Trying not to lose my mind

Elisa Koehler's Home Office
The view from my desk at the home office.

Somehow I have fooled people into believing that I am organized. It’s all purely self-defense, I assure you. One of my favorite college professors told me that he was convinced that I was “a right brain person masquerading as a left brain person,” and he was right. Organization is a learned skill, not a natural trait, especially for artistic dreamers (sigh).  The secret is finding the right tools that work for you and keeping up with the system on a regular basis.

Have you noticed that practically everyone feels stressed out, overwhelmed, and pressed for time? It’s a serious societal problem. Technology lures us into a false sense of power and mastery, fooling us into believing we really can “do it all.” But it’s a lie. We can’t. Multitasking is for computers, not humans. Time is a finite commodity. How we spend it is up to us.

Every time you turn around these days there’s a new book addressing personal productivity, time management, and organization … and I’ve read most of them (or listened to the audiobook version in my car or on the treadmill). I’ll recommend a few of my favorites in a moment, but first I want to address the root of the problem: feeling out of control.

Personal organization is just that: personal. No single system works for everyone. You need to figure out what works best for you, which is much easier said than done. For me it’s a combination of technology and paper with a healthy dose of David Allen, Steven Covey, Julie Morgenstern, St. Benedict, and Benjamin Franklin.

Let me explain. I was about to have a nervous breakdown until I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done four years ago through the abridged audiobook version on a long drive to a conference. It literally changed my life. Allen’s system is now known as “GTD” and it has become justly celebrated for its ability to clear away the clutter of the mind, spawning a thriving consulting business, podcasts, and a blog. If you’re in a hurry (and who isn’t, right?) the best summary of David Allen’s GTD ideas is found on Josh Kaufman’s blog, The Personal MBA. The bottom line: get everything out of your head and into a trusted system (notebook, calendar, software, smartphone, reference files) that you will check regularly; write everything down and keep track of it regularly. When you know that you have everything under control, you can free up your mind to focus on important things and experience the elusive Elysium of inner peace.

Wonderful as GTD is, it’s not the complete answer for me. You need to find your “trusted system” for it all to work, and that takes time and adjustment (and let’s be honest, some serious housecleaning). For my to-do lists and goals, I like to use Toodledo, which is a free website with companion software (not free, but only $2.99 US as of this writing) for most major smartphones and tablets. I like it because it’s accessible through the password-protected website on any computer or on my smartphone (both versions sync automatically so there’s no hassle with different versions). Any to-do list can work for you. I tried using a paper notebook and a smartphone (PDA) for a while, but I much prefer the multi-platform accessibility of Toodledo. The ability to capture ideas wherever you are whenever they hit you (usually not in the office) is invaluable. I regularly leave myself voice mail messages while driving, too (using hands-free Bluetooth with speed dial), when I need to remember something.

As wonderful as Toodledo can be, Evernote is an absolute lifesaver. It’s a cloud-based service like Toodledo with a wealth of cross platform options. For example, I began writing this blog post using Evernote on my laptop while watching a Wimbledon match last month and then decided to finish it tonight. Click on the web link for Evernote at the beginning of this paragraph right now to explore its untold riches. Really, do it now, and forget my silly blog. You’ll thank me later. Evernote will transform your life! Did I mention that it’s free? You can even capture photos with your smartphone (text in photos is searchable; this is great for receipts) and record voice memos in Evernote.

Speaking of cloud-based systems, another popular storage option is Dropbox. It’s free with limited storage; additional storage is available for a fee (Evernote and Toodledo work the same way). You can download Dropbox software onto several different computers and link them all to your account through a password. In other words, I can add a file to the Dropbox folder on my home computer and then access the same file in the Dropbox folder on my computer at work; the files sync automatically over the internet when the computers power up (and immediately when files are added). Despite the recent security breach, Dropbox is a great service, provided you don’t expect miracles in cyberspace. Face it, cloud services are not for everyone, but the benefits overwhelmingly outweigh the risks, in my world. I actually thought of naming this blog post something like, “Head in the Clouds,” but thought that didn’t convey the main point.

I also like to use Google Calendar and Google Docs for a variety of purposes (yes, another cloud-based service), but I always revert back to a paper At-A Glance Monthly Planner for my GTD Weekly Review (usually on Saturday mornings). I prefer a paper calendar for archiving purposes and to make sure I keep track of important dates. I use the calendar on my smartphone (which is synced to Google Calendar) for everyday planning and then I update the paper Monthly Planner during my GTD Weekly Review. I prefer the Monthly Planner layout so I can get the “bird’s eye view” of everything and quickly scan what’s happened and what’s coming up next. It’s also handy for quickly referencing events from past years. I only write major events, performances, and appointments in the Monthly Planner, not daily agenda items. Having lost my calendar and contacts data twice over the years due to Palm software syncing problems, I don’t trust my life to Google. There’s always a paper backup.

So those are the tools. Here are some of the best books I would recommend on organization and productivity. For home organizing, you can’t beat Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out, but I prefer David Allen’s tips for a home filing system in Getting Things Done. Best tip: everything needs a home or a zone (i.e. don’t put home office stuff in the kitchen). For home/work management philosophy with a twist of neuroscience, David Rock’s Your Brain at Work is astonishingly brilliant and sensible; by far the best book on the subject I’ve ever encountered. For “Quick & Dirty Tips” for organization and productivity, don’t miss Stever Robbins‘s entertaining little book, Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More. Steven Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  is a valuable source of helpful information especially the time management habit, which he expanded on in a separate book called First Things First. If you want to get started, read Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps first, then Your Brain at Work followed by Getting Things Done.

And in case you’re wondering why I mentioned St. Benedict and Benjamin Franklin several paragraphs earlier, I have found that the key to keeping everything in balance is to maintain a regular sleep schedule and to spend daily quality time with a higher power than Google.

But before I go, I want to take a moment to address a very real problem that is often the subject of jokes and not taken seriously: work addiction. Burning the candle at both ends and pulling an all-nighter may be necessary occasionally in extreme circumstances, but if it’s a regular lifestyle, it might be an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The best source on the subject is Bryan E. Robinson’s excellent book, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics. Being organized and productive is one thing, but never making time for anything else is not healthy. There’s a “Work Addiction Risk Test” (or WART for short, how cute) in the front of the book that assesses related personality traits and situations. I read the book last summer when I was killing myself to earn tenure (which I did in March 2011) and was a little worried about myself. But I got a low score on the WART (I’m a lazy dreamer at heart) and realized after reading the book that I was just genuinely overburdened the past two years. Life is much better – and more organized! – now.

Thanks for taking the time to read all the way to the end of this unusually long blog post. I have wanted to write about this for a long time, but didn’t have the time until now. If you have any good tips for organization and productivity, I’d love to hear from you!

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