Having everything well organized is key to tracking your output, finding areas to improve, and also staying calm in a hectic world. When you’re well-organized, you know that your daily habits and tasks are all pulling toward the same target objective.
Without adequate organization, it’s possible to mistake activity for progress. It can even result in going backward, due to massive amounts of time, energy, and money being invested into conflicting or useless actions.
Organization is sometimes ignored as busywork. This is wrong; a well-oiled machine can massively increase your output. Stop to consider that some of the world’s most valuable companies— Amazon, Facebook, and Google—are essentially hyper-advanced data organization tools (which have artificial intelligence machine learning systems layered on top to crunch that data and automatically improve) and it becomes clear that organization is massively important.
But an approach requiring millions of lines of custom code from the world’s best software engineers is probably not in the cards for the average businessperson. Fear not: all that we need to do is go back to the 15th century to find that pen and paper were enough to revolutionize the world and help usher in the Renaissance.
The innovation of double-entry bookkeeping completely changed the way business was done by allowing far greater transactional complexity (and tracking accuracy) than ever before.
At its heart, double-entry bookkeeping is essentially a vastly improved method for organizing transactions. Note that I’m not mentioning this because we’ll be using it or adapting it for our own purposes; it is merely an illustrative example of the humble pen and paper’s immense organizational power. And worry not: you do not have to come up with a system on par with one of the great human inventions of the past 1,000 years. Just understand that, when you’re tempted to eschew organization in favor of immediate action, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
With that long preamble out of the way…well, most organization advice is complete nonsense. Reorganizing your Google Drive or snagging one of the 650 journals available on Amazon promising massive boosts to your productivity won’t move the needle.
Look, if you want to use a specific journal or planner, great. I have a journal that I custom hand-draw grids and other shit in every month to track various things. It’s basically an overly time-consuming way of checking off my daily habits. I mention this because it’s easy to confuse personal preferences or quirks with the “secret sauce.” This journal has nothing to do with me getting shit done; in fact, I made more money when I stopped using it for long periods of time during 2019.
Before we organize, though, we need to analyze where our time is going. Because, chances are, we’re sitting in a leaky boat riddled with hour-sized holes. Plug these, and we instantly have more hours in the day.
This is simple: log how you spend your time for a day on a note card or piece of paper. If you want to smooth out the noise introduced by random one-off errands, do it for three days or a week.
Yes. Every single task. It ends up looking like this, starting when you wake up:
- 7:02 – 7:05: bathroom
- 7:06 – 7:56: email on phone
- 7:57 – 7:59: browsing
- 8:00 – 8:21: shower and get ready
And so forth, until you go to sleep.
Is this boring?
However, it’s easy to pretend that checking Twitter for two minutes “just doesn’t count.” Or conveniently forget that a human being needs to shower (unless you hate other people, in which case, you do you).
This exercise will expose those lies we all tell ourselves. This simple awareness can change your behavior going forward. But not only does this give you a realistic snapshot of where your time is going, but it also shows how much time you really have available. Yes, we all have 24 hours, but after your time log, you find that you have 14 – 15 after sleeping, eating, and general hygiene tasks.
And maybe three after you factor in kids, Rover, your spouse, errands, and anything else you might need to do.
After we have an idea where our time is going, we’ll need to formulate our habits. That’s covered later in the guide, but for now, having an organizational framework ready will avoid a familiar scenario.
You know, the one where you implement sixty-five changes at once, then suddenly have a random collection of sticky notes and scrap paper scattered around your office like you’re auditioning for a reboot of A Beautiful Mind.
Thus, we need five things to organize our efforts:
- A place to check off your daily habits/track key metrics. This can be a journal or an Excel sheet. Optional: put the tasks in the order of completion to form a routine. I don’t do this, since I do a lot of the tasks at random times, in random orders.
- A calendar. Use a digital calendar that syncs across your phone/apps/computer. Some people like putting their tasks on the calendar; I don’t do this personally, but do what works best for you.
- A “do someday” list. This is random skills/things you might want to do. Basically a brain-dump; learn how to play piano, speak German, write a book on sled dogs. A lot of these will be far off or just random stuff. Most of these are massive tasks that would need to be broken into sub tasks, although some might be simple—buy a motorcycle—but not currently possible
- A “needs to get done soon-ish” list. Tasks that need to get done in the next 0 – 90 days.
- A “3 keystone tasks” list. Make this the night before. Put anything urgent first. Then fill it out with tasks from your “needs to get done soon-ish” list. These tasks should take no longer than an hour each. If a task will take longer than an hour, it uses up two slots (if it will take three, then it takes all three). Put these on a notecard or a sticky note. Cross them off, then toss it at the end of the day. Repeat.
Certain day jobs or situations may necessitate additional systems to maintain organization. The principle here is not to oversimplify, but to keep your important tasks and appointments to a minimum and then maintain reminders/lists in as few locations as possible. If you need to check six different notebooks to confirm what you need to accomplish today, not only is this a massive barrier to getting started, but a huge time waster.
And remember: you don’t have as much time as you think. Accept the limitations of the space-time continuum and keep things streamlined. More focus directed toward a few tasks will yield far greater results than splitting it between seventeen different ones.
Never add more tasks to hit an arbitrary threshold. I rarely have three daily keystone tasks. I relish the days I have zero aside from my habits (and it’s my goal for such days to account for most of my schedule in the future). If you finish early, congrats: you can now go do anything you want (you can take breaks before you finish, too, of course).
Over 90% of the time, your most important tasks will simply be executing your 3 – 7 core daily habits: getting in your daily word count, checking on your marketing activities, exercising/eating well, that sort of thing.
Thus, for all intents and purposes, your main task list is your daily habits.
And to state the obvious: yes, there will be some days where disruptions alter what’s important and needs to get done. Usually, however, this urgency is an illusion. Learning to distinguish between actual urgency and distraction is key.
Now that we understand how we’re spending our time, in Part 3 we’ll dive into ways to reclaim our time including elimination, automation, delegation, and leverage.
- Do a time log for one day.
- Create a place to check off your habits and track key metrics.
- Write out your “do someday” and “needs to get done soon-ish” list.
- Make your 3 keystone tasks list for tomorrow. Tasks should take no longer than an hour; if they take two, then they count as two tasks.