I like to think I’m a fairly organized person. I have to be. I’ve got stories to edit and events to plan. I write 5,000 to 10,000 words a week. Some 200 to 300 new e-mail messages hit my inbox every day, all requiring some kind of action. And I have a lot of cool friends that I like to keep up with. So until I’m ready to go off the grid and move to a cabin in Alaska or Wyoming, some kind of time- and task-management system is an absolute requirement.
I’ve got a system right now that feels efficient and comfortable, and I thought I’d share it as a way to help Xperience readers think about how they manage their own work lives. It’s a hybrid paper-and-digital procedure—built on a combination of Post-it notes and mobile apps—that helps me keep track of everything I need to do, while freeing me to focus on what I’m actually doing. I’ve recently learned that my process is extremely similar to a popular system called Personal Kanban, though any resemblance to marketed time-management systems is purely coincidental.
But before I talk about the details, a couple of caveats. Personal productivity is one of the areas where technology can be a big help, so I write about the subject several times a year. But it’s important not to fetishize the tools themselves. What matters is getting your work done so that you can move on. If you’re spending a lot of time tending or optimizing your to-do list apps, you probably aren’t finishing many of your actual tasks.
And in the same vein, it’s worth remembering that your tasks are not your life. The real point of being more efficient is to get through your to-do lists, so that you have some time left for more important things—like, say, doing nothing at all.
Last week a friend pointed me to a wonderful 1876 essay called “An Apology for Idlers,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island fame. It’s worth quoting a few sentences:
Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation…They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake…It is no good speaking to such folk; they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill…Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.
Stevenson would probably have wondered whether our modern scramble to Get Things Done masks a kind of spiritual barrenness—a fear of being idle even for a second. Why face the emptiness when Facebook, Fruit Ninja, and SMS are always just a tap away?
But that’s really a column for another day; on to task management. I adopted my current task-tracking system back in September, after Evernote introduced a nifty new feature called the Post-it Camera.
Evernote, for those unfamiliar, is a desktop and mobile application that lets you store any document online—text notes, images, Web pages, audio files, PDFs, recipes, business cards, and the like—and organize them into notebooks, which you can then publish or share with others or keep private. It’s completely up to you. I’ve been reporting on Evernote in these pages for years, and I’m also a power user, with more than 6,000 notes stored since 2008.
The Post-it Camera is a feature of Evernote’s iOS app (iPhone and iPad only so far) that accesses the device’s camera and helps you take a clear, evenly aligned picture of any Post-it note. It then creates a digital replica of the note—basically, it sharpens up whatever wording is on the note and cleans up the background color. What’s cool is that you can set Evernote to store these digitized notes in specific notebooks according to their color. It’s best at recognizing green, blue, pink, and yellow. (And yes, you’d better believe that this is all a big co-marketing operation: 3M sells Evernote-branded Post-it notes in the correct colors.)
So here’s my system. I’ve got two huge foamcore boards leaning against the wall in my office. (They’re posters from past Xconomy events and I’m using the blank back sides. I hoard foamcore—I’ve got a huge stack of old posters, if you want some.) One board is covered with yellow Post-its—that’s the one I use to track stories-in-progress for Xconomy. The other board holds pink Post-its for work-related tasks and blue Post-its for personal tasks.
Whenever I have a new story or task to add to my agenda, I make a physical Post-it note using a big black Sharpie pen. I take a picture of it using the Post-it Camera. The pictures get automatically assigned to the proper notebook on Evernote—Work, Personal, or Stories In Progress—and I stick the original note on the proper board.
This way I’ve got a physical copy of every note, stored in a form that’s easily glanceable. I like that; to see the two noteboards, all I have to do is turn around in my chair. It gives me a kind of ambient sense of how much work is on my plate, and helps me figure out what to work on next. And I confess that I relish the feeling, when a task is done, of ripping the appropriate Post-it off the board, crumpling it up, and throwing it away.
But I’ve also got the Evernote copies of each note, which I can access from my computer, my iPhone, or my iPad wherever I may be. (If I need to add a task or story while I’m out and about, I just make a temporary note in the proper folder on Evernote, then make a physical note when I get back to the office.) When a task is finished, I move the digital note into a separate folder called Completed, which acts as an archive of past accomplishments.
Now obviously, I’m not the first person to think of tracking tasks using Post-it notes on big boards. I got the foamcore idea from a visit to Ideo, the Silicon Valley product design consultancy, where I saw stacks of boards leaning against every wall; it’s a great way to track big team projects, and fits well with today’s agile software development methods. And as it turns out, there’s a increasingly popular system called Kanban—originally born at Toyota as a way to coordinate just-in-time manufacturing—that relies on the same idea of putting notes or cards on a board.
The typical Kanban board has three columns, for Ready, Doing, and Done, and the idea is to move the notes from left to right across the columns as you work. I have friends who use their office or cubicle walls as their Kanban boards. Others use whiteboards, or they stick cards on their refrigerator doors with magnets.
There’s a Web and mobile app called Trello, from Fog Creek Software, that lets you do Kanban with digital cards. I haven’t used Trello yet, but I’m interested in the way the cards have a “front,” bearing the task name and key details like due dates and categories, and a “back” where you can add comments, checklists, attachments, and more. It’s a little like Evernote, except that every note/card represents a task rather than a document.
But while the idea of digital Kanban is intriguing, I think it’s important to acknowledge the psychological resonance of physical actions like crumpling up an old sticky-note. My friend Robin Seaman is director of content at a non-profit called Benetech that, among many other things, helps people with disabilities get easier access to e-books and audio books. Robin’s job involves managing relationships with hundreds of publishers, and at one point she says she wound up with more than 1,000 items on her old, linear to-do list (she used an app called Toodledo).
“It became impossible for me to figure out what was a priority,” Robin says. “The list had become such a monster that I was almost ceasing to look at it.” In the world of personal productivity tools, that’s a big fail.
Then an engineer friend tipped her off about Kanban. With Kanban boards, she says, “you can survey your world and somehow it just feels more real. You have an engagement and you write it down with a pen, then you move the stickies. Ripping the sticky off and slapping it down in the next column; tearing it off and slapping it down on the next column once it’s been completed—it was all so incredibly satisfying that I just embraced it hook, line, and sinker. I felt like I had gotten my world out of my computer and in front of me, where I can relate to it viscerally.”
That’s also why I like my own Post-it boards. But I wouldn’t want to do without the digital copy inside Evernote, which makes my whole system portable. (In fact, the blending of the physical and digital worlds that the Post-it camera enables is an emerging theme at Evernote, as I explained in a 2012 piece about the company’s collaboration with Moleskine.)
If you like the sound of my system, or of Kanban, give one of them a try. I’ve used many to-do list apps and task management systems over the years, and I’m sure my current one won’t be the last. The key thing, for anyone who wants to be more effective in their work, is to have a process that feels comfortable—and that, ideally, adds a little aesthetic pleasure to your life. That way, work will feel a little more like play. And you might even have some time afterward to give yourself over to random provocations.
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