Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Time management, to-dos and keeping track of stuff

This is mostly related to my work but I plan to use it when I am retired also. Right now, I wing most of my creative work because it isn't that complicated.

I am a fairly organized person but not a great note-taker. Somehow I have survived for years without taking great notes. Most of the projects I worked on were long term projects and there were enough reminders about when things were due.

However, in the past few years, I have been working on many different unrelated things. Note taking has helped keep me focused in meetings and I started doing it on a regular basis. But the notes weren't too useful afterwards so I did some research on various methods. I still read about new ones but I have been using the Bullet Journal technique for many months now.

Last year I started with it in my existing notebook and immediately made a few changes to the basic system to suit me. I put the index at the end as it was easier to access. But as time went on, I found it harder to go back to the calendar and to-do for the month in a few quick page turns. Therefore, when my notebook ran out, I switched to an online method.

I tried this in Evernote and I probably will use Evernote when I stop working for my current employer. Unfortunately, most of my projects are confidential and I can't put them on Evernote. So I had to come up with another alternative.

A word processing application has turned out to be right for me. I use Microsoft Word, supplemented with Notability. And here's how I do it:

At the beginning of each month, I create a table for the month. I usually just copy, paste and edit the previous month's table. The table is pretty basic:
Col 1 is the date, Col 2 is the day of the week, Col 3 is for an 'x' to indicate where we are in the month. Col 4 is for any markers I want to put in there, Col 5 is for comments and Col 6 is for location.

I don't keep meetings in this calendar. Its main purpose is for planning and I like the fact that I can create one for months in the future and have it eventually end up where it will finally live. This was one of the problems I faced with the notebook. I need to now block off some dates for November. But I don't have November's calendar up since it is only Sept. With the online notebook, I just create November's calendar and mark off what I need to block and if it changes, so be it. I will just add October before November and eventually November's calendar will be after October's notes.

At the beginning of the month, I set up the calendar and a to-do section using Heading 1 levels for both. This means they automatically show up in the Table of Contents. Just as in the bullet journal, I use special bullets for various things - an empty square for an incomplete to-do, a check mark for a completed one and an arrow for a to-do that wasn't completed in the current month and has moved to the next one. To-dos that don't apply have a strikethrough font used to draw a line through them. So far this is classic bullet journal.

To aid in my online journal, I have created bullets to use for the first 3. This makes it easy to change the bullet as the status of the to-do changes. I originally used Wingdings for the boxes and used a box with an x in it for completed to-dos but found that it was too many clicks to change the font. The bullets are easier.

The calendar needs to be emptied as I copied and pasted the previous month's entries. And I need to edit the days of the week to match the current month. This takes me a few minutes. Then I copy the to-dos and edit the previous month's to-dos to reflect whether they were moved over to the current month or if they were no longer needed.

Lastly I edit the current month's to-dos to remove the completed ones from the previous month and I'm all set.

The calendar is used to indicate if I have an all-day event or travel on a particular day, if I have some personal commitments on a weekend that might mean I can't leave for a business trip that day and the location tells me if the event requires travel. It is a high level view of the month uncluttered by daily meetings and appointments.

The to-dos are used as to-do lists usually are but I don't put small items into the list unless I am unable to do them immediately. My usual method of time management is to complete a quick task immediately rather than add it to a to-do list. But sometimes I can't do it right away and then it goes on the list.

As the days go by, I create a Heading 1 entry for each date. Underneath that I just put in a line for each meeting along with Attendees and Notes. Notes are simple bulleted lists. I use highlighting to call out anything I want to quickly pick up on later. Sometimes the quick to-dos are highlighted so I can catch whether I need to add them to a to-do list or complete them on a break.

Each meeting also gets a bookmark. This bookmark is set up to categorize the entries along with the page # and the index consists of the categories and the page numbers with hyperlinks to the bookmarks. So I can click from the index to any page for any category. I usually do this as I add the entry for the meeting.

I also have a Table of Contents that contains entries for the calendars, the to-dos and for each day that I have notes for. So I can quickly go to a date via the ToC. The index also has entries for the calendar and the to-do sections for each month. I add these when I set up the current month's calendar and to-do sections.

Now, this method means that I have to carry my laptop with me to all meetings and I don't always do that. I frequently just take my iPad. I use Notability on the iPad to take notes in a very similar way except that I color code any to-dos for myself so I can add them to my journal to-do list. I then email the notes as a PDF - one for each meeting - to myself. These go in the same folder as the journal and I add a hyperlink from the journal to the PDF with the notes taken in Notability. It is all very simple and easy to find anything in the journal and go from there to the actual notes for a meeting.

This brings me to a key reason for the online journal: backup! My notebook was a single point of failure. If I lost it, I was dead. The online journal is backed up to an external hard drive. I also create a PDF of the journal at the end of each month in case the original gets corrupted.

I hope this helps some of you become more effective and efficient at what you need to do. For me now, it is the only way I can keep track of what I need to do and get the work done in the least amount of time.

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