How Do I Keep Organized?

A good friend and former colleague of mine asked me how I keep organized.  The short answer: I work really hard at it and still feel I have a long way to go!

The long answer: my approach involves a mix of insights I've gathered from books, planners, people I respect.  Sometimes I've learned what not to do by observing people struggling to keep on top of things.  But it's a perpetual life goal of mine to mix work and play in ways that allow me to be productive yet make myself and the people around me happy.

This column is certainly not an "I figured it all out and here you go" sort of post, but more of a "Here's where I'm at now, which is pretty good.  And I hope I can keep improving how I go about this."

I think of keeping organized in terms of three areas: a planner to set your goals and plan them out, a calendar to decide when to execute on those goals, and a repository for brilliant ideas you're saving for later.

So many distractions.........

So many distractions.........

I've experimented with many planners but for the last few years I've settled on the Moleskine Hard Cover Weekly Planner.  It comes in a bunch of colors and I order a different color every year.

During my "Power Week" at the end of each year (clearly a subject for a future post!), I spend time reflecting on successes and challenges of the previous year.  I then look forward and think about where I want to be in 12 months.

I try and boil things down to a small number of SMART goals that I want to stay focused on for the next year.  By making my goals Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Relevant-Time Based (SMART) I know they will help me get where I want to go.  

I write these goals on a whiteboard in my office so every day I'm reminded of where I should be focusing my time.  It's so easy to get caught up in minutiae and day-to-day tasks like e-mail and the "flickering ticks" of the markets.

My planner is where I take those three goals and boil them down to actionable short-term next steps.  What could I do this week to move me meaningfully closer to each goal?  I write these items in the right side of my weekly page.

That right page is separated into six different sections.  In the left column, I have three areas in my life that I'm really focusing on this year: Music, Markets and Mindfulness.  I've found that if I don't spend enough time in one of those areas, my life starts to feel less whole.

Next week is looking a little sparse there, Keller!

Next week is looking a little sparse there, Keller!

At the top center, I have "READ" along with a list of things I want to read in priority order.  Books are at the top- a reminder of the value of taking time to reflect on the timeless insights of great thinkers- also the creativity boost that comes from reading great fiction.

At the bottom of the Read list you'll find Pocket.  I absolutely love Pocket for archiving articles that I want to read later.  Instead of getting caught up in articles during the day, I store them here so that I can spend a stretch of focused time reflecting on each article.

Finally, I have sections for daily tasks- things I want to accomplish every day such as working out and meditation.  I finish with "Miscellaneous" which actually tends to be pretty empty.  The reason being that if I'm doing this right, most of my weekly tasks should be in my key areas of focus.

Now comes the really good part: planning for the week.  Once I have what I want to accomplish on the right side, I start assigning tasks to open spaces in the calendar on the left side.  I'm not assigning specific times to each tasks, just picking a day.

What could I do this week to move me meaningfully closer to each goal?

I have experimented with moving tasks directly to specific times on each day, which is certainly a valid approach.  But I've found that if my days have too much structure then it quickly leads to too much stress!  I enjoy sitting down in the morning with a list of tasks to focus on and the flexibility to choose when to do what.

I try not to look at the weekly task list on the right side until I'm done with the key tasks for each day.  This way I'm only focused on the tasks I've decided are so important that they should get done first thing.

For example, today I have "write an article" (crushing it!), "set up the distribution platform for my premium research", "make travel plans for next week", and "make some tweaks to my CRM system".  If I accomplish all of those things today, then I'll go back to the right side and find some other tasks that I want to tackle.

This sort of design was inspired by Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which introduced me to the concept of "big rocks."  Basically, if you fill your daily jar with sand and pebbles (the unimportant stuff like some e-mail and web surfing) you won't have any room for the big rocks (the really important stuff like family and faith).  But if you start with the big rocks, you'll still have room in the jar to fit in some of the little stuff too.

I found a great video of Stephen Covey explaining this concept from one of his seminars.  Highly recommend.

I'll look forward to writing future posts on using a calendar and repository along with this planner approach.

How do you stay organized?  Tell me on Twitter.


Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as financial advice.  Please see the Disclaimer page for full details.