what’s your best tip for staying organized?

by Ask a Manager on December 12, 2013

In response to last week’s call for people to share cool Excel tricks, we’ve had a request for something similar on organization, task management, and project management. So … share your favorite organizational or task/project management tip here.

I’ll start with a tip that’s pretty basic but can change your life if you’re not doing it: Don’t have multiple different to-do lists floating around. Have one central to-do list and put everything on it, and I mean everything — not just assignments from your boss, but also things like a call that you need to follow up on if you don’t hear back from the person by Tuesday, and your coworker’s request to stop by her office whenever you have time to hear the update on the Fleebus account. Everything. Otherwise it has to all float around in your head, and that’s (a) stressful and (b) how you forget things.

Of course, you can also have sub-lists for big projects that are significant enough to need their own separate lists — but they should still all feed into your main to-do list, because part of the point here is that you shouldn’t need to check a zillion different lists to see what your most pressing priorities for the week (or day or month) are. If you have to check seven different places to get a full picture of what you need to get done, you’re probably not really going to check all of them and your system will fail.

What else do people recommend for staying organized?

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{ 154 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat December 12, 2013 at 11:06 am

Use your calendar associated with your e-mail and set reminders on it. I use this for major events as well as reminders to do certain tasks.

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Judy December 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

Our company has a system that everyone must enter time worked based on project number by midnight Saturday for the previous week. My team now has a recurring meeting at 1pm on Fridays for 15 minutes. Our calendars send emails and popup reminders.

It’s improved our team compliance for the system immensely.

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Judy December 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

And I personally put a meeting overlaying that on the first Friday of the month that says “download pay statement” so that I always remember to copy the pay statement pdf from the system onto my flashdrive. Again, emails and popups. And if I’m taking a vacation day or holiday, I make sure my calendar is clear, which means the reminder still helps me.

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evilintraining December 12, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Me, too! I love having that little box pop up. I use this for anything that’s recurring, whether it’s monthly, weekly, or daily.

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Elizabeth West December 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I LOVE this. My company uses Outlook for everything. I do it at home too, on a calendar app I downloaded (Vue Minder Lite–the free version). It really helped me since I don’t have Outlook configured for email on my personal PC (I use Gmail for writing queries and professional things).

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PJ December 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I agree — this is an awesome tool. I even use it to remind myself when trash day is so that I can set my trash cans outside my office, since I must leave my door locked when I’m not there.

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Alex December 12, 2013 at 11:13 am

All of Outlook’s awesome features! Mail rules, foldering systems, color coding for calendar entries, customized alerts when certain people email you, color coding certain groups of people that email you, marking certain things as read right away when they come in… I’d be lost without my Outlook. I probably have over 100 mail rules set up.

I also agree with the centralized to-do list, and if you keep it electronically, don’t delete items you’ve already done – just use the strike-through text so you can go back and be content that you did the tasks.

I also *highly* recommend striving to go all electronic. I know it is difficult, especially if you’re a paper person, but it is so much easier to organize only one domain instead of both your computer and your physical work space. Plus, you can use the “CTRL-F” command to search things much quicker than manually searching a pile of papers. It is really hard to transition to all electronic, but IMO it is worth it. If you are really into electronic organization, try to learn OneNote or something similar. I absolutely love it. I’ve even gotten it down so that when I listen to my voicemail, I’m taking down the notes in OneNote. I’ve also made custom meeting templates in OneNote that I take notes in during meetings, even using the screen-share function so that my meeting participants can see the kinds of notes I’m taking while the meeting happens and suggest additions. It is also easy to send out meeting notes after the fact this way.

I know a lot of people swear by their smart phones, but I keep everything on my computer – I’ve tried to keep things organized from my phone, but I just don’t like it. So don’t feel discouraged if you don’t like working from your phone.

One last tip – get a Google Voice account and use it for your “business” phone number. Your voicemail will then be accessible from your laptop. It’s wonderful.

Can you tell I LOVE electronic organization? PAPER FREE IN 2014!

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Bunny Manders December 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

This is probably a no-brainer to anyone who’s been using Outlook for a while, but when I realized that I could flag emails as tasks and put them in color coded categories it changed my whole workflow. Prioritizing is so much easier now that I can save everything that’s waiting for a reply or needs to be addressed later in its own category, and if I have to stop a task to work on something higher priority I won’t forget everything else I needed to finish.

I still keep my personal to do list on paper because I feel accomplished when I see all the crossed off items. I used to be the least organized person ever, and now I’m the queen of color coding–organization is something you have to practice until you find the system that works for you, and then it feels natural.

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Mallorie, the recruiter December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I long for the day we have Outlook again. Lotus Notes will be the death of me :-/

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Claire MKE December 12, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Mail rules are my favorite things ever! I was introduced to them at my last job, and I absolutely adore them. Everything goes where it belongs. It gives me such a rush to clear out my “primary” inbox!

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Lora December 12, 2013 at 11:14 am

I limit how many things I can work on per week. If someone asks me to do more than a certain number of projects, of a certain size, I tell them the date of when a project of similar size or two smaller projects are planned to wrap up, and that is when I will have bandwidth to take it on. If that timeline doesn’t work, go find someone else.

Often the thing that someone is asking you to do, is not all THAT important and really they just want you to do it for free. As soon as they have to pay for it (either in money or in lost time from their other projects), it’s not so important. I charge consulting fees by the hour, so it’s really easy for me to say, pleasantly, “OK, that is outside of the scope of our current contract, but I can certainly put together an additional proposal for you.”

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Lore December 12, 2013 at 11:16 am

I agree with Kat on the reminders. I also keep my master to-do list in Excel. That way, I can sort on a number of variables–the default is to sort by task due dates, but I can also sort by any number of other variables, as well as using colors and conditional formatting to highlight different groups of tasks/deadlines (for example, I usually have conditional formatting on the “due date” column set to flag everything with a due date this week). It’s also easy to filter out everything with a particular status (for example, there’s one person who needs to approve a component of every project, so I can filter everything waiting for her approval and follow up on them all at once). And I can also have a couple of free text/notes columns to jog my memory of other details regarding each project.

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Alex December 12, 2013 at 11:18 am

That sounds like an amazing system. I love Excel.

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Lore December 12, 2013 at 11:32 am

And I am only a pretty basic-level Excel user! Imagine what I could do if I really understood all its ins and outs…

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martha December 12, 2013 at 4:47 pm

This this this is me – I’ve got date and color coding and project buckets and estimated time. But if I really knew how to use excel I’d be doing even more amazing things I’m sure.

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Susan December 12, 2013 at 3:35 pm

I love excel for my master list! You can also share a single excel document with your team and everyone can use the same document. I give each team member their own column and I make a mark in the column when I assign the project to them. They can also change that mark to a number to prioritize their own work. That way I can see what everyone is working on, when it’s due, and where we are in the process. There is also a column for notes so they can jot down short reminders of where things are.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:23 pm

I love OneNote for this, too. At an old job, we used a shared OneNote list for tasks. It would refresh frequently, so if Jan crossed off an item, I would see it immediately.

I still use OneNote at this job, but not as much as I should. And I have a few rules in Outlook, but not as many as I should because I think I have about 7000 items in my Inbox. Yikes.

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Steve December 12, 2013 at 11:22 am

I like the idea of having one to do list – and I mean JUST one that includes personal as well as professional to-do’s. Sub categories are great (your “pick up” list could include picking up the print order from the print shop as well as picking up your dry cleaning or a gift for your mom.) Something like this allows you to best manage your time, plan a route for errands, and helps to avoid any conflicts that may come up; big meeting at 3, dentist appointment at 4:30, dinner with new client at 7, etc).)

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I like to keep my personal and my work to-do lists separate or I would get entirely discombobulated. Plus, I don’t want to have to lug around my work computer or work notebook to be able to view my personal list. Yuck! I can only imagine too how much more difficult it would be to turn off your work-self off the clock and when working with one list at home. I don’t want to even accidentally see my work list when I am not working. I want to have my head out of work.

I do like a central calendar. I was syncing Outlook with my Google calendar, mostly so I could see all my work appointments on my phone, but it comes in handy when I am making personal appointments and plans, or when I need a reminder to leave work by a certain time to be on time for a personal appointment, but lists – need to keep personal and work separate.

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Anonymous December 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Save your to-do list on Dropbox or Google Drive, and you can access it from any web connection. Just watch the sync times – it can take a little while.

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Cat December 12, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Oh, no good comes for me of combining work and personal to-do lists. It too clearly highlights the tradeoffs between the two. (A consolidated calendar is nice though.)

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NylaW December 12, 2013 at 11:27 am

Outlook, Outlook, Outlook. Between mail rules and my calendar it is the only thing that keeps me sane both at work and home. For my personal stuff I have my Gmail account linked to it so I can see my calendar there as well, and my friends and family can see what I allow them to. I also have a combined Outlook account at work so my personal appoints appear as blocked off time on my work calendar. That’s very helpful when I have doctor’s appointments during the day.

We have a practice in my department of also blocking off time on our calendars to work on particular projects or issues. Some of these are linked to tickets in our helpdesk/project tracking system so you can click on one of them and open up the full ticket to see the whole history. While you have the ticket open it counts up time and then asks if you want to add that to the total ticket work time when you close it. So reminder pops up that I’m going to work on X from 10 to 12, I click the link and it opens the ticket and starts tracking that time.

Personally, for work and home I’m trying to implement a zero inbox, where every message becomes a to-do task/work ticket or calendar appointment, even if it’s just to follow up with someone by a certain date. That’s not to say I don’t have messages that sit in my inbox, but it’s maybe 10 or so, not nearly as bad as it used to be (200+ on a good week…)

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Liz in a library December 12, 2013 at 11:49 am

I have been working toward the zero inbox too, and am becoming more successful over time. I would give up wine before I’d give up Outlook cal and tasks.

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Ex Mrs Addams December 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I made a commitment to have a zero inbox when u started my new job in October. So far, so good. It’s also the first job I’ve had that uses outlook and I am in love with the to do lists and flagging emails for follow up! I never used to be organised, but outlook really is making me organised in more ways than I ever though possible.

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abby December 12, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I am trying very hard to implement a zero-inbox at work and have not been successful. Currently, I have 494 just in my inbox, with well over 200 flagged as to-dos. That being said, I’ve been really overwhelmed in my new position. Things are getting better and I’m happy to read that others are having success with this.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Yeah, I don’t really get the flagging thing. To me, it just adds a bunch of pop-up reminders that interrupt my train of thought when I’m trying to focus on something else. Am I doing it wrong?

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BG December 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I live for inbox zero!

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lozzlekin December 13, 2013 at 4:50 pm

This!

I have a pretty ruthless zero inbox goal and a lot of folders. It’s less rigid in the shared mailbox my department uses but my assistant and I have the same ethos on cluttered mailboxes of things which have been dealt with.

Coloured flags, a colour coded calendar which is synced with my smartphone and finally getting the bug in our exchange server that was messing up my accounts syncing to one device have been my lifesavers this year. I still have a paper week to view scribble pad for my to-do planning but mainly for aide memoires than anything else.

Now I need an android app and/or stylus recommendation so I can take notes on top of drafts during meetings because a tablet is much intrusive than using it laptop style during tender planning meetings

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Lindsay December 12, 2013 at 11:27 am

Wunderlist! You can have multiple to-do lists, you can add due dates and reminders, and it syncs between desktop and phone, and it’s free.

I set reminders for stuff I need to grab before I walk out the door in the morning, or things I really need to do after work.

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LizNYC December 12, 2013 at 11:40 am

+1 I just started using Wunderlist because I kept losing my written shopping lists. I LOVE it. I keep a running list of appointments I need to make, shopping lists for each store (supermarket, bulk buy, department), even movies and books I’d like to check out the next time I’m in the library. And I can share any of these lists with the Hubster if he happens to be doing a last-minute supermarket run.

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Elkay December 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

Outlook reminders for recurring events. I have to run certain reports every week so I have an Outlook reminder set for 9am on the day I need to run the report. That way it pops up early in my work day and I can snooze it if I’m tied up with something or get it out of the way first thing if I’m not.

Another vote for OneNote, which, for anyone who hasn’t used it, is pretty much a giant electronic notebook, you can have several books, pages, sub-pages and can easily move things around. I hadn’t used it before this year but now I love it and wouldn’t be without it. You can also send documents to OneNote from other programs and print to OneNote.

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r December 12, 2013 at 11:29 am

I’m not a naturally organized person, so I tend to only use organization systems when they are very simple. I really like the task function in Outlook. I use it as a combined To-Do list and email book-marker. If someone sends an email with something I need to review, I mark the task flag and it gets filed along with all of my other pending tasks. This helps me not to get too bogged down in my email. I also set reminders for when things are due. At the end of every day, I review my to-do list and write down my top tasks for tomorrow on a post-it.

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Bryan December 12, 2013 at 11:31 am

I am a big fan of putting reminder flags on emails in outlook.

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A Bug! December 12, 2013 at 11:53 am

I love these. The only thing I wish I could do in addition to reminder flags is to add notes to an e-mail. It would be really cool if you could do something analogous to the sticky notes you can make in Acrobat, that allows you to add your own notes to a document without altering the content.

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Lore December 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I have faked this system by sending a reply to myself and flagging that instead of the original email. (If I remember correctly, you can’t flag an unsent draft, but you can flag in your sent folder.)

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Elizabeth West December 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm

That’s what I do. Or, I make a new task and list whatever I’m supposed to do in that, and then I can delete the original email (or file it–I have a zillion folders). I can add to the task also. There’s one sitting in my Task Pane right now that is all database stuff I can’t access until the fifteenth.

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Nicole December 13, 2013 at 12:02 am

I add notes to received emails all the time. I put my comments at the top in red bold text preceded by the date. I do this so that if I need to reply to the email later my own comments stand out so I’m prompted to delete them before sending a reply.

Instructions on how to do this – http://email.about.com/od/outlooktips/qt/et_edit_receive.htm

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F. December 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Nicole, do you find any troubles when you try to reply to the sender (forward or reply) the original email (for example, you reply after you makes notes, and the sender gets your notes?)? There are a lot of times that I reply to an email later than instantly, so I’m trying to imagine a time when this would backfire.

I think this feature could be very helpful, but is also slightly disturbing…

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Nicole December 13, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen because the red bold text stands out which prompts me to delete it before composing my reply. However, I am careful to make sure my notes are always matter of fact and never derogatory should they end up being sent to someone in error.

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fposte December 12, 2013 at 11:34 am

On a different note: if your system allows this kind of flexibility, make your to-do list as visually pleasant as possible. That’s “visually pleasant” in a way that works for you–cool san serif against cream for some, clip-art flowers for others, whatever. But it’s reflecting your life, and it’s really nice to be pleased with the way your life looks.

(Learned this one from finance spreadsheets–Excel can run the gamut from hideously ugly to absolutely beautiful, and I update just to admire my spreadsheets’ loveliness.)

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r December 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm

This is so true. I’m much more likely to look at something if it’s pretty. In college I used a beautiful notebook and had a special pen for my to-do list. I don’t know why, but it made it more fun to update! Maybe it’s the organizational equivalent of a blank notebook.

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jesicka309 December 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm

At my current job, one of my main tasks was overhauling an Excel calendar that worked completely fine, but just needed some format changes to make it more readable.

Well, I spent maybe 4 hours revampig it, and it’s now so pretty that my boss shows it off to people, and I printed it out and decorated my cube with it. It’s so pretty, and satisfying, because now it looks good, people actually read and use the calendar now. Success!

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Pam December 13, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Wow. I’ve never really thought about it, but making an excel sheet beautiful is really impt to me. Probably because it makes it beautiful to look at and *almost* enjoy looking at.

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Cazzie December 14, 2013 at 5:48 am

I so need to figure how to do this. I just spam it with colours and confuse myself most of the time :(

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JCDC December 12, 2013 at 11:35 am

I keep my to-do list in an olde fashioned datebook. If I have to do Task A, I write it on the date that I need or plan to do it. That is pretty much my whole system. My work-plan almost forms itself this way, I can quickly see when one day is over-loaded, and I can easily look back and quantify what I did in a week. If I have a super-busy day, I’ll go through all the tasks the day before and prioritize. Super-major projects have their own timelines, but I can transfer the day-to-day stuff into my datebook.

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LMW December 12, 2013 at 12:32 pm

+1. I tried using the Outlook tasks features for a few months and it just wasn’t working for me. I LOVE my old fashioned paper planner. I get the kind with a one-month spread and then weekly spreads, and I write down what needs to be done on certain days to meet deadlines. I have a dozen different electronic systems for the team (editorial calendar, production schedules, etc.), so it’s really helpful for me to keep my own personal list in a different format.

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Cruella Da Boss December 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I’m an “old fashioned paper planner” girl too.

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JCDC December 12, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Plus you can check things off when done! So satisfying.

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Poster formerly known as Jane Doe December 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I go for the highlighter. Sometimes I add stuff to my to do list after I’ve already done it, just so I can highlight it and feel accomplished. :)

Hm, that sounds really lame when I actually type it out!

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I use the highlighter for super important priority tasks so they stand out. Sometimes I use multiple colors.

Checking/highlighting/crossing things off your list is feedback to yourself that you have accomplished something and are making progress. I think it is very helpful on a psychological and emotional level in keeping up momentum and motivation. It helps me feel less overwhelmed when I can see how much I’ve accomplished (crossed out on my page).

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I really still like paper for my working to-do list. It sticks in my head better. It helps me straighten things out in my brain to physically write things out and then cross them off my list. It is always in front of me. With electronic lists, I can’t always easily see them when I have multiple applications running, and for me the adage “Out of sight, out of mind” is very true. I keep an electronic list for my manager, but the paper one is what I work with on a daily basis.

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plynn December 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

This is one the central tenets of the Getting Things Done system, and the one that’s had the greatest impact on me: Your to-do list should be actions, specifically only the next actions you can take on any specific project. Things get stuck on your to-do list forever because there is roadblock to getting them done, and you need to break down that roadblock until you find the very smallest thing you need to start with, in order to get you on your way.

For example, something simple like “Call Wakeem about order” can get stuck because when you go to call him, you don’t have his number. So you need to email Susan to get Wakeem’s phone number, and then enter that number into your phone so it’s available when you have time to call him. You run into this problem every time you go to call him, but then forget to do the necessary steps because “email Susan re: Wakeem’s number” is not on your to-do list.

*Such* a great way to get moving when you are stuck – keep breaking things down into one manageable step and then do it.

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Colorado December 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I love this. I try to do this too! I also LOVE the satisfaction of crossing something out! Giddy-up, great post!

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JF December 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

Most people don’t know what to do with tasks in outlook. The key is to write every little thing you need to do as a task. Why? Because it is incredibly easy to add them to calendars after you’ve done so.

My usual morning routine is to check email – flag any that need a response, and convert any that require an action (that is not a simple reply) into a task. This can be done by simply dragging the the email over the “tasks” icon under your email folders and releasing. Once I have done that, I move over to calendar view and review what tasks are due for the day, and schedule them for the morning.

Doing this has kept my inbox to an average size of 6, when I get roughly 60 emails a day (not a huge amount I know).

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April December 16, 2013 at 3:08 am

Not a huge amount? If each one ultimately (including both the time spent reviewing it and scheduling it as a task, plus the coming back to it as a task) entails even just 5 minutes of attention, that is five hours of your 8 hour day – every day. And from the sound of it, I would bet that the majority of these tasks you are dragging over to calendar will take more than five minutes to do (otherwise why drag them over rather than just do them right then). The math of that seems to say that at 60 emails coming in per day you would be precariously close to having more than 8 hours-worth work coming in each and every day. So 60 does seem like a huge number to me! If it is common to deal with even more than that, I have to know: how do people do it?!

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VictoriaHR December 12, 2013 at 11:46 am

I love the program Evernote. I have it on my work PC, my iPad, and my home laptop. It syncs to each location. I keep all of my notes on it and then can access my info anywhere that I have an internet connection.

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JMegan December 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I was going to say Evernote as well – it’s great that it syncs to all your devices. And you can store anything on there, from to-do lists, to web pages, to photos, to pdfs for reading on the subway. It’s brilliant.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Our engineers have blocked Evernote from syncing over our wifi! This was the program that my boss used to use. He would carry his iPad and keyboard to meetings, take his notes, and sync up with Evernote so he had it on his workstation and also at home. Not sure why IT blocked the sync-up…..seems strange.

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Anonicorn December 12, 2013 at 11:47 am

Despite Alison’s excellent advice about keeping 1 and only 1 to-do list, I use two. My team and I use Podio (free version) for project/task management at work. Biggest perks for me are customization and collaboration. I manage my own personal tasks like bills, shopping, etc. on ToDoIst, which integrates nicely with Gmail and has a Chrome extension.

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Poster formerly known as Jane Doe December 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Yeah, I have an electronic master list, but often I’ll scribble out on a piece of paper my tasks from the master list for the day. That way I don’t have to keep switching screens.

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KC December 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

I’ve been using Asana recently to do all of my tasks. It’s meant to be a team task management system (and it’s free for up to 10 users on a particular instance), but it also works brilliantly for just me.

I find that I’ve become Outlook-blind (meaning I have so many meetings/etc, that I ignore/snooze/whatever tasks if I use Outlook to manage tasks. I like having a separate place for that.

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Jake December 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I’ve also been using asana for the past six months or so, and I absolutely love it. I love that if someone sends me an email asking me to do something, I can just forward that email to asana and boom, it’s on my to do list.

I love that I can create subtasks and organize stuff into categories when I’m thinking bigger picture about a project, but it still maintains a single master to do list with everything on it.

I love it so much I want to marry it.

(not endorsed by asana, just really excited)

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KC December 12, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I didn’t know I could forward emails directly to my Asana!! I’m going to go see how that works. :)

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KC December 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

That’s SO COOL. I’ve got it all set up now and will DEFINITELY be utilizing that feature.

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Lindsay J December 13, 2013 at 2:02 am

I never heard of Asana before but I just signed up for it and it looks pretty cool!

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Miz Swizz December 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

I’ve been reading Getting Things Done by David Allen and the piece of advice that has stuck most with me (so far) is if it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Tweaking my mindset that way has made me realize that sometimes, instead of putting it on your to-do list, you could just do it.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm

My problem is that I get *so* distracted! I’ll work on something, then get sidetracked onto something else, then something else, until I have totally forgotten what the original thing is/was. Once I get in the zone, I can get things done but when the little short tasks interrupt me, I get off course.

I feel pretty discouraged about my lack of organization, actually. I bought “Getting Things Done”, but it seemed like the first several chapters are just about how wonderful it is to be organized and not really instructions on how to become so. Maybe I didn’t read far enough?

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Vicki December 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm
SevenSixOne December 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

My master to-do list has four sections: NOW is the stuff that must be done immediately, NEXT is stuff that must be done as soon as possible, LATER is the stuff to do once Now and Next are done, and WHENEVER is the lowest-priority and optional stuff. I try have the fewest tasks in Now and the most in Later/Whenever and re-prioritize as necessary, since a to-do list is pointless if everything on it is urgent.

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Helen December 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

I use inbox zero! Many times a day, I triage all the emails I get and either respond right away if it is a quick response, archive immediately of there is no action item in the email, or keep the email in my inbox if it represents work on my to do list that still needs to get done.

I learned about this secondhand so there may be more to the official inbox zero method, but my personal process is all about two pieces. First, I don’t procrastinate on quick jobs because it is rewarding to get them out of my inbox (and therefore off my mind) immediately. Second, I never forget about a task because I will see it still sitting in my inbox until it is complete.

I have tried to recommend my method to some coworkers who struggle to keep on top of email, and they always say it is impossible for them because of the volume of emails they get. I am skeptical but I’d love to know of anyone else uses this method and what the volume of email you get a day is.

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Emily K December 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I do this exact thing! I just find that I am so much more prepared to attack my work when I can look at my inbox and see just a few emails that represent the tasks I need to get done. I agree that it helps with prioritization, and keeps emails from getting “lost.” And my coworkers say the same as you–they get too much email to do this.

I’ll admit, I spend a not insignificant amount of time managing my inbox to keep filing away unneeded emails, and it’s especially bad after a vacation when I haven’t been on top of it for several days. But I absolutely think the increased productivity and fuller awareness that I get from inbox zero is worth the time I invest in it, and I think that’s what my coworkers don’t really see about. Everyone complains about email volume, and I know how stressed out I feel a day when I’m catching up on days worth of unfiled emails…so I imagine they feel like that every day. And while I also know how I feel on a day that my inbox is zero or close to it, they don’t!

Because some to-dos don’t come from emails, I prefer to have a separate to-do list, but in conjunction with inbox zero, my inbox becomes a reference for my work, containing only the handful of emails with information directly relevant to the tasks I’m working on.

I don’t know about the official method either, so maybe this is advocated, but for me the real key to inbox zero is not having too many folders. I have a folder labeled “archive” and 90% of the email I get goes into that folder. It’s all searchable so I don’t classify it any further.

The only other folders I use are for:
1) informative emails/reference guides that go in a “reference” folder so I can search more efficiently for these instructional emails,
2) “fodder” for material I might browse to draw upon in my capacity as a writer,
3) emails from mailing lists that I’m on, which I don’t want coming up when I search the archive folder for actual correspondence,
4) receipts and registration confirmations, for the same reason “reference” is its own folder, and
5) the “feelgood” folder, for when I get an especially warm, praising, thankful, touching, inspiring, etc. email. It is a very small folder but it’s always good for a pick-me-up.

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Sparrow December 12, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I do this too. I have tons of folders to organize all my email. I work in software development, so my to-do list is based on the priority of current production issues vs. items that are still being tested/developed for future releases.

I keep emails that are important or that I think I might need later, but I also get copied on a ton of stuff that doesn’t need my attention so that gets deleted right away. That said, my Deleted Items folder is huge. It’s sort of out if sight, out of mind so I don’t always get around to permanently deleting items.

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anonn December 13, 2013 at 5:02 am

I actually keep all emails of any import at all. Things like “cakes in the kitchen” get trashed but anything client related stays. Me and my boss almost had a meltdown when the Temp doing my job during illness told us that she’d deleted ‘finished items’. Even worse when we then found out she’d deleted unfinished items too!

I sort all my ‘finished’ emails by client. Then by sub subject if a particular problem/theme develops. That way when someone is scratching around trying to find information about issue X that happened a year ago I can put my hands on the emails in mere minutes while everyone else is still scratching their head.

I do Credit Control – Or Accounts Recieveable. It needs that sort of quick reactions.

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anonn December 13, 2013 at 5:03 am

Forgot to say – i’m similar in that the only emails visable in my main inbox are the ones still needing work on them.

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BG December 12, 2013 at 1:50 pm

This is exactly what I do… I love it. The only emails in my inbox are things that need to be followed up on. And everything else is in folders.

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Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 11:51 am

I manage to stay on top of everything and I honestly still use paper and pen! I write a list at the end of each day of what I need to get done the following day. As necessary, I add Outlook reminders and flag emails for follow-up on a certain date. I’ve recently started using Evernote as well (the app, and on my computer), but for me it’s harder to keep track of than a notebook at my desk.

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Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm

And while I never get to inbox zero, I respond to all emails within a few hours and then archive it or flag it for follow up. I see some people who have everything still in their inbox and it stresses me out to see that. There’s no way to scan and see what still needs to be dealt with or what’s no longer important. Even color-coding and flagging seems like it would be harder if you have an inbox with 5000 messages.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:41 pm

I just checked…I have 5,900 in my work inbox. Normally, I just sort by “sent” and then start typing in the person’s name and it takes me right to that section. But actually, there is no reason to have 6000 emails in my inbox.

What do people do with the long email chains where there are 10 versions of the same email, just with different replies? Do you just keep the most recent one, and if so, how do you remember to go back and delete the previous ones?

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Cath@VWXYNot? December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I keep the most recent one. To delete the older ones, sort your inbox by Subject – the whole chain should cluster together (but you do have to be slightly careful in case there are two threads with the same subject header)

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Cath@VWXYNot? December 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Oh and obviously I keep any older messages in the chain that have attachments.

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Anne December 12, 2013 at 11:53 am

Experiment with different ways of tracking all the things you need to do.

Like Alison, I have a central to-do list with everything on it – mostly work stuff, but also “take vitamins”, “mail present to mom”, whatever. I make a new one every day and anything that I didn’t finish the day before is first on the list.

But I also have other ways of tracking things, and it’s taken some experimentation to figure out what works best for me. For a while, my to-do list took the form of post-its on the wall by my desk. Didn’t work. I’m in charge of license renewals for my company’s software product, so I always have a whiteboard with the next three months of renewing clients and their status up over my desk and that works great. I tried the same thing with my new business leads – no go, didn’t work for me. Now I track them all in a spreadsheet and that works great. Invoicing, payments, account details, they all go into our CRM. Anything scheduled, or any really important to-do, goes onto the Google Calendar which is shared with my office.

Now it works for me, but it’s taken some experimentation. The tool that works for someone else, or works for you on a different kind of task, might not work all the time. Experiment. When you find something that works, stick with it.

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Sparrow December 12, 2013 at 11:55 am

The primary form of communication at my work is email. I created a “Waiting for Response” folder in Outlook. This is for emails I have sent people where I need a response in order to complete my work. It’s made it easier for me to follow up on these items rather than searching through my Sent items.

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Dang December 12, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I love this idea!!’n

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KC December 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm

This is a fantastic idea!

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Cath@VWXYNot? December 12, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I do this too, but in a slightly different way – I have a “waiting for response” email colour category, and use it to mark all such emails in my sent messages folder. I check my sent messages folder every Monday morning and Friday afternoon to send reminders / clear the colour categories, respectively

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Kelly O December 12, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I do this too.

I also tag those items for follow up daily, so it prompts me to look at them if I’ve not gotten a response.

I technically keep two lists – but my job doesn’t really spill over into the off-hours. I do manually sync my Gmail with Outlook – Gmail is my personal system, but I make sure that all the deadlines in Outlook also get put in Gmail. It helps me keep tabs on what is coming up for the day, and also in making plans after-hours (meaning – if I have a busy day at work planned, I’m not going to schedule a Children’s Council meeting that night if I can help it.)

I have embraced Outlook and use it for so much. The task list is my new best friend, and it really does help if you use it. For me, the real trick is figuring out what you’ll use. Any system can be great, but if you don’t use it, then it’s not worth much.

I also keep a paper notebook/planner on me all the time. It helps me capture things no matter where I am or what my smartphone situation is.

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Windchime December 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm

When you say you “manually sync [your] Gmail with Outlook”, do you mean that you manually re-enter your work appointments into your google calendar? Or is there a way to sync it up with a button or something?

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Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 7:01 pm

I have a category called “Waiting for Response”. I like to keep outstanding issues in my Inbox so they are right there in my face (out of sight, out of mind!). So I take advantage of the color categories in Outlook to organize those things.

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 7:02 pm

That’s me

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Nicole December 13, 2013 at 12:11 am

I have a category called Waiting and a rule that Outlook creates a copy of every email I send and puts it in my inbox. For those I don’t need to keep, I just hit delete. The others get marked as waiting and pushed to the bottom of my inbox since I have it sorted by category. I also have categories for Priority, In Process, etc. so basically the uncategorized emails are those I need to process in some manner and stay at the top. Once an issue is resolved, it gets filed. My inbox rarely exceeds 20 messages thanks to this system. I couldn’t handle hundreds to thousands of emails in my inbox. It would seriously stress me out.

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AnonAdmin December 12, 2013 at 11:57 am

It’s funny, I love electronic for a lot of things, but not to-do lists. I get a lot of satisfaction from crossing things off on a piece of paper with a fat pen. :) Anyway, here are some of my tips:

If you have discrete or recurring tasks, keep a tickler file. You need 43 hanging folders: 12 labeled with the month, and then 31 labeled 1-31 for the days. Put the task/thing in the appropriate month and/or day when you need to start work on it to meet its deadline. Pull out the day’s folder each morning.

If you work with a lot of paper or signature items, put things in color-coded folders by broad category and pick an obnoxious color for items requiring action/signature so that they don’t get lost on your desk or someone else’s.

Use color tags or labels in your email to quickly sort what you need to do, what you’ve delegated and need to check in on, etc. And related to this, be ruthless with your inbox – file things off to keep your inbox manageable, with only things that still need attention in it.

Keep a daily ping list of people you’re awaiting response or action from and use it to figure out who you need to email/phone each day to keep tasks moving.

Take 10-15 minutes at the end of every day to plan some of your next day and clean up your desk. You start your next day feeling more organized.

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BG December 12, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I was just going to comment the same. Pretty much everything I do is electronic… except my to do list. I make little boxes to check off next to the tasks. Love checking those boxes!

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Claire December 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm

A great tactic that I am not very successful with (but I’m trying) is to deal immediately with tasks that will require less than 2 mins. Get a call or email with a request for a number? Instead of flagging it to do later, do it right away and be done with it.

I know it’s not always possible but it’s a good system when you can make it a habit.

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Emily K December 12, 2013 at 12:51 pm

I do this in combination with something else important: I only check my email every 15 minutes. It’s OK and even refreshing to take a break from a sustainer task every 15 minutes and spend 2 minutes crossing an easy to-do off your list by helping someone else out quickly. It’s a productivity-killer if you let yourself stop what you’re doing for 1-2 minutes at a time any time an email pops up on your screen.

You can actually set your email client to wait 15 minutes in between updating, though personally I do watch the pop-ups come up in the corner so that if something truly crazy-emergency seems to be happening I can make an exception and chime in early. You just need to be able to discern what’s an emergency (very few things) and what can wait 15 minutes (most things).

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Jennifer December 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm

This. However, I check every hour. I also turned off the email notification. Artificial urgency was killing my productivity. My boss and team members send me an IM if they need a report right away (I am a data analyst).

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VintageLydia December 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm

One simple thing I do when I’m writing a list is including things I’ve already done on it (for instance, if I have a day of housework to do, but I unloaded the dishwasher first thing so I can get the coffee carafe out I’ll include “unload the dishwasher”) and then cross it off. It makes me feel like I’ve already got momentum for the day that I want to continue. And hey, if all you can cross off is “shower” or “breakfast”, at least it’s something.

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Elizabeth West December 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm

That’s a good idea. I like the momentum thing.

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Laura December 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I do this, too, and not just for momentum — if I do lots of small things during the day (not uncommon) I’ll often feel like I got nothing done since I don’t have any one big accomplishment to point at. If I can look back at my list and see 15 or 20 “little” things crossed off I feel much better about the day (and yeah, sometimes it’s just “shower” and/or “make coffee”, but like VintageLydia said, it’s something).

FWIW, I tried to go electronic for a couple of years, but it just plain doesn’t work for me. I finally admitted that to myself and went back to paper just last week and I am LOVING the newly organized me (and also all the pretty new pens and papers and systems that are involved).

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Eva December 12, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Alison (and others who successfully maintain a central list), how do you keep your central list, exactly? I want to start maintaining one, but I am not sure how to go about it.

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Christy December 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I use pen and paper. I have a general weekly to-do list that I recopy whenever it gets too messy (it helps me inventory what I have to do). I have a to-do section and a later/ongoing section. I number the list and cross off things as I complete them. I generally don’t put short, immediate things on there, unless I feel like I need momentum.

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Ask a Manager December 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I used to keep mine in a Word document, but somewhere along the way I started keeping it in a draft email message instead in Apple’s Mail program. I do a ton of work within email, and it’s easiest to have my to-do list in there too. I don’t recommend that though; usually I’d recommend Word or something similar. (Although this is a good illustration of “just find something that works for you and be religious about keeping to it, whatever it is.”)

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Eva December 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

A draft email message?! Why didn’t I think of that! I’m going to start doing that, because I just know I can’t make myself open Word or Excel every single time. I’ve tried using toodledo and other website lists, but it hasn’t managed to stick. What I’ve done so far is to send myself an email per task and then try to remember to regularly bump those threads, but needless to say that is far from ideal, not least because there is no feature to ensure that I remember time-sensitive tasks when I need to see them. I’m going to try the draft email since I would love to remain in Gmail. Thanks for the tip, Alison!

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Cath@VWXYNot? December 12, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Mine’s in Word, but I print it out every Monday morning and add any new items on the paper version. They get added to the list the next Monday. I do like ticking boxes on paper :)

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Cassie December 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

I pipe my work email through Gmail, so I’ll create draft emails there for to-do lists and stuff like that. I like it because I can access it virtually anywhere (even on my phone while I’m riding the shuttle to work). Evernote and other apps like that work too but I always have Gmail open anyway. I’ve tried using other to-do apps, even Google Tasks which intergrates with Gmail, but there’s something about having to go to another app or open another software that makes me give up after a couple of days.

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Emily K December 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I’ve tried a lot of fancier options but ultimately what I found that works best for me is I just use the Sticky Notes that come installed with Windows 7. I just have a sticky that stays on my desktop with my to-do list written on it. Just text. I format it like this:

—-
To Do:
[Project A]:
Assignment A (due date)
Assignment B (due date)
[Project B]:
Assignment C (due date)
Assignment D (due date)
Assignment E (due date)
[Project C]:
Assignment F (due date)
Other:
Assignment G (due date)

Holding:
Assignment Q, pending first Friday of month
Assignment Y, pending approval from Meredith

Ticklers:
Assignment Y with Meredith for approval (date sent)

Long-Range:
Project X
Project Y
Project Z
—-

I add any task, no matter how small or where it came from, to this sticky. At the start of the day I sort within each project by due date/priority (there’s rarely very many in each project so this isn’t very difficult) and I boldface the assignments I want to complete today. When I complete them, I delete them!

The sticky can be stretched to any size from very small to very big. I like to keep it resized so that no scrolling is needed. I have a dual-monitor setup, so the sticky stays on my secondary monitor along with our internal chat service and my calendar pop-ups.

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Oh I like this. If it’s sitting on my desktop I would actually see it or could quickly switch to it. One of my issues with electronic tasks lists is not having it in my face.

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Ethyl December 12, 2013 at 1:07 pm

I use the “Me” tab in Basecamp, but of course that only helps if people actually assign the to-dos.

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Sparrow December 12, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I use a spreadsheet for my central list. I work in software development, so I prioritize my items based on the release cycle.

I keep everything on one tab, but I keep different sections

Section 1 – Production
Section 2 – Release Q1
Section 3 – Release Q2
etc

Then under each section, I have tasks that need to be completed. I have columns for Task, Notes and Date.

A task may be “Write requirement for login screen”. However, I may not be able to complete that task because I’m waiting on feedback from a developer. So in the Notes section, I’ll write “Emailed John to get clarification”.

In addition, I color code the rows. So if I’m waiting on a response, the row gets highlighted in blue. That way when I’m scrolling through my list, I know to ignore those items. If a task is pending a meeting that needs to be held, then that gets highlighted in green.

For me and the type of work I do, I found this system works best. I like using a spreadsheet b/c I can have multiple columns to track notes. And I’m a visual person, so color coding also helps me.

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Lanya December 12, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I rely on Google Calendar to keep on top of things. You can enter tasks as separate entries, but I like to use the multicolored calendar system to keep track of different aspects of my life. For shopping lists, I like the Do It (Tomorrow) app.

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SD Cat December 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Yep, I use Google Calender a lot also- I’m constantly being reminded (because I set it up that way) about appointments/classes/work stuff etc. and it’s easy to access on both my laptop and phone. It’s not my main to-do list, but all my deadlines are on it.

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JMegan December 12, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I also have good success with the Urgent/Important matrix credited to both Eisenhower and Stephen Covey. Basically, there are four quadrants:

Urgent/ Important (crises, deadlines, meetings)
Not Urgent/ Important (preparation, planning, prevention, development)
Not Important/ Urgent (usually somebody else’s priorities, interruptions)
Not Important/ Not Urgent (procrastination, time wasters, FYIs)

I keep two of these lists – one for work and one for home. Everything goes into one of the quadrants, and it really helps me allocate my time to make sure everything gets done.

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Susan December 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I’ve started using a Bullet Journal — http://bulletjournal.com/

It’s great because you don’t need to buy a “system” — just a blank notebook. It’s a way to organize your thoughts, to-do lists, and notes in one place.

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Heather December 12, 2013 at 12:37 pm

LOVE your to do list tip, Alison. I keep one just like the one you’ve outlined. Everything goes on the list!

Another thing I’ve got on my list is a “project status” section. That’s where I’ll keep notes on where a project is at and any notes (such as “Sent to X for review on 12/10; followed up again on 12/17, but haven’t heard back.” )

That way if anyone ever asks, I look like I’m totally on top of it because I’m not saying things like, “Oh, gee, that project…right…let me check on that…” ALWAYS know the latest status!

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Sydney Bristow December 12, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I do this too. Mine isn’t kept on my to do list and how I do it depends on what I’m working on. If it involves physical paper I usually put a post it note on top of the paperwork. If it is virtual I usually add a note to myself in the document itself. If none of those make sense then I’ll either add it to my pen and paper task list if its likely to come up in the short term or just make sure I can rely on an email trail to show my last action. My outlook has folders set up for each project I’m working on.

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CC December 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I use ToDoList by AbstractSpoon. It’s not the most attractive program, but the keys for me are that it has nested/collapsible to-do items and it can easily be set up so the parent item’s due date is the nearest sub-item’s due date.

Since my tasks at work tend to be project-based with many sub-items and an ultimate due date sometimes months away, this lets me break tasks into manageable chunks so I can see what to do next, and also collapse tasks I’m not working on at that moment so they don’t overwhelm me with all the things, but still remind me what has to be done next on a given project.

Also, I put items in for stuff other people have promised me, such as quotes from vendors, so those things float up to the top of my list and I can call the vendor back to ask where my quote is.

It also has a whole bunch of time tracking and estimating features which I use occasionally, but not for everything.

I use a paper notebook in meetings and when on the phone, and record to-do items there, too. If the item is something small that I can do immediately after the meeting/call, such as email a file to someone, I do it right away and check it off in my notebook and never put it into ToDoList. But if not, it goes into the software right away.

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A.Y. Siu December 12, 2013 at 1:00 pm

These methods have worked for me at every office job I’ve had, but may not work for everyone:

1. Never procrastinate. Just do things right away whenever possible. I’m a procrastinator by nature, which is why people always tell me I’m “so fast” at getting things done. The truth is if I don’t get it done right away, it’ll be too easy for me to put it off forever, so I just do it now and get it over with.

2A. Use your email inbox as a to-do list. Rather than making flags or labels or special subfolders or jotting down Post-It notes, I just have two folders in my email, regular Inbox, and Done. If something’s in my Inbox, whether the message is read or not or even replied to, I’m not done with whatever that’s referencing. When I’m done, I move that message to the done folder.

2B. Whenever possible, insist people email you. Since I use email for all my organization, I want everything to go through there. If someone asks me something on the phone or in person, I’ll often follow up with, “Oh, can you be sure to send me an email just to remind me?” If they don’t, and I remember to do it, great. If they don’t send the email, and I forget to do it, well, they’ll quickly learn to send me emails to make sure things get done (Pavlov).

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A Jane December 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm

I am definitely a fan of 2B. Also a good CYA move

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Anon December 12, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I HATE when people do 2B. It’s not my job to remember for you. Besides I work with a lot of external clients (service oriented industry) and I can’t imagine asking a client to do that. I understand wanting emails for everything, so if I get a request not in the form of an email, I email it to myself. Or email that person summarizing your phone call with next steps (depending on if it’s appropriate for the situation).

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hamster December 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

If i speak with someone I e-mail them a “summary” re-cap, follow-up, meeting minutes or whatever . It’s amazing what someone gets from a talk/chat but when summed up and bulletpoinded and ask for confirmation IN WRITING in an e-mail backs up/changes something/agrees, and later can be pointed back to . Useful tool

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Helen S. December 12, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Well it depends on the situation. If you want someone to do something for you, and you know they are responsive to email requests, it’s smart to accommodate that. But it’s a bit ridiculous to ask someone to remind you to do your own job by email, and I have heard people do that a few times.

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A.Y. Siu December 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Clarification on 2b: I’m not saying “This is a regular part of my job, so just remind me to my job.” I’m saying “You’re asking me to do some specific thing for you? You want it done? Put it in writing.”

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Natalie Anne Lanoville December 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I think if you’re asking someone to do something, even if it’s their job, it’s reasonable to take 1 minute to put it in writing. It’s also smart… I’ve been bitten many many times when I’ve asked someone verbally to do something (which is their job), waited vainly for it to happen, and then have a messy conversation when I finally ask for a progress report. My 1 minute to type a request means both of us understand all the specifics, including deadlines etc.

My office is notorious for people making complex requests through bathroom doors, in lunch lineups, while someone is getting in their car to drive away etc. If my co-worker can’t remember what they’ve asked me to do long enough to get back to their desk, how can they expect me to?

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Eric December 12, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I can never get organized enough to get organized.

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LucyVP December 12, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Exactly.

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 7:07 pm

This is the story of my life.

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Ethyl December 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm

We use Basecamp in my office. One thing I do is I keep the “Me” tab open and the “Calendar” open in different tabs in my browser so they’re always there.

I’ve subscribed to my Basecamp calendars in iCal (I am being forced to use a Mac for work), and that pushes out to an app on my phone called WeekCal, which I use just because the interface is better for my brain than the iPhone calendar. All the projects have different colors, so it’s easy to tell at a glance what is going on. We put vacation time, travel time, and work trips on the Basecamp calendar as well. We make great use of the recurring meetings for things like timesheet reminders, weekly update emails to go out, etc.

One of the most important things when using Basecamp, though, is to actually assign the to-dos, otherwise they just kinda sit there and people won’t necessarily get to them. We’ve had good success assigning to-dos without due dates for things that are “please get this done at some point,” while we assign with a due date when it’s more like “this very really truly seriously must get done on or before this date REALLY.”

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Elizabeth West December 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Flags, flags, and more flags. I flag emails in Outlook at work, and I also color code them: red for Urgent, green for Meeting, yellow for things that pertain only to our office (we’re not Corporate headquarters), orange for Attention.

At home, I use a Vue Minder Lite calendar. You can make popup reminders and it lists nerd holidays. :)

For school, I use a spreadsheet and enter assignments and due dates in it. Every time I get a notification from a class or finish an assignment, I update it by adding entries and color coding. Yellow is Outstanding, green is Finished. I make the text bold red if it’s something I need to pay particular attention to, like a test. I copy it from my desktop to my flash drive and back again so I can update it at lunch if I need to. I don’t use the calendar on my phone because it eats the battery.

The only time I use a hand-written list is when I’m assembling a report. It has sections that correspond to table entries, and I write them down and check off each one as I insert it. Too often, if I use paper for appointments, I either forget to update it, forget to write it altogether, or lose it. Planners are the same way.

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Cath@VWXYNot? December 12, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I take a notebook into every meeting I attend (and keep it on my desk to jot down any impromptu discussions), and jot down useful / interesting nuggets about changes to processes / staffing, new ideas and technologies, etc. I realised a few months ago that the notes were next to useless when still in the book, because there’s no way I’m going to remember the date of the meeting at which we were told about the new account numbers for certain types of expenses etc. So now, every Friday afternoon, I transfer all my notes into an Excel spreadsheet. I have different tabs for different projects / themes, and note the sub-topic, date, meeting type, book and page number, and a *very* brief description of what was discussed. Now I can go to my “finances” tab, do a CTRL+F search for “new account numbers”, and know to look at book A, page 57 for details.

Some of my colleagues think this is overkill, but hey, it works for me! And my boss likes it :)

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LMW December 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm

I use a variation on this — I take a notebook to every meeting, and I write down any to dos with a star next to them. At least every few days I scan my notes for stars, and add them to my to do list.

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I star the to-dos while taking notes too. If I have a highlighter, I also highlight them so they are easy to pick out later when I scan my notes for to-dos.

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Emily K December 13, 2013 at 12:40 am

Me too. Many in my office bring laptops to meetings to take notes, and I sometimes do, but I’ve found I stay more engaged in the meeting if I just bring pen and paper. After I get back from the meeting I spend about 2 minutes transferring any to-do items from my notepad to my computer to-do list or immediately sending any emails with any information I needed to share or act on. At the end of the day I can recycle the sheet or two of my notepad that I used that day.

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Counselorextraordinaire December 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I have a binder system that I use for various projects. Right now, I work with an organization for which I do counseling groups. I have a binder for that organization that I keep the paperwork in for the groups. It helps to be able to just grab it and go so I know I have the sign-in sheets and various other materials, etc.

And I second Alison’s recommendation of a single master to-do list. I do that and it’s a huge help. I made a simple list on Excel with categories of Counseling, To Do Today, To Buy, To Call, etc. Then I can just scan the list and see what needs to be done. I also have a flip pad from Leeds that I use to write the daily to-do list that I pop in my purse for quick reference.

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Anonymous December 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

I write my to-do list for the week by hand, because the act of physically writing it makes me more likely to remember it. (And the tactile memory helps bring back other, related points when I look at the list to review.)

Also my last 30-60 minutes on a Friday afternoon are almost always spent making my to-do list for the next week, tidying up my desk, and getting myself set up to come in Monday and remember what the hell I was supposed to do.

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Yup December 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Create a storage and filing system (paper/virtual) that matches how you actually think about things. I often see people trying to create and use an artificial system based on what they *think* an organized system should look like — A to Z labels, folders with official project names, etc. Figure out how you mentally categorize stuff, and DO THAT.

Examples I’ve seen: color coded file folders for different projects, clear plastic envelopes for different days of the week, dropbox subfolders named “Stuff Dave Emailed Me That I Can’t Delete til Sept 30″ or “Things I Keep Losing”, binders for each year of a project, post its on a whiteboard, different shelves of a bookcase for the different parts of your job, etc.

Think about what’s pleasing and soothing for you, and use that as guideline for creating a system. If you actually like using it, then you WILL use it regularly.

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Very important advice! You have to find a system that works for you and your brain. If you try to implement a system that goes against how you naturally think and mentally organize, it won’t be very successful. It could even make it more difficult for you to work.

My brain like nice orderly alphabetized folders of things with project names. I had a co-worker who color coded everything. I think we had every file folder color available on earth. She used colored flags and highlighters. It was overwhelming for me, but she was impeccably organized, and if you asked her where to find something, she would tell you the color of the folder, which made it easy to find actually. I just couldn’t keep it straight in my head what color went with what they way she could. Her brain just categorized things in colors. My brain like letters and numbers. I could tell you the exact location and name, but heck if I could tell you the color of the folder it was in.

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PJ December 12, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I had a boss once who had a totally crazy Rolodex system that worked for her. She’d call me and ask for Jose Jones’s phone number. “Look under W in my Rolodex. I was with Wakeem when we met, so find Wakeem’s card. Jose’s business card is stapled to the back.” She was never wrong. She had YEARS of contacts, and she could always find whoever she was looking for. Even better, she could always direct me to find it over the phone. Remarkable.

She also lived by post-it notes. She would write a post-it note for everything she needed to do, and then toss it when the job was done. When she went home at night her brief case would be covered with them for work she took home. Me, I’d stop seeing all those post-its in about a half an hour. It worked for her.

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Julie December 12, 2013 at 2:47 pm

When first receiving a large task, one that will have many sub-components or that will take dozens of hours, I find it helpful to take a little time right at the beginning to break everything down into manageable chunks (for me, 30-60 minutes or thereabouts) and schedule when I’m going to do those chunks. When I was in grad school, I used this method to become a master at writing 20-25 page academic papers in 3 weeks each, working about 60-90 minutes per day. I find it’s much less intimidating if I can look at my to-do list and instead of seeing “Make 200 chocolate teapots,” I can instead see, “Temper 50 lbs of chocolate and place in fridge to cool.”

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De Minimis December 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I’m probably one of the most disorganized people on earth, so I’m really going to at least attempt to incorporate some of these tips.

These days, my “to-do” lists generally stop at
“1. Write the words “To Do List” on a sheet of paper….”

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Bea W December 12, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Very low tech – I keep a notepad in front of me on my desk at all times. So if someone says something to me I can quickly jot it down before I forget. Some of that stuff goes into my to-do list. Some of it is questions I need to take a moment to go look at something to answer that day or a reminder of some sort. My short term and verbal memory is complete crap.

My manager gave me this wonderful electronic slate that I can write on and erase. I use this too at my desk, but my one complaint is that if anything else touches the top it can mess up what I wrote and you can’t just erase part, you have to clear the whole screen. So I have it, but it has not replaced my pen and paper. It’s great for when I need to jot down something temporary I need to refer to while working, like ID numbers, jotting down a phone number from voicemail, dates, temporary notes – like a scratch pad.

At home I have a white board stuck on the fridge. It’s in the kitchen for a reason. This is because much of my home list are groceries. If I am in the kitchen and notice I need something, I immediately write it on the white board. Then when it is time for my weekly grocery and errand run, I transfer this list to either paper or my phone (usually paper – it’s more satisfying to me to take a pen in my hand and cross out items as I get them/get them done). Once I get home, I erase all the things I took care of. This has been a huge help for me, because like I said – memory like a sieve.

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Ruffingit December 12, 2013 at 7:27 pm

I think we may be the same person. Must get screened for multiple personality disorder. :) I do the same thing with ye olde pencil and paper notepad and the white board in the kitchen. Being able to just jot something down quickly on the paper is so much better for me than doing it electronically. I embrace technology in general, but for my to-do lists and such, I like the good old fashioned paper and pen.

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Ramona December 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s a quick read and following his advice will keep you organized. One of my managers says that I’m the “most efficient” person he knows. And I know I have David Allen to thank for this.

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Rebecca December 12, 2013 at 9:23 pm

I use a web-based task list (todo.ly) so I can separate lists for projects from my master todo list, but still in the same place. So I have todo list, but my notes for next years audit or for the next budget or whatever are close by. I keep a single wall file of papers which I’m waiting on someone/something else. Though after reading this list, I’m goign to get some obnoxious file folders for each of the people I typically am holding papers waiting on actions from them.

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Cassie December 12, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I use Google Calendar to keep a time log (just because I like to track my time). If I need to look up when I did such-and-such, it’s much easier to do this electronically than to look at old paper logs.

For action items, I use post-it notes and stick them in my weekly planner. Once I’ve finished the task, I’ll just trash it. I’ve tried using a list for action items but when my boss comes to me and says “can you create a budget for $100K, call my doctor about getting a flu shot, and set up my new iPhone?”, I like to scrawl out each item separately on paper with plenty of space. It’s weird :)

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Leslie Yep December 13, 2013 at 12:22 am

Since I requested this I wanted to make sure to say thanks for running it! I am really enjoying all of the comments!

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anonn December 13, 2013 at 5:22 am

More specific to a role where you are dealing with multiple transactions but I do use Excel to help organise my Credit Control calls.

Our system allows us to link and download data across from the accounting system. From that I select a list of the outstanding and add a few columns: a notes column and then a set of numerical columns for which I carry across the financial figures as per each items status.

That way rather than looking at a bulk overview I can narrow down which aren’t even to be looked at yet, which were already promised to be paid, which need special attention, which need a call back. Helps me organise my day and spend less time tracking through system notes to find out something for the bosses. Also means I can have a rough idea of what I’m expecting in every week cash wise without doing much ‘extra’ work.

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Susannah December 13, 2013 at 8:53 am

I don’t see any mention yet of Trello. This is a multi-user, multi-list application which can be used on desktop, web, or mobile. http://trello.com/tour. The basic application is free. There are paid upgrades with added features and business support. I’ve been using Trello for a while and would be lost without it!

Trello is, at heart, a collection of cards organized into lists and lists grouped into boards. It allows you to set up multiple boards (for example, I have “household”, “school”, and “work”). Within a board you can have multiple lists (I generally use “urgent”, “this week”, “in progress”, and project-specific lists come and go). Each list is a collection of cards, which can be sorted and organized as you like, can contain images, checklists, and much more. Multiple users can view and edit each list.

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Trillian December 13, 2013 at 10:30 am

- Get sleep. A large part of being organized is making decisions, and if I’m even slightly sleep deprived, I get indecisive.
- Automate. If it can happen without me having to remember, all the better. Outlook filters, automated bill payments, automated reminders. I’ve had a Backpack account for years, before they went corporate and got rid of their solo account, and I use it to set up automated reminders of things like library books being due.
- Keep it simple. Most organizing books seem to have been written by a member of an alien species. Master lists and daily lists and tickler files and … They like this stuff. I don’t.
- Keep notes. So when I need to do something again in 6 months, I don’t stall at the “I know it’s going to take me 5 minutes, but that’s once I spend 30 working out how to do it” stage.
- Make systems visually rewarding. For me, it’s nice notebooks, multicoloured folders and printed labels – I’ve got labelmakers both at work and at home

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Vicki December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm

- Keep notes. So when I need to do something again in 6 months, I don’t stall at the “I know it’s going to take me 5 minutes, but that’s once I spend 30 working out how to do it” stage.

^^^ This is my biggest tip.

My second (or maybe it should be first) is: Find a system that works FOR YOU. Then use it. If others suggest something else, give it your consideration, and decide if it works for you. If it does, keep it. If not, say thank you and move on.

The only system that truly works is the one that works _for you_.

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Bea W December 13, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Ticklers just confuse me. Not helpful at all. I don’t need a tickler, I need a punch in the face.

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HRTEICH December 13, 2013 at 11:37 am

StickyNotes. Best desktop app.

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Vicki December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm

“Don’t have multiple different to-do lists floating around. Have one central to-do list and put everything on it, and I mean everything”

This is one of the central Tenets of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. Choose a “trusted system” and put everything into it.

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Pam December 13, 2013 at 9:28 pm

I use a cloud based application called ToDoist. It is amazing! I open It up first thing every morning, before my email.

I love setting low-priority to do list items (1 year + away!!!) and having those pop up on the right day. You can customize your default view and mine is basically what’s going on in the next 7 days then what are all the things overdue.

It is simple, and clean, and easy to use.

My new favorite function is that I BCC a specific todoist project if I send an email that requires follow up.

If you are digitally inclined give it a shot!!! I have the premium version which allows you to add notes to an item. This allows smaller sub-tasks or thoughts to not clutter up my list.

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Natalie Anne Lanoville December 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

This might seem kind of bass-ackwards or waaaayyyy old school, but believe me it works for me.

I *hate* Outlook tasks, and almost all my activities happen through my email account. I also have a lot of set-in-stone scheduled appointments, so I don’t tend to put tentative plans or duties in my calendar.

For that reason, I use Email to remind me of all my diarised to-do items and tentative appointments, by deferring delivery through the Options menu for each email after I’ve composed it.

For instance: I send out a bulletin to churches every week. Throughout the week I get requests from staff to have their items included in the bulletin. They come in at all hours on all days, some are not urgent, and some I won’t have room for.

Instead of creating a list with:
– “CD – volunteers for June 3″
- “MK – donation request toothpaste”
- “NAT – thanks for help over Christmas”

And then having to go through old emails or printed emails to get the context, I just forward all the requests to myself and have them come into my inbox at 8am on the due date. Then anything that I don’t have room for I can just re-forward to myself for the next week.

I like to have regular lunches with some folks at other agencies. Yes, we could just put a calendar item in for every month or two, but c’mon, we all know that date is going to need to be changed multiple times.

Instead, when I get back from Lunch A, I shoot off a thank-you email and then forward the sent item to both of us, calendarised to arrive in 2 months, with the message “Lunch? I think it’s time!” or something similar.

It has CHANGED MY LIFE, because it eliminates intermediate steps and keeps all the context together.

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Dan February 27, 2014 at 6:47 am

I would recommend checking out Gtdagenda.com for an online GTD manager.

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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