how can you stay organized when you’re on the road?

A reader writes:

At my new job, I must follow up on items of varying priority through the day. I am on the road, meeting clients in different locations, and frequently leave a meeting with a small to-do list (phone calls, emails, document edits, material preparation). The items have varying timelines, and some require additional follow-up steps. Some items are urgent, while others can wait for weeks. I’ve tried several systems to keep track of these “action items,” to no avail: brightly colored notecards, handwritten and virtual To Do lists, post-it notes on my desktop background, writing notes in my calendar, etc.

My schedule frequently changes (for example, this week I worked only in the afternoons/evenings – next week I have two crack of dawn appointments). Because my schedule is constantly shifting, I can’t set aside a routine time for follow up. I am increasingly frustrated that I don’t have a reliable system to manage this minor job duty efficiently.

You can read my answer to this question at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. JMegan

    I love Evernote! And I’m quickly becoming an evangelist for their Quick Reminder widget, which is seriously the only thing that gets me to complete most of my tasks.

    As far as planning and prioritizing, I’ve had good luck with the Important/Urgent matrix (example to follow.) I actually set up my to-do list like this – I’ve made a template with the four quadrants, and slot each item into the appropriate quadrant. Then I print it, so I have have the satisfaction of crossing things off.

      1. ReanaZ

        I love and use WeekPlan.net’s app for similar tracking. I used a paper workplan for years, but finally had to switch to a digital one because I’m on the road so much and can’t always reliably know when I’m going to have access to wherever the paper is.

    1. Digital Illuminatus

      Evernote rocks. I use it with a variation of Getting Things Done. Everything goes into an inbox notebook and then processed later.

      Email that I need to deal with later? Forwarded to Evernote. It syncs across my phone, tablet, and all computers both at work and home.

      I happily pay for the premium service, which means I don’t even need an internet connection at all times.

      I no longer carry a pen. I swype notes on my phone or take a photo directly into Evernote.

    2. M-C

      Evernote will help a lot. Let me also recommend http://www.trello.com which is exceedingly easy to use, super customizable, and accessible from just about every modern platform. I mix Getting Things Done and KanBan approaches for different types of projects, share boards with different working groups, use color-coding with abandon, can add graphics and reminders when desired.. It’s changed my life y’all, it really has.

      You may have some difficulty with technology if you have a somewhat stogdy office which doesn’t provide the best tools. Kind of like the realtor I recently consulted with, who’s stuck in Microsoft-land for work but adores her iphone. But you’re not the only one in that boat, and it’s worth the time to find the solutions and/or synching tools that’ll let you function at your best. Work on it a bit, get some outside help if necessary, and soon your colleagues will be asking you for advice :-).

      That said AAM’s advice is very solid – you cannot allow yourself to fall back by not taking the small amount of time to at least record those to-dos in a central place..

  2. Icarus

    A tablet with a calendar application will really help you OP! If you have already a gmail account, use google calendar and you can even put email reminders and that sort of things.

    1. Icarus

      Check out this app http://www.appfluence.com/ is compatible with Android/iOS devices plus Windows/MAC, and it has a free trial. I really think that an electronic application would be the better option for you to avoid keeping track of notecards and handwritten to-do lists. Hope it helps!

  3. Stayc

    I think the first thing you have to do is figure out WHY these systems aren’t working. Is it because you have too many pieces of paper floating around? Aren’t diligent about adding to or keeping track of your to-do lists? I think in order to suggest an effective solution, you have to figure out why these aren’t working first – because each of the things you mentioned is a viable solution.

    Me personally? I have multiple to-do lists all over the place, and I flag any emails that require action. Each day I start off by going over previous to do lists and formulating a new one, in order of importance, with deadlines. My boss actually gave me a “Boogie Board” which is a digital, erasable board you write on with a stylus. I use that every day to keep myself straight.

    1. AndersonDarling

      I had a hard time estimating how long it would take to finish a task. I would think a project would take a whole day, but I really would finish it in 2 hours. The idea of “so much work” would get me stressed and the stress lag would take up more time than the work.
      Once I learned I was making my own problem, I was able to set realistic time frames, and things got much better.

  4. M

    The book Total Workday Control using Microsoft Office is life changing! Allows you to track all to-dos in an easy to use format, and get your inbox to zero at the end of each day. I checked it out from the library, so free to use too!

  5. TotesMaGoats

    Anytime I have a meeting, my first step is to send myself an email on my to do’s. Little half sentences to jog my memory. It’s quick and means I don’t forget stuff.

  6. puddin

    Trying to get things done while you travel can be a challenge for certain. I find that routine is my best buddy. Setting aside the time like Alison recommended is soooo key for me – and I have to make sure I plan that time into my day and leave enough room for it in my schedule. I will also assign certain tasks to certain days of the week or month. Friday – expense sheet day. Monday – follow up on voice mails I left day. The 20th of the month – Call your mother.

    I have to admit I cringed when I saw the word ‘post its’ for a task tracking system. Management by post it note is a pet peeve of mine whether they are electronic or not. Post its are for passwords only people! :)

    I think the common elements of the comments so far are go electronic and keep it all in one place.

  7. Suzi S.

    I’ve actually found that setting time aside at the beginning of each day to be much more useful for prioritizing/following-up. That way I’m not rushing to leave, as I typically do at the end of the day, and I’m starting at a restful state, not the frenzied state that I’m usually in at the end.

  8. VintageLydia USA

    Do you use some sort of planner/calendar? It might help to centralize in a fairly portable manner. If you get one that’s standard paper size with rings so you can add/remove things at will it might help make things easier, too. One idea is to have some sort of weekly or monthly overall to do list that you can move from day to day so you can keep your daily to-do’s in context of your larger goals. You can either put that on a post it (use the super sticky post its, though! They really really don’t lose their stick!) or just a sheet you can insert on that day. I can’t really suggest specific planners, though I know Filofax not only has their own wide variety of inserts available, but there are a LOT of people who make custom ones that might work for you better than the official ones (you can usually find them on Etsy and similar sites.)

    My only major suggestion for digital planners is make sure it connects to all your devices.

  9. Cath in Canada

    I’ve recently been experimenting with transferring items from my to-do list onto my calendar, and am finding it to be a great approach on the days when I remember to actually do it! For instance from 2-3pm today I have an “appointment” to write up a couple of sets of meeting minutes, from 3-4 I have a “meeting” with data entry, etc. I only go one day at a time, so each morning I review my list and decide which items are the most urgent/important/have been on the back burner for too long, and add them to that day’s calendar. This approach might fit the OP’s hypervariable schedule quite well.

    If you use shared calendars to help people schedule actual meetings, you just need to remember to keep your status as “free” or “tentative” rather than the default “busy” during these pseudo-meetings, assuming that you’d still be available if a real meeting came up.

    I can’t remember where I first heard about this approach, but I suspect it was on an AAM open thread – if so, thank you to whoever suggested it!

    1. Judy

      I use the method to remember to do project time entry and weekly reports on Fridays. I have a recurring meeting at 4pm and 4:15pm on Fridays for 15 minutes for each, with popup alert.

      Also helps when there is a holiday or vacation day, because as I’m clearing my calendar, I see that and move it to earlier.

      1. Arjay

        I do this to schedule my lunch every day! I work an offset schedule, so I’m usually going to lunch sometime between 2 and 3 pm. If I don’t block off time for it specifically, other people will schedule me into meetings all afternoon, since they already ate their lunch at 11:30.

  10. JLVS

    Always carry a notebook/portfolio where the pages can’t be easily torn off – like a spiral notebook, so everything is in one place. Use it to track your initial to-do list and record deadlines. When you get back to the office, or immediately after your meeting do this…

    – Write projects/meetings with deadlines/dates in your weekly planner, smaller sized one 7 x 5 i think? Small enough to fit in your purse, big enough not to miss. Put a line through everything you enter into your planner to keep track of what you’ve recorded.
    – Once you’ve done that, open your digital calendar. Start putting all of those projects with due dates in the calendar and set up reminders so you get an alert – this is when you have Outlook synced with your smartphone.
    – Work through the remaining items on your list and strike out each item with pen as you get them done. Make sure you write a header and a date at the top of each new page to keep things in context. As you achieve each thing strike it out.

    Each morning I check and respond to emails and work through my to-do list. I also work out priorities so some stuff needs to get done right now. Get it done and put an ETA on the other things if they need a longer timeline. I also set important due dates in my Outlook calendar too for long-standing projects.

  11. Betty

    For me, a graphic designer who regularly juggles 10- 30 projects plus all the “running my business” and “having a family” stuff, being organized and having access to everything all the time is important.

    I use my computer calendar (iCal) for my to do list. And Evernote to keep track of the full list. Both sync to my phone.

    When I get a new project, I create a note in Evernote, a ‘to do’ entry on the calendar, and an email folder all with the same project name. (And an entry in my invoicing/time tracking software, and a job folder on my hard drive, also with the same name.) Using the same name everywhere makes it easy to search for stuff. Obviously non-project ‘to dos’ don’t need all that, but they do get a calendar entry and often an Evernote note.

    The notes in Evernote are tagged according to priority (1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Waiting, etc). I can view Evernote in list view sorted by tag and see everything I have going on. I even have tags for “BOLO” (Be on the lookout) for projects that will be coming in, but I’m not sure when.

    I created a separate “To Do” calender in a different color (so I can easily turn off the ‘to dos’ and just see meetings and so on). Works really well especially since it is so easy to move ‘to do’ items around to re-prioritize, and it forces me to block out time to actually get the tasks done. I can put projects off until later without forgetting them. And keeps me from over-promising. If I already have 6 major ‘to do’ items on Tuesday, I probably won’t be able to fit in another one.

    The key? Write everything down in one place so you don’t have to remember things in your head. Make a system and stick with it. Then revise the system as you need to.

  12. Ann Furthermore

    This is really throwback and old school, but I have a small spiral notebook that is my running to-do list, from small things (forward some information to someone I’m chatting with while microwaving my lunch) to major things like system configurations or presentations. As I complete each thing, I mark it off with a highlighter. And then when everything on a page is complete I put a check mark on it in a different color. Like I said…nothing fancy, but it works for me. Plus, dorky as it sounds, I love to cross things off the list, and then put that check mark at the top of a page when I’m done. The notebook is small enough to stick in my laptop bag when I travel so I can add to it whenever I need to.

    I’m also working on a very complex project at the moment, and I finally took the time to learn how to use OneNote. It’s been great. Everything related to this project is in there, even down to IM chats that I’ve copied and pasted into it that has information in it that I need. I take some time, at least once a week, to go through my other notes and update it.

  13. Monodon monoceros

    For me, no matter which note keeping system I’m using, the important thing is to schedule “organisation time”. I travel quite a bit too, but wherever I am, I schedule time at the beginning of each day, or an hour or so sometime during the week, to work on organising my to do list, organising my calendar, cleaning up my email inbox, etc. Once I thought of “organisation time” as a task that needed to be prioritised, things got much easier to keep under control.

  14. Original Poster

    Thank you ALL for this wonderful, helpful assistance! I have this post bookmarked and will be reformatting my approach, reviewing the software recommendations, and working to set my schedule up to allow some organizational/planning/follow up time daily. I’ve had difficulty with electronic trackers in the past, because opening an app and making multiple selections (i.e., time to time, alert or not, recurring or not, title, etc.) often results in me forgetting to click a needed feature. I’ve also had problems with my email syncing, alarms not being prominent (i.e., comes up in a list of general notifications, I unlock my phone, and the list disappears). I know this sounds ridiculous, but when I’m in the frenetic workday I miss details like this. I have a myriad of checklists and charts I neurotically update to ensure I am addressing all key job duties. Anything I can’t make into a routine I have a hard time tracking, unless I immediately address it.
    I actually came across the suggestion noted by Ann Furthermore (use a little notebook) somewhere else last week! This week I got a small hardback journal, and started writing everything in it. Ideas, follow ups, to do lists, post its with reminders. I cross everything out when completed, and everything is in one place. It is a messy volume (I keep meeting notes in there too), but I can look back over the pages to make sure I haven’t missed an item from a day or two ago. I move things up to the current page that still need to be addressed. NOT to knock all these wonderful apps!! I want to keep trying apps/software, because I know they are more efficient and reliable, and you can set reminders. I am also using this planner from Staples: http://www.staples.com/AT-A-GLANCE-Madrid-City-of-Hope-Weekly-Monthly-Planner-8-1/product_581623#revs_content and that helps a lot because I can more easily see where my free spots during the day occur. I also have a small three ring binder I store my checklists and current paperwork in. I am going to explore all the suggestions mentioned so I can keep improving my management system. Thank you all, you’ve helped me feel on more solid ground with an area that has caused a lot of stress and wasted mental energy!

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