasy football roster in a futile attempt to not suck this year.
Keeping things simple means using as few apps as possible to implement a single organizational flow. There are about a thousand and four productivity apps out there, and after trying way too many of them, I've mapped out a system that works really well for managing both my creative and personal lives using three apps. While there's obviously no one-size-fits-all solution, maybe my plan can work for you, too. Here's how I do it.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not sponsored by or affiliated with any of the apps I discuss here. In fact, many of them can be easily swapped out for similar apps that you prefer. This is more about the method than the tools themselves. Although if they want to send me free stuff, I'm not above that in the slightest.
Step 1: Dump 'n' Sort
The first step to taking control is having a place to dump every single thought you have for categorizing and organizing later. Dumping is as important as it is funny to say. For me, this is best done with Evernote. It’s where I keep all ideas, projects, recipes, reference information, etc. The best part of Evernote is that you can use it very simply or set up complex, powerful systems. I use tags like a boss because they're more versatile than notebooks.
Here's what I do: any time I think of a blog post topic or a funny joke or a song lyric or something, I send it immediately to an Evernote folder called Inbox. I do this by either making a new note on my phone while I'm on the go or forwarding an email to Evernote or clipping a webpage using the web clipper. The only exception here is if it is a simple, single-step task that has any urgency (like "take out the trash tonight"), in which case I skip directly to Step 2. Whatever app you use for dumping, the most important thing is that it's readily available at any given moment (i.e. on your phone) so you don't forget anything.
The second half of Step 1 is sorting your dumpbox, or else it just becomes a useless graveyard of formerly relevant thoughts. Assign a time once a day or once a week to clear it out, and I mean clear it out completely. Nothing should ever sit in there—it's the beginning of the journey, not the destination. What I do is clean up the rough ideas I jotted down, tag them according to my own system (see below), delete them if they're f#$%ing stupid (this happens often), move any urgent tasks or scheduled events to Steps 2 & 3 as you'll see momentarily, then delete or move everything out of the Inbox vigilantly (I use two other notebooks called "Active" and "Archive," but it doesn't really matter where notes go as long as they're tagged properly).
Here's a glimpse at part of my Evernote tag hierarchy. Strategically hidden are my "crimes to commit" and "embarrassing blackmail material" tags, among others less relevant to this post. I never keep sensitive personal information in Evernote like account numbers, passwords or personal documents. I keep a separate Evernote account for work stuff because I like to keep it in its own silo.
Finally, I keep a few key tags in the shortcuts area and only use these for projects I'm working on right now. This way I have a quick place to access everything I want to get done next without overwhelming myself with all the other stuff I may or may not do in the future. When I finish a project, I remove the shortcut tag, delete or archive the note and find something new to take its place.
Step 2: Taskify
Anything that's urgent, has a specific deadline or is a simple To Do item goes in the task list. This includes recurring tasks and reminders to set an early alarm for tomorrow or buy a new brake light bulb or kidnap a small child. Todoist is my app of choice for this.
While Evernote is the first place ideas go and is home for my bigger projects, I check Todoist to see what I absolutely need to do today before I can move on to anything else. Occasionally I'll have a note in Evernote with more information about a Todoist task, but I've found with this system I rarely need to do that.
Everyone swears by a different to do app, but I like Todoist because it’s simple, it’s very quick for adding tasks and due dates/recurrences, it has an easy drag-and-drop interface and there are well-made apps for every place you could want to use it: your phone, your web browser, etc. I need a task list app that has zero steps between my typing a task and it being added to my list. I hate apps that make me choose a due date or a priority or something before I can enter it in and move on to add another one. Todoist has all that stuff, but it's optional. I like to make sure I only have a small handful of tasks to do on a given day so I can get them done and move on to my Evernote shortcuts. Or at least move on to playing Fruit Ninja for three straight hours.
Here's a look at what my Todoist might look like. In this particular example, "Record a dubstep version of 'Hey Jude'" actually probably belongs in Evernote instead, unless for some reason it had a hard deadline. Considering its vast real-world applications, that could be the case.
Step 3: Scheme
By now you've dumped, sorted and tasked. There's one final step for complete organization, and that's to scheme, or plan out your schedule. I need to have events like meetings, concerts and dinner dates live side-by-side with my tasks so I have a visual representation of everything that's going on in one place.
For this I use Sunrise calendar because it takes my already existing Google calendars and kicks them up a notch or three by integrating with a ton of apps, most notably Todoist. Now I can glance at my calendar and see events and meetings, what time the Eagles will be embarrassingly beaten this week and my Todoist tasks, which I can drag and drop to different times right in the calendar if I want. I get reminders on my phone for both tasks and calendar items from a single app.
I also like Sunrise because it has a nice design, an easily-hidden sidebar, Facebook event syncing and a lot more. I do have a few quibbles since it's a pretty new service, but for the most part they're minor and hopefully temporary. Again, any calendar app you prefer will work for this step as long as you can get your tasks integrated.
Here's a screenshot of part of my calendar day.
Go With The Workflow
Even though the calendar is Step 3 here, it's actually the first thing I look at in the morning to check out a snapshot of my day ahead. Then I check in with Todoist throughout the day to see what stuff needs to get checked off the list, and later I consult Evernote to dive into whatever bigger projects I’m currently tackling. This covers just about everything I need to feel productive and on top of my entire life in just three steps and three apps. As a result, my life doesn’t burn to the ground in an apocalyptic conflagration as it would without these tools. Thank god for the Internet.
Here's a handy flow chart that summarizes the above:
Now if someone would develop an app that unified all 3 of these services into one, I'd give 'em 20 bucks and hug 'em forever. How do you organize your creative life?