Self Organisation

I’m good at remembering facts and details, but not so good at remembering tasks and experiences. I’d forget to do the laundry every weekend if I didn’t have it written down: so I wrote it down.

I’ve developed a system to organise myself and make sure I get around to doing the things I need to do. Like my personal finance system, this system has evolved over the years based on what’s made noticeable improvements to my life, and this memo describes what I currently put into practice, and not some aspirational system I can only hope to achieve

Trello for to-do lists

I’ve worked at a few different programming jobs now, and I’ve noticed programmers on small agile teams tend to adopt a process like this:

  • There’s a Trello board with various lists: some are lists for work not yet started, some are for work in progress, and one is for work which is done.

  • We regularly review the lists: to make sure work is progressing, to make sure we don’t have too much in progress at once, and to decide what to pick up next.

  • Once every week or two, there’s a more in-depth review in which new work gets prioritised, and old work might be changed or removed.

I think this works really well. So I use this system to manage my life as well.


A screenshot of my “To Do” Trello board

Everything I need to do, which isn’t captured elsewhere (like in my email inbox, or in a GitHub issue), goes on the Trello board. And if it’s a particularly important email or GitHub issue I want to make sure I don’t forget about, and I can’t deal with it straight away, I’ll make a card for it anyway.

I used to use org-mode for this, but I’ve found I personally am more productive with Trello. org-mode is very powerful, and so I felt I needed to tinker with it to come up with a perfect system, which in practice just meant I spent more time fiddling with how I tracked things than actually doing things. Trello is much more limited.

It’s also nice to have the board visualisation, so I can see the state of everything at a glance.

The rest of my process is now more complex than it was when I first started, but even just having “To Do”, “Doing”, “Waiting / Blocked”, and “Done” lists was a game-changer. I would have got my Ph.D corrections done without Trello (because I had to), but it would have been much more difficult.

Task states

Normal tasks Normal tasks Has Prerequisites Has Prerequisites Normal tasks->Has Prerequisites Nice To Have Nice To Have Normal tasks->Nice To Have Priority Priority Normal tasks->Priority Urgent tasks Urgent tasks Doing Doing Urgent tasks->Doing Recurring tasks Recurring tasks Routines Routines Recurring tasks->Routines Routines->Doing Has Prerequisites->Nice To Have Has Prerequisites->Priority Near Future Near Future Nice To Have->Near Future Priority->Near Future Near Future->Doing Waiting / Blocked Waiting / Blocked Doing->Waiting / Blocked Done Done Doing->Done Waiting / Blocked->Doing Waiting / Blocked->Done

Each task is in one of these states:

  • Routines—regular, time-based, tasks.

  • Has Prerequisites—things I can’t do until I do something else.

  • Nice To Have—things which would be nice to do, but aren’t particularly important or urgent.

  • Priority—important, but non-urgent, things.

  • Near Future—tasks regularly taken from Nice To Have and Priority which I’ve decided to get done soon.

  • Doing—things I’m actively doing at the moment (this list is very small).

  • Waiting / Blocked—things where I’ve done my part, and need to wait on something or someone else.

  • Done—things I’ve done.

Each of these is a list on my Trello board.

The “Near Future” state

I used to pick up tasks from Nice To Have and Priority as I felt like it. But one day I realised that some of the Priority tasks had been there for over a year. They were important, but I was putting them off, and still feeling good about myself because I was getting through lots of unimportant tasks instead.

This is standard procrastination behaviour.

So I decided to have a fortnightly “sprint planning” session where I would prioritise a small number of tasks, ensuring that nothing got neglected too much. I moved these into a This Sprint list, which I aimed to get through in that fortnight.

But, actually, I still found myself slipping a lot. The separate list of short-term priorities definitely helped out, but some things hung around in there for a while, or got moved back into a different list.

So I renamed it to Near Future. It does the same thing as This Sprint did, but it’s more honest.

Calendars for routines

I track routines as recurring events in Google Calendar, another integral component of my self-organisation system.

Those routines which have multiple things to do (like my chores) have a corresponding card in the Routines list on my Trello board. When the time to do the routine arrives I move a copy of the template card to Doing and work through its checklist. Those which just have a single task, like “Near Future prioritisation”, just have a calendar entry.

Routines which I’ve got cards for are:

  • Weekly chores—household maintenance (cleaning, laundry, etc) and checking my ledger is up to date.

  • Prepare game—preparation for my regular RPG sessions (currently Ars Magica and Traveller).

  • Monthly chores—more intense household maintenance (cleaning the oven, emptying the hoover, etc), updating computers, and reviewing the lists.

  • Quarterly chores—updating my CV and website, and checking my credit report.

  • Annual chores—reviewing my habits and preparing for the next year.

Routines on my calendar which I don’t have cards for are:

  • Near Future prioritisation—every Sunday, review and move cards into and out of the Near Future list.

  • Write up session notes—after my RPG sessions, write up notes from the game I prepared and ran.

  • Weeknotes—every Sunday evening, write my weeknotes.

I find having the Trello cards, rather than just putting the steps to be done in the calendar event, helps. I like being able to look at the calendar and see when everything needs to be done; but I prefer the Trello card interface for text and checkboxes. It’s nice having everything in its place: temporal data on a calendar, procedural data in a card.

Going analogue for household organisation

The final component of my self-organisation system is a whiteboard and some pens.

I primarily use this to note down my shopping list, as it’s much easier to grab a pen and scribble something down than to open Trello and add a comment to a card.

I also use the whiteboard for meal planning. I have a simple 5-week calendar on the board, with rows labelled “Monday” to “Sunday” and columns labelled “1” to “5”, and the first cell of each column labelled with the day number. I tend to cook large portions of meals so I can freeze some of it for later, and I note down meals for future days as my freezer fills up. This has all but eliminated getting to meal time and realising I have nothing in, which has cut down on takeaways and helped to optimise my food budget.