Organizing the unorganized

No one has any time.  We all have too much to do.

This is true for businessmen; it’s true for students; it’s true for activists like myself.

Is your email inbox overflowing?  Do you have more things to do than hours in the day to do them?

If so, read on.

Personal productivity

An entire industry has grown up in recent years around the idea of personal productivity and people who follow these sorts of things tend to identify with this or that guru, and this or that system.

I first came across this stuff more than a decade ago when I read Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I thought it had some interesting ideas, but Covey’s underlying religious faith and the faddishness of some of it put me off.  I asked a respected trade unionist in the U.S. what he thought of Covey, who he’d read, and he replied to me, “Stephen Covey is a sage.”

Well then, if I was allowed to read Covey, I could read the others.  The floodgates had opened.

David Allen’s book Getting Things Done was a revelation.  His system — known to adherents as “GTD” — has helped me to understand how we work and how we can work more effectively.

I’ve read many more writers than Covey and Allen, but often I remember only the titles of the books and perhaps one productivity tip.

For example, Eat that Frog made the great point that if you have one task to do which you really don’t want to do, and have been putting off doing, do that first.

I remember also the title — and little else — from a book called Never check email in the morning.  I didn’t agree with the title (I do check my emails first thing in the morning) but  remember little else.

What I’ve learned about personal productivity I’ve mostly learned from reading websites like Lifehacker and various blogs, and of course from trial and error.  Lots of trials, lots of errors.

The traditional to-do list

toodledoFor a very long time, I stuck to the most traditional kind of to-do list, and used Toodledo both on the web and on my smartphone.  It worked well, better than challengers like Todo.txt, Wunderlist or, though I understand the appeal of those.  (And have written about todo.txt in a blog.)

My main problem with Toodledo  and the others is that they are boring, and present a linear list of hundreds of tasks that can be downright depressing to look at.

And as software written by others, they never exactly meet my needs, nor would they meet yours.  It’s a compromise to use them.

Let me give one example: Toodledo offers you five different priorities for any task you add — they range from 0 to 3 (3 is the most important) and even include a negative one (-1), though I have no idea what that means.

But what if you want more than 5 priorities?  What if you want to create your own order of the 10 or more tasks you have facing you this morning?

And Toodledo, like any good to-do list, includes categorization.  So you can tag a task as being, for example, related to a particular project or client.  But here’s the rub: you can only select one tag.  What if a task actually fits in more than one category?

Toodledo is a task list.  It’s not a calendar, though I use it as one because I don’t see the point of keeping separate to-do lists and calendar.

And it’s not great for storing notes (though it has a rudimentary note system) — so I use the fantastic Evernote, as do millions of other people, to store my notes.

Until a short while ago, that was how I worked — with the limited capacity of Toodledo, no calendar to speak of, and Evernote for storing my notes.

The solution: Trello

trellogo-sidebarMeanwhile, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to Trello, an interesting and increasingly popular tool that works on my computer and of course on my phone.

I use Trello as do many others as a personal kanban — a bit of geek-speak that describes a whiteboard with some vertical lines drawn on it, with sticky notes pasted in various places.

Trello has begun to replace Toodledo and Evernote, as I migrate my tasks and notes to it.

In addition to handling my task list and notes, it automatically generates a calendar, a real one, that allows me to quickly answer the question of  “when are you free?”.

So, how does it all work?

First, visit and set up an account.  Trello is free of charge.

Your account consists of boards (my key ones are called Tasks and Notes), and each board contains lists.  Lists contain cards.  Cards are the basic building blocks of Trello, or any personal kanban system.

Got that?  Boards, then lists within boards, then cards.  Trello allows you to create as many boards, lists and cards as you want.

A card is not just short text, as you’d find in a traditional to-do list like Toodledo.  A card offers considerably more, including attachments, and setting a due date and time, which is tightly integrated into the calendar.

You can tag a card, which color-codes it, and you can choose more than one tag.   You can filter the cards so you’ll see only the ones for a specific tag (or multiple tags).

And you prioritize by dragging cards up and down the screen, left and right, rather than the arbitrary priorities you find in most systems.

There are certain things missing — recurring tasks, for one — but with the ease of dragging cards around the screen, you don’t really need this.

Everyone has a different way of implementing Trello and the classic approach is three lists (those vertical columns) labelled To Do, Doing, and Done, or something similar.  (Geeks like to call the middle column WIP — works in progress.)  I work differently.

My personal kanban

kanbanIn my Tasks board, I have about a dozen lists that scroll across from left to right.

The first is called “Next actions” and that’s a phrase from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I limit it to 4 or 5 tasks that I need to work on right now.

The next column is for today, and I label these Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and so on.  There are columns for each day of the week.

When I look at my screen (on a computer) I can see 5 or more of these, and get a real sense of what lies ahead.  Instead of one long scrolling list as you’d have with Toodledo, you have five or more in front of you, side by side.

After the seventh day, I have one called “Inbox” (again, a nod to David Allen) where I put stuff that has no other place — yet.

To the right of that is a list of tasks with specific dates on them; I call that column “Later” and include the date as the first few characters (e.g., 31/12).  When the time comes, I drag these over to the seven daily lists.

So instead of seeing a single column on my screen showing 200 tasks (if I scroll), I now see five columns showing about seven tasks each.

More manageable, easier to work with, easier to make changes.

Trello and personal kanban are not for everyone.  Some people keep their to-do lists in their heads; some write them down on paper.

But if you’re using computers and smartphones to track your tasks, I recommend this solution.

P.S. Did I mention that Trello works particularly well for groups?  Probably not …