Organisation of information for my workflow

23 Dec 2019

In 2014, I was being bewildered and overwhelmed with the amount of options for a simple to-do list style application. My needs were pretty simple, I needed something with categorisation (work/personal) and a way to add items; that was it. Unfortunately, every system and application I looked at had those features plus more. This would have been fine however the features were all intertwined and hung off each other which made using a subset in isolation impossible. For example, you couldn’t have an item without a date or category assigned otherwise it wouldn’t save. All of these systems were too much for what I was looking for and in most cases, made the information super hard to digest. That was, until I stumbled across the Bullet Journal system.

The premise was straight forward. You would “rapid log” your daily tasks (using a legend for the various task types) and then “migrate” them to other components if you didn’t get them completed. Best of all, it was analog which meant I wasn’t locked into a single app with the potential of breaking changes for my workflow or needing battery power when I wanted to use it. Initially, I started off with the most basic setup possible. A notebook with daily to-do items and a monthly log. This worked great and helped me not only get my daily items in order but also what was worth holding onto in the list as I had to manually bring over any tasks that still needed to be completed. I would eventually expand upon this and use it for all sorts of collections which made the workflow concepts inadvertently sneak into other aspects of my planning process.

Bullet Journaling worked exceptionally well for me for the better part of 5 years and along the way, I’ve convinced quite a few others to give it a chance to sooth their current overwhelm due to the amount of to-dos they have.

I recently noticed that I was spending alot of time taking digital notes or events and transferring them into my Bullet Journal. This never used to be an issue due to the workload that I had however I was starting to feel the pinch of an analog system. A couple of the stand out issues I had:

  • Timed events were always really hard because there wasn’t a way the piece of paper could remind you when it was due.
  • Majority of my day is spent either on a laptop or nearby a device. Digital information shouldn’t need to be replicated to analog only to have it come back to digital form when I need it action it.

At this point, I knew the Bullet Journal wasn’t going to be able to solve all the problems but, the concepts might. I made a list (of course in the Bullet Journal) of the types of information I receive and what was important for each category type. I won’t bore you with the “what was important part” but my categories did boil down to:

  • Calendar: Work events, birthdays, holidays, car service reminders.
  • Email: I get far too many emails.
  • Notes: I take a bunch of random notes for topics that I find interesting or books I’m reading.
  • Tasks: Things I need to do or action.

Looking at the list, I can see why the Bullet Journal worked so well (with the obvious exception of email). The flexibility and customisation options ensured that you could mould whatever you needed to work with the system.

I started looking around and found that putting all of these into a single app or system wouldn’t work in the digital space without also creating some new headaches. Instead, I opted to split the information into single purpose applications. This would ensure that I’m not shoehorning a particular category into a system that wasn’t designed for it or that wasn’t the primary focus. It would also allow me flexibility to swap out an application or system that wasn’t working for a single category without needing to migrate everything with it.

So, which applications or systems did I end up on?

  • Calendar: For the most part, this was an easy decision. I have been using Google Calendar since I’ve had a Gmail account and my employer also uses Google Calendar heavily for meetings. The UI isn’t the best so I did opt to purchase Fantasical 3 or 4 years ago to improve that experience and have a desktop application. This allows things like reminders to pop up even if you don’t have the web page open.
  • Email: No application change here, I’ve used Postbox ever since Sparrow was shut down by Google. The difference was what I did with emails once they came in. Instead of sitting there waiting to be actioned, they end up routed into their correct organisational category.
  • Notes: This was one of the hardest categories to differentiate products as essentially anything can take notes. I ended up deciding on Evernote as using it felt more natural and I didn’t have to pay per feature or addon I may need. The pricing is straight forward and I won’t be restricted by “per component” or “per note” pricing like some of it’s competitors.
  • Tasks: By far the hardest (and most expensive) decision I had to make. I tried in the order of 10-15 task applications and majority of them were overzealous with features that I wouldn’t need or functionality that got in my way for a simplistic approach. The bang for buck also varies greatly as some of the more expensive applications in this category were actually the worse ones for my workflow. In the end, Things prevailed. Things came out on top primarily because of it’s simple UI and limited options of viewing the data. Yes, that’s right - I paid to have less options and as a byproduct, a more straight forward and easy to use application.

And now, the workflow.

When I was Bullet Journaling, that notebook came everywhere with me. There was definitely more than a couple of times that I busted it out while in a hardware store looking to pick up supplies for a weekend project. This was a bit of an inconvenience but I was pretty chuffed with how much I was able to use it for without even needing to modify or change the way I stored the data so I persisted with it.

Fast forward to recent times where all the systems I use also have an iOS application. This makes it far easier (and convenient!) as there is a good chance that I would already be carrying my phone with me when I need to add or check a task.

The calendar and note taking aspects don’t require much explanation as they are the destinations for the information but the email and tasks systems are worth explaining.

My email client is now essentially a reference point and tasks are created from it. Here is an example where I’ve got a new feature request for a project I maintain and want to create a task to get it done.

After installing the Things Helper, I can hit cmd + shift + n (in any application) and the task item is pre-filled and I can save it.

This also works if I need to save a URL to a task for later reference (I use Pocket for articles or links I intend to read later).

This leads us to the tasks (Things) which is where the bulk of my workflow adaption has taken place. When I have a new task that isn’t immediately important, I create it and don’t categorise it. Things automatically puts this into the Inbox. At the start of my day (or week depending on how busy I am), I comb through the Inbox sorting and making sure tasks have been prioritised and categorised (think G.T.D. method). Once the Inbox is clear, I move onto the Today list and perform any priorisation moves there before grabbing the first task and getting started on it. One of the perks of Things is that once the due date has arrived, the task automatically appears in your Today which saves you needing to sift through a calendar or another list to find them.

I do use the projects feature within Things to better organise some of the tasks as I find it’s handy to have a filtered list of tasks for some aspects of life (work vs personal vs recreational).

A good side effect of this is that you also have a type of “heads up display” when you select the area, here Personal, that outlines how many to dos in each project as well as any that haven’t been sorted.

Overall, I think the Bullet Journal is an excellent system and has shaped my workflow and thinking for the better however my line of work lends itself better to a more digital approach with GTD and Bullet Journaling sprinkled over it.