Practical Topic: Systems of Personal Organization

Practical Topic: Systems of Personal Organization

By Stephen B. Schott


You know when you have a thread hanging from a sweater. You give it a tug hoping it will snap off. But it doesn’t. So you pull a little more. Then a little more.  It will snap…it will snap… and you keep pulling…but deep down you know this sweater disassembly cannot be good. Before long your persistence at pulling the thread results in a ruined sweater.
This thread pulling, according to David Allen, the author of the best-selling book Getting Things Done, happens in your mind, too. It’s like this: Have you ever gone through your mental to-do list, just picking at one item in your mind? That thing you haven’t done leads to thinking of another, and another, and another—and before long you are undone with anxiety over not only the things you remember, but all the other things you know you’re forgetting.


Take it a step further. I graduated from school more than 20 years ago. But still, a few times a year, I have the dream that I’m showing up for class and there’s a test that I somehow forgot about. I never wrote down the test date, never studied. It’s a terrible feeling and I wake up a bundle of nerves. More than two decades after my last class, this nightmare still holds power over me, and it’s a shared, recurrent nightmare among people who attended school. The nightmare of the forgotten task.
In some way, everyone relates to one or both of these stories. It’s part of our shared human anxiety. An anthropologist might link it back to an evolution where Caveman Ug forgets to bring his spear while out picking berries and gets attacked by a hungry lion. Anxious thread-pulling Ugs lived. Carefree non-thread-pulling Ugs died. And that’s why we’re a mess. Whatever the evolutionary basis, this problem of the “to-do list anxiety” is one we share.
The problem with To-Do List Anxiety, however, is that it no longer keeps us alive. In a modern world, it leaves us neurotic and anxious. Given its long history, you might think that humanity’s best minds have come up with a way to address To-Do List Anxiety, right?
Looking at some of our earliest written forms of moral code and psychological guidance, I cannot find any guidance on this topic in the Christian Bible, Jewish Torah, Muslim Koran, or an admittedly limited reading of Hindu texts. Buddhism most clearly articulates what the others mention about finding peace of mind and spirit. In Buddhism, a practitioner finds peace of mind through quiet meditation. The other religions offer versions of meditation in prayer and ritual. Which is all completely excellent…but as I sit on my meditation mat in the morning, the emails are piling up, my voicemail overflows, and my meditative peace is only a calm between an assault of things to do.
As someone seeking to maintain some semblance of that spiritual calm in the face of this to-do list assault, I have made a long study of personal organization systems. It’s kind of an obsession. In this study, I’ve read books, watched videos, attended seminars, and observed other people’s systems. Oh yes. I know your system. You probably fall into one of the following categories.

  1. The bound journal person. You carry a bound journal and you know it gives a level of confidence to the people around you. In a meeting, other people see you with the journal and think, “Ah, that fellow inspires great confidence. He’s organized. He will get things done.” But here’s my further observation: In my life, I have never once seen you refer back to one of these bound journals beyond a day later than the meeting. Seriously: How practical is it to go through your journal trying to find a single page from 8 months ago? And what way is it to organize your to-do lists? If you fill one of these books (something I’ve rarely seen), will you carry volumes of journals with you everywhere for future reference?

Style: 7
Effectiveness: 3
Recommended for: Captain of an ocean-going ship

  1. The post-it person. If you’re at wodreamstime_xs_47922230rk, look to your right. Look to your left. There are people all around who, just like you, are using post-it notes to keep track of tasks. And the notes end up stuck to your computer monitor looking like a seashell picture frame of neurosis. The notes also end up on handbags, doors, steering wheels, bathroom mirrors. All over. Take a long look at the computer monitor and ask yourself: Do you ever take down the notes? Can those notes travel with you? What focus can you maintain when all around you are notes shouting, “Pick-up dinner,” “Dentist appointment at 9am,” and “Call mom about yoga.”

Style: 0
Effectiveness: 6
Recommended for: Owners of 3M stock

  1. The get organized app of the day person. I love you. I relate to you. When it comes to self-improvement apps, I am a model of self-experimentation so I relate to you trying the new “Get organized” app du jour. But your phone is constantly beeping and reminding you of things. You carry this app everywhere. But. Yes there’s a but. It hurts but you know this is true. One week later. Maybe 3 days later, your app sits on your phone unused. It’s still reminding you of all the things you’re not doing. But those things were due 3 weeks ago. Every phone buzz is a reminder that you are a complete organizational failure.

Style: 4
Effectiveness: 6
Recommended for: Teenagers who love video games

  1. The “I keep it all in my head” person. You have a mind like a steel trap. You sort it cleanly and neatly in your head and systematically prioritize everything and get it done on time. You are age 5 or under.  Your “To-Do” Anxiety is limited to: (1) Need food, (2) need fun, and (3) need sleep.

Style: 10
Effectiveness: 10
Recommended for: 4 year olds and supernatural beings


After studying and reading over 20 years, I can recommend only two systems, and I use a hybrid of them. It’s better if you check them out and decide which one works better for you.
System One: The Franklin Planner and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey wrote one of the best-selling books of all time: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. For a long time, the title turned me off. It sounded like a study of rich business owners. But it’s not. It’s an effective manual for how to lead a purpose-driven life. He presents a system that helps a person define their own personal mission and beliefs in a Personal Mission Statement, and then helps people identify and achieve goals that follow their personal mission.
Covey’s 7 habits essential for living a principled and fulfilling life are the following:
Independent habits

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind. Focus on your goals and work towards them.
  3. Put first things first.

Interdependent habits

  1. Think win-win. This is all about finding ways to work with others that benefit both sides.
  2. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Use your empathy and listen.
  3. Synergize. Find the strengths of those around you and create teams that can achieve remarkable success.

Continuous improvements

  1. Sharpen the saw. Balance and renew your energy and mind.

In conjunction with the book, Covey created a tool: The Franklin Planner, named for Benjamin Franklin, one of the originators of self-improvement and time management in the Covey style. From 1996 until about a year ago, I faithfully carried a Franklin Planner. It’s a daily planner but with sections organized to help implement the seven habits, and to use it properly requires a little training. It’s 100 times better than the plain bound journal.
Bottom line. Covey’s system is for someone who wants to control more than their “to-do” list and is willing to embark on a mission to make their life more meaningful. Done right, his method not only helps you get things done but also helps you live a more fulfilled life. The downside is its lack of technology incorporation. In an era of endless technology, carrying around a planner can seem a little old-fashioned. That said, it’s not as distracting in meetings and there’s something rewarding about using pen and paper.
System Two: Getting Things Done (GTD)
About 5 years ago, I finally read Getting Things Done by David Allen. I was entrenched in the Franklin/Covey system at the time and skeptical about an entire book dedicated to just dealing with your list of “to-do” items. My skeptical and Franklin Covey cult-trained mind asked, “How will this align with my core principles?” At the same time, I was getting 140 emails for work daily and my “to-do” list always seemed like an impossible-to-scale mountain.
To climb the insurmountable To-Do list mountain, the initial step in the GTD system is the one that resonates with most people. The very first thing you are supposed to do is set aside some time and find a quiet place with sheets of blank paper and a pen. Then…data dump all of your tasks onto the papers. Write down everything you can think of that you have to and want to do. All the things you’re waiting for from others. Long-term tasks. Short-term tasks. Allen provides many prompts to help you get it all out. Just write and write and write until you can’t think of another thing you need to do that is not on that list.
Pause for a moment in this article and imagine that. Imagine you’ve just written out everything you currently need to do. There’s a record of it. You don’t have to wonder about all the things you’re overlooking. It’s captured somewhere. Does that sound appealing? Does peace of mind spring forth from easing up on the worried windmills of your mind? I’ll bet it does.
The remainder of the GTD system is a workflow for organizing and processing this list and additions to it. The GTD system fits in well with many software systems (like Outlook and Gmail), and has a superb and free implementation in Evernote (so it’s on your phone, laptop, and cloud) called The Secret Weapon.
Bottom line. The GTD system is great but incredibly complicated to implement. The Secret Weapon simplifies GTD and provides a technology that puts it to its best use.
I use The Secret Weapon’s implementation of GTD within Evernote in conjunction with The Seven Habits to drive my priorities. In meetings, I carry a Livescribe notebook and use their proprietary pen to take notes, which then automatically transfer into Evernote. I do this to avoid looking at a screen while talking to people. My system is not for everyone but one, both, or your own combination of these tools and systems will help you feel more organized and fulfilled. Whatever you do, stop pulling threads.
If you have questions, contact me.
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