Oo, I think I've solved a big one: The age-old problem (to me) of needing three very specific things from my personal organization software* and process/system, and having them be VERY hard to get in ways that don't interfere with or ruin each other.
(*not that personal org should or must be done with software, but it's inevitable that at least some of mine will be.)
Warning: Organizational geekery ahead; please remember that I'm into this stuff anyway AND I do it for a living, so holy crap can I get nerdy with it. (I am also, however, typing this for my own blog and have no desire to get scholarly with it — this is all just the tale of my overhauling my personal org system, and has no value to posterity whatsoever. …Man, I love giving that disclaimer. :D)
Here are the three major things I need in order to be organized:
- A place to brain-dump ideas for all my projects (be they art, life-management, personal goals, whatever)
- A check-off-able task-list
- A single view of my upcoming day and what things need to get worked on, with what priority. A cheat-sheet basically, so I don't get buried in the bigger lists when I'm trying to work. (This piece is important, and I learned about it the hard way.)
- (There's actually a fourth thing, and that's paper — I need access to a scratch pad at all times in order to, like, exist; and this cannot / yet be reliably done without paper. But I'm skipping that for now, because it's a mostly-working system and doesn't participate in the overhaul. Maybe I'll do a separate post on how I do the paper bits, someday.)
All of those things also have their own feature needs, but we can narrow them down to these three which all of them share. They all need to be:
as simple to use as possible
- The whole point of a good underlying system is to be as invisible as possible, and take up as little time in the actual use of it as it can made to
as portable as possible, both in daily terms and in terms of future-proofing
- I can't lose all this data (especially from #1) if I need to move it, or would really prefer not to! o.O
- I need to access and modify these things from a pretty wide range of devices and OSes — having to go back to one computer or something to make changes is not okay; both time and ideas get lost. I also need information FROM these systems delivered where and when I need it, which can vary a lot.
- I need at least some automation in terms of integration — the less i have to re-write or manually move things between these 3 systems, the better (though some of it is inevitable and manual is not *always* the slower or worse way, especially if re-interacting with the items is likely to help me do them).
- as long-lived as possible: This is not a system I want to keep changing. I want it to exist and to be able to continue to exist with minimal fuss. Upgrades are not important (unless there are key features missing, in which case I'll have to look to solve those when I can — but I'm really happy with how few are missing from this setup!), but continuing to use my system as effectively as possible no matter how my hardware, software, or life changes is crucial. (This is sometimes an argument for not using software at all, but after pondering it, I think it's safe to say the future presence of software in my life is at least as likely as the future presence of paper, if not more so.)
As a technical PM, I've used SO FREAKING MANY software and other systems designed to do all of these things, and professionally, choosing the right one for your team and environment is a huge decision (that often needs teeth grit and re-making, because if it isn't working, it's screwing everything up) — and managing your own stuff when "manage these 15 other projects for work" is just one item on that list is not easy for the best of us, lol. Soooo my own personal system got tangled, smeared across a zillion services, tied up in other things like texting etc. that shouldn't even be part of it, and just generally became a mess over the last few years. I needed to scrap it and build a foundational, underlying personal management system from scratch.
THIS system is for my PERSONAL management. I use similar(ish) things at work, but this one should be segregated (I learned the hard way not to blend them >,<) and intended to persist no matter what upheavals come in my professional or technical life. It's also NOT for writing or building fiction in; I use Scrivener for that and never, ever intend to switch; it's nearly perfect. :)
What THIS stuff is all about is the first caribiner attached to the hard point: My basic system for knowng about, ordering, and accomplishing all my tasks. (Professional "Work" is just a big chunk of space I build into my day where I enter a sub-realm and work off of a separate system that's integrated with my team. This system is a layer of abstraction above it, and yet, because it's an org system, it intersects with a lot of the same software as the management I do for work. Make sense? …Yeah, didn't think so. :P)
I can't even begin to explain what losing your basic system to such a proliferation of software, tasks to manage, and upheavels of underlying process is like…well, yes I can, actually. Imagine someone frantically trying to sort legos into sets that have to be shipped on a deadline, while comically more and more are constantly delivered and all the boxes keep tipping over. That's basically been my organizational life for the last year.
However, I've been giving this a lot of attention lately, and I think I now have a system that will work! I'm just putting the last pieces in, after making a lot of hard decisions and writing approximately four solid pages of frustrated question-marks and attempts to elucidate what I need and what I can flex on. I feel like I ran the kind of marathon that the Office Masons from Futurama would design!
SO, here, for your edification and possible education and probable just-ignoring because seriously, Marie, nobody cares about this crap that excites you inordinately (but it's my blog, so deal! :) is what's figured out, documented, and about 90% in place as of today (woohoo!):
THE THREE PILLARS of the First Link
#1: Personal project management: The Brain
I have my own, non-work projects that need managing: Things like long-term health goals, writing projects, social and community things, plans for making stuff…all of that needs "project management" in pretty much the same sense as work, but where 1) I'm the only team-member who really counts / uses it, 2) things like gaant charts and reporting are of *zero* value (I mean this is kind of true anyway, in any environment, but not to get distracted), and 3) connections between projects could be everywhere, at any level, and are the most useful thing to track (besides items / thoughts themselves).
When it comes to dropping off and visualizing ideas, and tracking the pieces and connections between the pieces of overall projects…holy crap I (so far) adore The Brain, which is technically "mind-mapping" software — that's just a fancy way to say it's project-management software that isn't built off of the basic idea of working on a flat surface as its underlying interface, which almost ALL of the others are (and which makes sense, because 50 years ago PM work was all done on whiteboards, tables, books, etc.). The interface is just amazing, it's blisteringly simple and does pretty much exactly the one thing I want: Lets me throw ideas into a pool and tie them to each other as parents, children, or "connected, generally speaking" — and then tracks all that so that when I pull on an idea, I can see all the connections. BLAM. One big freaking map of EVERYTHING I'm thinking about (and all the tools for hanging things off of objects, such as categories, due dates, etc. that I might want — including Google Calendar integration, which is huge; if I date anything in the Brain it automatically goes on my calendar! Handy.)
I'm still pretty early into building that map, but for personal project-management, it has miles and miles over any other PM-software I've used. Some of its strengths (for me) in the personal realm are things I would not want to use in the professional one, but man, FULL marks for doing one thing and doing it well. This is expensive (in the pro version – the free version is very usable, and all I need for now), well-developed software that I don't expect to go anywhere anytime soon, but the mind-map is exportable to various formats if for some reason I needed it. It's not particularly fast to learn because it's so different, but for a good different interface, I'm fine with that. If I used it for a long time, I could totally see buying it if the fancier features became important, but I don't suspect I'll need to.
#2: The Dreaded Task-List: Todo.txt
The task list is a hhhhhhard thing to get right, probably exactly because of its simplicity.
For features, it should be sortable by dates, tags, etc., easy to copy/paste from, VERY easy/fast to get data in and out of on a second's notice from any device, but also INVISIBLE when you don't want to see it, because a task list is a black hole of distraction and ennui. Generally I find that the less sub-lists and categories in a task list, the better, because I don't want to come there, dig around and look at or play with stuff — that happens in #1 — No, I want to drop things there and check them off like a dive-bomber in the night, and otherwise the only time I want to see it is when I'm putting together my #3, during which I want it to be as easy to see at a glance as possible. Things that get buried in the list die forever, including my motivation. :P
So, simplicity, interoperability / ease of access from different devices, and longevity are all super important here. All you engineers out there know what happens when you have three needs, right? You get to pick two. (The classic example being "cheap, fast, or good: pick two".)
Fortunately, I have one bit of give — one place I can flex. In my case, I have a VERY high tolerance for things that make me use my computers in an advanced or clever way, even if they're initially harder than using a shiny interface — I consider the education / practice in advanced computering valuable enough to sacrifice a little time. And thankfully, that provides enough flexibility with our demand that the list be "simple" to let a winner rise.
Rise, that is, to the top of the STEAMING PILE OF AWFUL B.S. THAT IS THE WORLD OF TASK-MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE OPTIONS, OH MY GOD. This is part of the reason that longevity is one requirement I will NOT move on when it comes to this: PLEASE by all that's holy don't make me go back there and try all that shit software again. It's amazing how painful bad design can make using something as simple as a task list. ::shudder::
So the best option, given my requirements, seems to be todo.txt. It's utterly simple (as long as you don't mind the slightly-advanced-computering bit, which I don't), works on almost any *possible* device (past, present or future), does what it should, and will never die because it's based on a standard formatted text file.
Man, I love the solutions that come out of Github — seriously, hubot and chatops was killer enough, but this is just…well, not to be crude, but this is just the tits. (And a woman wrote it, so…double tits! :D) Today I am GLEEFULLY SHOOTING IN THE FACE Todoist, Google Tasks, and at least 3 other places where my todo lists now proliferate, and just backing my shit all the way up to 1995 with a plain ol' task file.
Except that thanks to the todo.txt program, there are now many (potentially zillions, as it's open-source) options for viewing and working with that plain-old text file, easily, anywhere. The basic / existing ones work fine (simple free phone apps, check), but down the road, I can even write my own scripts (or software, but it would really only take scripting to do) to change how it works, if I really want a feature I don't have. HELL yes.
And it's freaking invisible like a task list should be. I can glance over it when I'm creating my daily template (#3), swoop in with a keystroke or fingerpoke and add or remove items, and otherwise NEVER see it unless I want to. Perfect.
#3: The Daily Template: Google Forms + Some Black Magic
Most people (though not all of course) do some version of the Daily Template: Having some way to set up ahead of time, and look at during-time, the things that matter today. I find it invaluable for two reasons:
1. It makes me look the night before at what's up tomorrow, which helps me pretty much effortlessly do little prep things that increase my efficiency and lower my stress. (Seriously, the stress-reduction from realizing the night before that you should find a dress shirt for tomorrow is quite significant! Even just having some warning to think about such things ahead of time can be really handy when it comes to overall stress-level.)
2. It gives me something to come back to when my day gets stressful or screwed up: I will pull the daily template back out and ask myself, "ok so, how close to this can I stay?" Even on a completely catastrophic day, being able to do even one thing I'd planned to, however unimportant, is hugely comforting and helps me recover from catastrophes much faster.
The obvious things that go on a Template are "what task-list items need to be done today"? I, like many people, pick one that I'm calling super-important, and three that are less so but would be nice. I don't stress it if the three don't get done.
But other, less-obvious things about a Daily Template type thing are also awesome. I used to do my daily template on a piece of paper, in my early I'm-not-quite-used-to-this-office-thing-yet work life, and it was hugely helpful to jot down optional goals for projects, health (drink 3 glasses of water before noon), things to memorize (when feeling feisty / deprived of art, I would load the template with a poem to memorize the next day; more recently, I choose a song to practice or foreign vocabulary or writing to learn), or spiritual truths to contemplate (I'm a big fan of feeling out that, say, this is a good time to be focusing on deepening my commitment to self-improvement — and if I just jot that at the bottom of my daily sheet for tomorrow, I'll remember to meditate on it when I have time).
So how the heck do I do this now? Almost EVERY piece of software designed for #1 or #2 wants to also be my daily planning thing, and exactly NONE of them are as good at doing this as a single sheet of notebook paper (whose only downside, though sadly it's a big one, is having to always carry it / have it on hand). But I finally found the answer!
Google Forms is something you've probably run into before (it's part of Google Drive; when you go to Create a New File, you can choose from Docs, Sheets, etc. and also Forms), and having used it a lot before (thanks, polyphasic community :D), I found the format really appealing for creating my daily template with. With Forms, I can pull up my form on almost any device (it took 5 seconds to drop the link that brings up a fresh blank form onto my phone's homescreen, and I can get to it from anywhere I have email) and answer simple, pre-set-up questions about tomorrow: What's the most important task? What's your workout goal? — it's almost perfectly like filling in a sheet-of-paper template that way. (I considered making a document that I could access on any device and just making it a paper-like template instead, and then editing the answers every day…but part of the reason this is less ideal is that once the template exists, I want to be able to glance at it, and I don't open random documents to just stare at them, nor do I want to. I could print it and carry it around? Bleah. I mean, that'd be better than the stupid notifications my task list software currently sends me in an attempt to give me a daily template/list, but not a lot.)
So, Google Forms was a clear winner for input of the daily task-list, which is something I need to make myself do every evening, from any device, easily. But what about making the day's template exist somewhere that I will notice it, look at it at least once, and can easily glance at it during the day? Well, it turns out that someone wrote a free app (for Google Apps, so not, like, a totally random/unreliable thing) that emails you Google Form responses. (This is also simple enough functionality that I feel ok about relying on it: Forms puts its responses into a plain Excel-compatible spreadsheet in Drive automatically, which, if worst came to worst, I could script about a hundred different things that would email me the updates to it. It's awfully nice that there's a dead-easy way to do it right now, though! Took me thirty seconds to set up.) And that's a PERFECT place for my daily list to be: In my email, which I will definitely not miss, and which my regular work-flow has me looking at many times a day anyway. WIN!
So now, every evening I pull up this simple, clean form on my phone or computer (where it's just a desktop link) and fill it out. It is seven questions long, of which only two are required. I glance quickly at my todo.txt task list and my calendar (easy on either device) to see if anything's coming up that has date dependencies I need to worry about. If it feels like there's room to go looking for something to accomplish tomorrow, I can look in The Brain to see what would be fun/useful to do wrt project and idea implementations. (I have a tag for items in the map that might make good day-tasks if there's a blank space, so I can see them all on one page, with one click, in seconds.) I can even skip that step and just make "look in The Brain for another project step to take or project to start" a task for tomorrow, if I can't or don't wanna do it tonight.
Whenever I find out about a thing that needs doing "as some point", I put it in my text file / todo.txt. This is extremely fast, as is checking off done items whenever I feel like it. If anything starts to "come due" or get urgent, I just make sure it gets on a Daily Template form/sheet/thing pretty soon. (I can also put due-dates on to-do list items, which is nice for sorting them by "due soon", but I don't rely on this for deadlines — that's what I have a calendar for.)
Whenever I have an idea, of any kind, related to anything, that I want to keep, it goes in The Brain. I'm still both learning and reeling from the crazy new interface (omg, it has *great* keyboard shortcuts), but holy crap it works nicely and beats the HECK out of trying to store, and later find, the huge swarming mass of ideas in any other program, especially those geared towards more typical business PM'ing. That I can date Brain items to make sure they don't get lost and have them appear on my google calendar is great, because The Brain is where things are more likely to get forgotten over time; but mostly these items are more generalized, things that can be done whenever I'm working on that project, but need to happen as part of it. I go to this map to rub my chin and stare and make notes, like a war-general does with the big map of all the troops on the table. :)
So those are my three foundational pillars of personal management, and how they're set up now that I've finally rebuilt them after life went Roman Centurion on me and salted the godsdamned fields of my daily routin on their way out after razing my schedule to the ground with repeated job-shufflings. I feel like things are really making progress to not just being back on-track after a tough year, but to being improved and strong enough to hold up to the coming years and their inevitable toughness, too! :D
Let me know what you think, if you read this far! I'm totally interested in collaborating on maximizing the ease and efficiency of our, um, collective individual processes.
P.S. I'm going to read some poetry now, because zow that was a lot of clunky org terms in one post. Here, let's make it some William Blake! Many people know the first lines of this, but I think what follows is super interesting:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the Snake and Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.