“The days drag on, the years fly by,” the saying goes. So true. Our time is precious, and the older I get the faster it seems to go. James says life is like a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. So much to do; so little time to do it.
The sad truth is, much of the limited time we have is squandered due to disorganization and clutter. Not good. The Apostle Paul warned, “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16).
Since I want my life to count for the Kingdom, for years I have been following a simple system of organizing my tasks, organizing my time, and organizing the great volume of stuff that invades my life each day. I’d like to pass that system on to you so your own life will be less chaotic and more productive for the things that really matter.
If you follow my instructions, you can rid yourself or every Post-It stuck to your computer screen and other surfaces around your home or office. You can be done with every scrap or stray list of to-dos cluttering your work area. You can say goodbye to stacks of paper and piles of confusion that’s kept your desk from being seen since the 90s. I’m going to give you a way to eliminate the mess, the confusion, and the constant frustration of organizational chaos.
My system is fairly simple, but you can add complexity if your own circumstances require it. This is not the “perfect plan,” but rather the basic groundwork to get you headed in the right direction. You can refine as you go. My goal is to:
- Have a place for everything important
- Never lose track of any name, number, obligation, document, appointment, idea, or task I need to do or might like to do sometime in the future, especially those things that are significant or time sensitive.
- Keep my desk clear
- Have a plan to follow to accomplish the tasks of each day
A Place for Everything
Here is the foundational rule for getting your organizational act together: A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place.1 That means to get started you’ll need a basic filing system. This is your first step. There are many ways to do this, but I simplify the process by having only two places to file things.
First, I have a 6-inch deep, hard plastic holder made for hanging folders that I keep within arms reach of my desk. I use it to hold three sections of manila folders, and I use half a hanging folder to separate the sections. In one section I have 12 folders labeled with each month of the year (I use a simple Brother P-Touch for labeling tasks, but any marker will do). In another section I have 31 folders, one for each day of the month. In the final section I have folders labeled for projects I’m currently working on so any paperwork pertaining to them is handy. (If you want to do this electronically, you can arrange something similar on your digital devices with applications like Evernote.)
That’s the basic setup. Here’s how this part of my system works. When a piece of paper crosses my desk related to something time sensitive, I file it in either the day or the month it belongs to. Any paperwork for any date in the next 31 days goes into the appropriate daily folder. Anything for any date further out goes into the folder for its month.
I pay bills on the 1st (though I try to automate as much bill paying as possible), so any bill that crosses my desk gets dropped into the file for that date and I don’t give it another thought until then. If in January I get paperwork for a trip scheduled March 20, I’ll put those docs in the March folder and forget about them until the 1st of that month when I do my monthly planning. Then I’ll take that paperwork out of the March file and place it in the folder for the 20th. On the 20th my docs for that day are right where I need them, when I need them.
You get the idea. Any paperwork related to any task that needs attention on any particular day goes immediately into either a daily folder or a monthly folder. Then put it out of your mind until then. Simple. I rotate the daily files so the current day is always in front. When I’ve processed the paper for that day, I rotate that folder to the back of the group so tomorrow’s folder is front and center when I process its contents in the morning. I do the same with the monthly folders.
Finally, I make a folder for each project I’m working on that has paper needing storage. My project folders store any non-time-sensitive paperwork pertaining to a current enterprise. I have one folder labeled “STR” that travels back and forth with me to my Tuesday staff meeting and radio show. Any Stand to Reason or broadcast stuff goes in there. At the moment, we’re doing some roof work on our house, so bids, drawings, idea notes, or thoughts for the contractor get dropped into that folder, immediately available when I need them—nothing lost, nothing forgotten, nothing cluttering up my desk. Again, this can be done with digital apps.
The second filing location is for longer-term, archival-type storage. I use a file cabinet, but you can use something smaller to start out, especially if you don’t have a lot to save. Some use scanners for this purpose, too. It’s up to you. I use hanging folders to group manila folders into individual categories of like kind. I have sections for bills I’ve paid by category (mortgage, gas, water, electrical, etc.), various insurance accounts, credit card statements with tax-relevant receipts attached, IRAs and investment accounts, etc. Each section and each folder is labeled clearly for instant identification.
I keep a set of alphabetical hanging file dividers to hold folders for everything else. Christmas ideas, articles, songs, etc., are stored in a manila “Christmas” folder filed in the hanging divider labeled “C,” for example. “Warranties and Manuals” are under “W,” and “Earthquake Preparedness” under “E.” Basic, simple, straightforward.
Make as many folders as suit your purpose, being as particular or as general as you like. It’s your system. Just make sure there’s a place for everything you want to save and the categories have enough variety and are grouped in such a way that you can find things easily.
Here’s the rule that makes the system work: Don’t Put It Down; Put It Away.2 The key here is to keep paper from building up. When something comes in, either throw it away or put it away. It can go in your file cabinet in a long-term topical file, or in your plastic file holder—in a future month file if it needs action then, in a day file if you need it in the next 31 days, or in a Project file. Remember: A place for everything, and everything in its place.3
The next thing you’ll need is a place to electronically store tasks and vital information so you can put them into play when you need them.
I store all my passwords, Social Security numbers, driver’s license data, passport information, financial account numbers, and any other security sensitive data in a password program. (I use 1Password.) It also pairs with my smartphone, so no matter where I’m at, every important login or number is at my fingertips.
I’m a Mac guy, so Apple’s Contacts and Calendar suit me well and work seamlessly with each other for people and appointments. For task management I’m using Things at the moment, but some in the STR office like Omnifocus. Just be sure that everything pairs with your phone.
Regardless of what you use, the important thing is to have a place to quickly store any new thing that comes in: a new contact, a changed phone number or address, an appointment or an ongoing obligation (like a weekly meeting, a birthday, or anniversary), or any task of any sort.
As an aside, you may want to invest in some kind of financial software, too. It doesn’t need to be fancy, nothing more than an electronic checkbook to keep track of monetary transactions by category (checking and credit cards, mostly), to print checks, and to balance your accounts each month. (I use Quicken.) These programs also allow you to print summary statements periodically to show where all you money disappeared to.
Here’s how I keep track of tasks.
In Things I’m able to create folders for “Areas” and for “Projects” to file different kinds of tasks. There is also a “Today” category for the current day’s to-do list, and a way to schedule tasks to appear on any future date, or repeatedly (daily, weekly, monthly, or annually), as I like.
Areas and Projects function almost exactly like your manila filing folders, but for tasks, not paper. I have Areas like “Finances,” “House/Yard,” “STR,” “Shop,” “Personal,” etc., where I store things I need to do or would like to do at some unspecified time in the future.
The Projects folders are for enterprises that have related tasks. I have, for example, a “Skeeter” Project file listing improvements I’d like to make to my bass boat. When I go to Wisconsin in May, I’ll check that list to consider fishing enhancements. I’ll also look at my checklist for getting the boat operational at the beginning of the season.
You can have a “Christmas Cards” Project, listing in order the tasks for that annual chore. You might have a Project named “Bathroom Remodel,” or “Term Paper,” or “Birthday Party,” or “Crazy Dreams & Wild Ideas,” or whatever. It’s your world. You choose the categories meaningful to you.
Whenever any new task presents itself—a new obligation, a bright idea, a fanciful wish—absolutely anything you might need to do or want to do sometime in the future, you now have a place to put it so it doesn’t get lost. Post the task as a to-do for today, schedule it for some day in the future, place it in an Area, or drop it in a Project to be reviewed and scheduled at another time.
You may never get to many of these tasks, but you’ll never forget one or lose one. They’re all right there a mouse-click away, filed electronically so you don’t have to worry about them ever again. Your mind can rest because every task is right where you can find it easily in the future.
That’s the basic system. Here’s how to make it operational.
Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan
On the first of every month (ideally), I survey my Area and Project lists in Things to see if there’s anything I want to place in a Project labeled for that month. I also sort the paperwork in my monthly manila file and distribute the documents into the daily files where they belong. Now I have specific goals for the month in a single Project folder in Things, and all my paperwork in files for the day of the month they’re needed. Neat.
First thing every morning (again, ideally), I plan my work for the day using my Today file in Things.4 Some tasks that I’ve scheduled to show up each day are already there (e.g., “Bible,” “Pressing Emails,” “20 Pushups,” etc.). Others are unfinished tasks carried over from the previous day that I might keep on the list for the day, or may reschedule for another time, or may return to the proper Area or Project folders. I then add any other tasks I want to get done that day.
Next, I grab my manila folder for the day, enter any tasks related to those documents, then place the paperwork in an “In” box near my desk so the copies are handy when I get to their tasks. Any paper I don’t get to that day goes back into the folder for the day or the month I plan to look at it next, and the task related to it gets rescheduled.
Finally, I consult the Project folder on Things that has the current month’s goals. Any of its tasks I think I can get done that day I add to the list. The only detail remaining is to order my tasks in a productive way. I might group errands or phone calls together, for example, to tackle them all at once.
Notice the flow. I’ve stored my tasks in categories I can easily access to decide which ones should be action items for the month. I’ve stored my paperwork so I have it handy when I need it. I have a daily task list reflecting the day’s demands, scheduled items that populate automatically, and items I’ve transferred from my monthly Project list to my Today schedule.
I now have a single action list for the day. I’ve planned my work. Now all I need to do is work my plan. The plan helps me focus. I just put my head down and get to work, going down my list and ticking off tasks in order as I complete them.
For me, there is a tremendous satisfaction in checking things off a list. It’s a huge motivator. Something I might normally put off I’m driven to take care of just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. People are different this way, but it’s a big help for me.
If I don’t get to everything, no problem. I’ll get more done than I would have if I hadn’t made the list to begin with. That’s the value of working your plan. And there’s always another day.
Of course, the process rarely proceeds smoothly. There are distractions.
A torrent of stuff flows into our lives every day screaming for our attention that can easily scuttle our plan. If we’re not vigilant, we’ll spend most of our day bailing just to keep our ship afloat, getting nowhere.
To make the most productive use of your time, do everything you can to prevent waves of disruption from shipping over the sides of your boat. Unsubscribe from silly email lists. Tell friends (with too much time on their hands) not to forward frivolous stories or alarmist missives from unreliable sources. Get rid of the nonsense. Trash everything that is not vitally important. Be ruthless here.5
For myself, I don’t read newspapers and I don’t watch the nightly news—any of it. It just makes me mad. Plus, it’s the worst way to stay informed. And I don’t watch TV, in general. That might be too big a sacrifice for some, but count its cost. The price is more dear than you think.6
With mail, I sift through my stack quickly tossing everything I possibly can—all flyers, advertisements, political mailings (the worst), coupons, catalogs—anything I’ve already decided my time is too valuable to waste on. Throw It Out is one of the wisest time management principles around. Trust me. Everything you keep has a cost. If you want your life to count, you must be merciless.
When it comes to ordering important tasks, follow this rule: Big Rocks First. Try putting sand, gravel, and rocks into a container big enough for them all. You’ll never get them in if you add them in that order. Reverse the sequence, though, and it’s doable.
The lesson: Do the most important things—the “big rocks”—first. Then deal with the rest, if there’s any daylight left. This single concept is worth the price of admission because it will save your bacon time and again if you practice it.
I make an exception for tasks I call “quickies.” For these, I apply the 2-minute rule. If something worthwhile assaults my progress and can be dispatched in two minutes, I do it, then get back to work. It’s faster to get it out of the way than to reschedule it, and it keeps your task list from expanding instead of shrinking (very disheartening).
When paper comes in, throw it away, or act on it immediately and then throw it away, or file it immediately in the folder for the month it applies to, or if it’s for the current month file it in the folder for the day it applies to, or put it in a permanent file for future reference. Simple.
When a task comes in, act on it immediately (2-minute rule), or schedule it immediately for the day or month it applies to, or record it an Area or a Project for future action. Again, simple.
At the beginning of each day, plan your work from your task lists. Then work your plan giving priority to the most critical, important, time-sensitive things (“Big Rocks First”). Whenever new data comes in, immediately update your calendar, personal contact list, or sensitive information app (again, the 2-minute rule). Clear your desk at the end of every day, filing leftover papers in their proper folders using the system you’ve set up.
Remember these basic principles:
- A place for everything, and everything in its place.
- Don’t put it down, put it away.
- Plan your work, then work your plan.
- Throw it out.
- Big rocks first.
That’s your system. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than scattered to-do lists, stray Post-Its, and piles of paper. Time and task management is a constant battle and you’ll get whipped in some skirmishes. A system inconsistently applied, though, is much better than no system at all.
One final bit of advice from Benjamin Franklin. Diligence overcomes difficulties, he counseled. If you engage your duties sluggishly, you double your toil. If you throw yourself into your tasks, the inertia carries you through. In his words, “All things easy to industry; all things difficult to sloth.”
Nike said it better, though: “Just do it.”