Have you tried many different systems to organize your life, but none of them seem to stick? This used to be a problem for me. I tried lots of systems, but I never stuck with them longer than at most a month.
So how come it’s so hard to stay with a system for a longer time?
Problems with other systems
I found several reasons why it was hard to follow a system and why I quit using it.
I’ve tried a lot of digital todo lists. None of them have worked for me. As a tech geek I did everything in my power to try to make them work. Because technology trumps everything, right?
Hard to get an overview
Most if of the digital products I’ve tested (on the phone) make it hard to get an overview. It’s easy to organize your day, but not your, week, month, or your entire life. Sure, if you have a big or multiple computer screen it gets easier, but it’s still not easy to get a full overview.
Hard to mix projects in your schedule
Let’s say I have multiple larger project with about 20 tasks, some daily tasks, and work related projects with over 50 tasks. Combining these tasks into a single list is a pain in the ass. I haven’t seen any application that makes this simple. At the same time you still want to keep the lists separate. Because when you prioritize the tasks inside a project you only want to think about the order for that project. It’s after you combine the lists that you want to prioritize make a call to X for the app project over write an article on how to organize your life.
If you have separate lists for your projects you don’t know that make a call to X for the app project is more important than write an article on how to organize your life. If you only have one common list it’s a lot of work to prioritize your list, because you have to take so many tasks into account. You don’t have to do that if you can work with separate lists, one for each project.
On top of that you want to mix in some of your daily tasks. Like doing grocery shopping. paying bills, and water your plants.
I’ve never found a good solution for this problem in digital form. Please comment below if you’ve found a solution like this. Because it’s been some years since I tried new productivity apps.
But I’ve also found that analog lists doesn’t work for me. Or they work, but not for large projects. If it’s a todo list for today’s tasks, then writing them down on a simple piece of paper works for me. But when I have larger project with many ideas I haven’t found a good analog solution to organize all ideas.
I know there are some good solutions like the Bullet Journal. But it still doesn’t allow me to easily prioritize different tasks easily, or capture all ideas, and give me a clear overview.
How I organize my life
My solution to these problems were quite easy. I created a simple analog system and combined it with Trello (a digital system) for large projects.
I knew why the existing systems weren’t working. And I like being creative. So it was a no brainier to create my system.
I got ideas from three places: Project management books I had read in college, blog articles, and the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy (affiliate link). I can really recommend the book as most of the ideas came from that book.
After combining a lot of good ideas that I liked, and after a couple iterations throughout the years, I ended up with this system.
How it works
I will start with the basics, and not go into how I use it with large projects. I will cover that in the end of the article.
Whenever I have tasks to do, I write it on a post-it and put it in the right lists: day, week, month, or all.
For example, I want to call a friend this month for a chat but it isn’t urgent. Then I put the post-it in the month list and in the green area (not urgent, not important). Another task I have is to mail another Toastmaster member and begin on updating our website. This task is more urgent, but it’s nothing I want to do today, so I put it in the week, and in the red area (urgent and important). The higher up the task the more important and urgent they are.
During the day I go through the day list from top to bottom. Moving completed tasks to the done list. As I often have the wall board in my periphery I can see how my day is going. How much is left to do today? Before I continue, I must say that those days when the day list become empty, those are fantastical. I feel such an accomplishment every time that happens.
At the end of the day I check if I’ve completed everything in the day. If I haven’t completed everything I ask myself why that wasn’t the case and what I can do different next time. Did something take more time than expected? Did I decide to take the day off, if so why was that the case? Finally I move items from the week to the day and review what I’m going to do tomorrow. But how do I decide which tasks to do the next day, i.e. how do I prioritize them? I use the heuristic Which task is the hardest and most important to do? I.e. I want to eat the biggest frog the first thing I do the next day.
At the last day of the week I move items the month to the week.
If it’s the last Sunday in the month I do a cleanup and month schedule.
- Prune the all list for tasks I will never do
- Check if there’s any tasks in the all list I want to do during the month.
- Marvel at all the tasks I’ve completed during the month in the done list. It’s incredible how many tasks you can complete and what you can do in a month.
- Clear the entire done list.
The done list is the best part of this system. Everyday I get to see how much I’ve accomplished (or not) during the month. It spurs me to do even more if it’s already full. If it’s empty half way into the month I want to get more things done.
The problem with recurring tasks is that I don’t want to waste paper by creating new post-its for the same task every day. And I don’t want fill the done list with recurring tasks. So I’ve come up with a solution to differentiate regular tasks from recurring tasks. I mark daily tasks with a filled circle in the top right corner. Some example are Virtuoso: Practice piano for 15 minutes and Marketing: Market blog for 1 hour.
Recurring tasks that happen less often are instead marked with a filled triangle in the top right corner. Like grocery shopping, water the plants, and clean the room.
When these tasks are done I put them at the bottom of the done list. This makes it easy for me to find them again. Because daily tasks go back and forth between done and day almost daily. Having the tasks at the bottom makes it hard to accidentally remove those when I clean the done list at the end of the month.
When I clear the done list I move all recurring tasks to the very bottom of the month. You should be able to see those tasks lined up neatly in the image above.
You’ve probably noticed that there are five different post-its colors. I use colors to differentiate between kind of tasks. Work related tasks are colored in orange or blue. Orange are blog-related tasks, while blue are app development and administrative tasks.
Green are smaller personal projects. For example finding new curtains, or create a website where people can upload files to my server.
Pink post-its focuses on personal development. Most of these are daily tasks at the moment, such as reading my pain vs. pleasure list for Early Riser. But if I’m reading a book and the book has exercises; then each exercise would be a task.
White/yellow are various tasks that don’t fit into the other projects. These tasks are often household related, like cleaning the room. But they can be different things. At the board I have one task to make a cheesecake, and movies or animes I want to watch.
Of course, you don’t have to follow my coloring. But having more colors means you can easily differentiate between different tasks.
When I plan my day it’s good to see how much time the tasks take. Because I don’t over or underestimate the amount of work I can do in a single day. What often happened before was that I thought “It would be cool if I completed this, this, this, and this, and this today”. This approach resulted in me only completing some tasks as I scheduled 12 hours non-work-related tasks. That doesn’t work well I only have 3 hours available for non-work-related tasks.
So now I estimate the amount of time a task takes and put it in the lower right corner. This makes it easy if I know I only have 2 hours left after I’ve finished work.
I’ve tried implementing deadline into this system by placing a date at the lower left corner. But I’ve never gotten it to work. If there’s a super important task that has a deadline, I put a reminder into Google Calendar. But most of the times it’s enough to put them in the red area of either today, week, or month. Then they will be completed in time for the deadline.
Problems with this system
The main problem I have with this system is that I can’t take it with me. So if you’re traveling a lot, this system might not be for you. But it has never been a problem for me really.
The system requires some initial setup. Finding small post-its in different colors, creating and drawing a wall board, and putting up everything on a free and accessible wall.
Trello for large project
For large projects, Trello works great. It’s super easy to use. You create your own lists, add cards into those lists, then drag your cards between the lists. While the cards can contain lots of information (comments, description, time estimation, color labels, images, and much more) you don’t have to use all those functionalities. I use label colors and time estimation for my projects. I use the same priority coloring (red, orange, yellow, green) for my cards as I do with the Wall. Below you can see an example of my Celebratorica app board.
Trello makes it’s easy to organize your larger projects. Or even to organize your life if you have a life Trello board. A great idea now that I think of it. I’ll create a similar board for my life goals this week.
The flow for my Trello boards are like my Wall board. When I get an idea I either put it into the ideas or milestone list. What I tend to avoid is to add cards directly into this week. Because when I plan the next week (on Sundays), I plan for the time I have available for the project. For example, I have 15 hours allocated for Celebratorica. And since I estimate the time for all cards I can see how many tasks I have time to do.
You might wonder why I have a list called next week and not only this week, like I have in the Wall board. The reason is that the first thing I do on Mondays is to evaluate the previous week. For every card that has been completed, I check if I over or underestimated the time, and why that was the case. I also ask why some cards weren’t completed. I write everything in a weekly journal to keep track of what I’ve done during that week, what hasn’t been completed and why. So I can’t add cards to this week before I’m done journaling.
While the journaling the previous week is nice, I don’t see it as necessary to be able to organize your life. Estimating the time for cards and then checking if you over or underestimate those is a valuable skill though. You’ll become more and more accurate, and I find it a lot easier to plan now. But you don’t need to journal to get that skill.
If we take a look at my personal development business Trello board, it looks a bit different.
Both boards have some common lists: ideas, next week, this week, working on, done this week, DONE. The most important new list is the Focus Goals list. This list acts as a heuristic when I plan the next week. I.e. does the task bring me closer to any of my focus goal? It’s also daily reminder what I should focus on. I.e. what the single most important goals for my business is now. To differentiate these from the rest of my tasks I’ve marked these purple.
Instead of having a single idea list, I’ve expanded it into multiple lists. The reason being that some parts of the business are so different. For example writing a book doesn’t really have anything to do with the website. I put article ideas after next week, and not among the other idea lists, because I don’t decide in advance what I’m going to write about. I only know how many articles (1 or 2) I’m going to write in the week.
Since I go through similar steps every time I create an article I’ve created a card with a checklist containing all the steps. When I have an article idea I create a copy of that card and rename it. This makes it easy to remember to take all steps for all articles.
Combining Trello with my Wall board
Finally I combine my Wall board with Trello. In practice, this means that when I plan for the next week in Trello I create post-its and put them in the week list on the wall board. When I work I only go top to bottom with orange and blue post-its. I.e. work related post-its.
When I finish a task I move the card in Trello and the post-it on the Wall board. This means that there’s some duplicate work, but it only takes a few seconds and it’s not like I do it every minute. This also means that I get the pleasure to move two things, a card and a post-it, to the done list.
What I learned
The most important lesson: No existing solution worked because they weren’t tailored to my taste and personality. My solution works for me partly because it’s tailored, but also because I invented it. Like the philosophy that assembling an IKEA furniture makes it more beautiful in your eyes because you assembled it.
So the chance that my solution will work for you is slim. But the idea of the article wasn’t to present you with the solution. It was to show you a different solution and why it works for me. This way you might be able to come up with your own solution that works just for you.
How can you organize your life?
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