Staying Organized

By Tyler Jefford • July 15th 2020 • 7 min read

You’re only as efficient as the process you employ. When things get stressful and deadlines loom, you should be able to rely on your organizational system to help you get stuff done.

Here are my thoughts, tools and processes to stay organized and productive, especially during tough times.

Tools

My goal is to keep things as simple as possible. I don’t need a whole lot of bells and whistles or complicated IFTTT routines to keep in mind when I jut want to jot something down, or remember a teammates favorite ice cream.

I use Things 3 for TODOs. Its a very powerful todo app with projects, headings and checklists within tasks. You can set up recurring tasks, tags and set deadlines. I use things for EVERYTHING. Work, personal, remembering to follow up on an email, or conversation. A birthday I want to remember to send a gift out for.

I use the quick add feature with a stroke of a keyboard short cut a window pops over and allows me to jot down an action item, assign it to a project and tag it. I can move it to my inbox or set it for a later date. In 1-1 meetings, or planning meetings when I need to follow up on something, I will always pop this open and add a task for me to do.

For notes, I use Bear App, a super easy mark down note app with a very smart nested tagging system to keep me organized. I use Bear to store all my notes. I sync them across devices and set up a tagging system that is simple and works for me. Since tags act like hashtags in twitter, and nesting is as easy as appending a slash before the next level, this was super straight forward for me to organize so many different things.

I usually start with a project at the top level, or, a company then a project. #Secret then I will add notes and if I start seeing a division that can be made, or I want to collect and review only a subset, I start adding nested tags. #Secret/review You can add any number of tags and its probably the most personal thing that works for you. So I won’t spend much time explaining that.

For calendars, I use Fantastical. I really like the clean layout, the ease of use. I like the natural language processing for adding a new event.

Tasks & TODOs

As I mentioned above, I use Things 3 to organize my TODOs. This is easily one of the most important tools I do to keep myself organized on a daily basis.

I set up recurring meeting todos on Things to help me quantify the work I have to do in a day. Weekly 1-1s, sync ups, and agile ceremonies are all set for auto recurring after completion of the task.

Every morning, I will look over my calendar and add any one off meetings to Things for Today. Now I should have an accurate snapshot of my meetings for the day.

Next I have action items in a project I call Intake. These are items I get from meetings or that I think about throughout the day and need my attention. Email the team bi-weekly report might be one of those tasks.

I use the When feature to add dates to as many things as I can. If a task doesn’t need my immediate attention today, I will kick it for a couple days. I tend to work in the Today tab, so when I schedule a task for a few days in the future, it will show up on the Today tab eventually.

Deadlines are different, and will alert you when you need to do something. It also adds a visual element to show you you have n number of days til the task is due. I don’t use this very frequently, but when I do its for tasks that have a hard date/time to complete. Like submit expense report.

Notes

Write down anything, write down everything but be sure to add context to the things you write down. I can’t tell you how often I have a note fragment that says something like Look at ticket 1234 — but what am I looking at the ticket for?

A couple things I do when taking notes is provide more context around the conversation. Who is in the meeting, what are we talking about? If I can, ill add a heading for a topic and add notes under that.

Bullet points are better than paragraphs for me. I want quick consumable content not verbatim conversation logs. What’s the minimum amount of information I can write and understand in 3 weeks when I review this note looking form anything I missed?

A very, very important task when note taking is log who is doing what, decisions that are made and who made them. This will be super helpful when you are reviewing your progress and need to check on who is making the updates to the website. In your notes you should have added a distinct area on that topic to signify who is doing what.

Tyler is making the updates to the website by Aug 1.

Context Switching Whiplash

For me, going from task to task can be jarring. If you start the day working on a production readiness plan for a new feature; move into agile ceremonies, then to bug triage; to code reviews; to a 1-1; finally a sync about a new technology proposal all before lunch, that is a lot of different tasks that use very different parts of your skill set and brain. If this repeats after lunch, then by the end of the day you are probably exhausted.

I try to be very intentional with my calendar and tasks to suit my personality. I am very talkative and collaborative first thing in the morning, so I schedule all my 1-1 conversations from 9am til about 1030. If I don’t have have any one on one conversations that morning, I take a stroll through some of the slack channels that are more conversational, like #cats or #dadjokes or I will collect feedback and work on team building things.

Next, I am in planning mode, planning sprints, projects, features, work streams and timelines. After my coffee kicks in, I start to get more analytical and planning is the best task for me to jump into.

After lunch I am ready to do some long tasks. Usually sitting on long meetings, discussing bugs triaging, production readiness, reporting on progress, features, and syncing up with other teams on work streams.

This is usually the rest of the day, but when meetings pop up that are a little more ad-hoc, I get restless and can start to drop some important context.

Try to plan your tasks to match your personality. It takes some thought and understanding on how you work best at certain parts of the day, but it will make a huge difference when you are designing your day to maximize your productivity.

Do Not Disturb

Notifications are the bane of my existence. There aren’t very many enabled on my devices, but they are a major productivity killer. How many times have you been in a meeting and got a notification in the top corner of your screen and you trailed off thinking about that instead of the task at hand? Probably a lot, which was my problem too.

In 1-1s I try to disable notification on my Mac using the Do Not Disturb feature. I want to give my full attention to my teammates, I want to be involved in the conversation and not come across as half ass-ing the meeting.

On slack, when I need some time to get a task done, I will disable the notifications for a period of time, set my status with a big red dot to “HEADS DOWN TIME”. When I come across this in slack for someone I am wanting to message, I will wait, set a reminder, and message later.

DND is a powerful tool in your toolbox, and often under utilized. Notifications are a big reason for context switching whiplash and can be managed by taking a break to get some heads down time. Work with your teammates on an agreement for undisturbed time and build boundaries for when it is acceptable to break these rules. Like, the production database is blowing up and you are the expert in that domain.

Conclusion

Organization and productivity tips are very personal and take a lot of your time to hone in on what woks best for you. Don’t take these words as the defecto way to make yourself a more organized and productive person, but do take the tips here as ways you can think about improving your own process.

I’d love to hear from you over on Twitter. What works for you, what have you found to be a nightmare tool? @tjefford and let me know