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.
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.
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.
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.