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How I organize my work and keep my sanity

Like many knowledge workers today, I operate in an environment where I have too many options to work on at any given moment. The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the barrage of incoming tasks is relentless. I have found a way of keeping on top of it, and I’m sharing it here for two reasons:

  1. Some people had asked me how do I do it, and while I gave away bits and pieces, I never had a complete answer.
  2. I want to have a snapshot of my workflow so I can look back in a few years. I had a similar system five years ago and what I’m doing today is an evolution of that earlier system.

I cover my principles first and then describe how I apply them. I’m going to focus on my work environment.

Principle: Prioritization

I categorize every notification, news bit, work item, idea, or request depending on when the item needs to be addressed. The categories are:

  • Today
  • This week
  • The next few weeks
  • Maybe in the future (storage)
  • Never

Most items end up in the “Never” category and only a minuscule fraction in “Storage.” I don’t store many things because I try to avoid an illusion that the future me will be a well-rested person with plenty of time on my hands with no other more important work (it sounds delusional when you write it down, right?). It’s how I try to care for my future self.

I won’t go into the prioritization criteria because they depend on a person’s role and position in an organization. An accountant has different deadlines and priorities than a salesperson, and a product-oriented company has a different way of working than a service-oriented one. That being said, it is of utmost importance that you work on the right things. How do you know if you’re doing that?

  • Look at monthly, quarterly, or annual goals, and check that your work contributes to them.
  • If you’re at the top of the organization, it’s your job to define what’s the right thing.
  • If you’re in the middle or below, ask your boss or supervisor. List the things you’re planning to do this week and check that they also think this is the most important work you need to tackle. It takes ten minutes and could avoid a week of wasted work. I heard somewhere that this technique is called “schedule syncing.”

Principle: Allocation and execution

Once the prioritization process resolved “what and why” I should do, the allocation and execution process needs to resolve “when and how.”

The only sustainable allocation method I found for myself is time-boxing. I estimate how much time it would take me to do it or how much time I would like to devote to an item, and then block that time on my calendar. The method has three beautiful properties:

  1. It allows only a limited number of items in a day. A to-do list can contain thousands of items; a workday can hold only several hour-long slots. That constraint forces me to think deeply about priorities and releases me from unrealistic expectations that I’ll complete everything on my to-do list.
  2. It reinforces implementation intention, which states that a person is much more likely to follow through on their plans if they made the plan specific.
  3. At work, it (usually) prevents people from booking meetings at random times. My calendar transforms from an empty canvas on which anyone can paint anywhere into a well-defined work schedule where people can book meetings during “breaks between work.” (Calendars are open to everyone in my organization, and I generally find it the right approach for us.)

If I notice I can’t fit everything I need to do today or this week, I set the right expectations with people expecting my work. I either agree on a different timeline, deprioritize other items, or escalate to my boss if I’m not the right person to make the decision (“schedule syncing” again).

If I have a bigger project to tackle, I always break it down into smaller parts which range from one to three hours of focused work. I don’t know how or when to schedule a 30-hour or 3-month effort. I wrote a short post about planning and deconstructing projects a few months ago.

How does it look in practice

The principles I described are well tested, and anyone in a similar situation can use them to organize and improve their work significantly. However, the principles are high-level and abstract, and sometimes that makes it harder for some people to find a way to apply them. I’ll describe specific tools and processes I use to bring the principles to life. I need to make one thing clear–my implementation is only one of many ways to do it, and not even the best one. I’m limited by the tools I have at my disposal and by my desire to make my implementation work on several desktop and mobile operating systems. So if you find a thing in my implementation that’s not ideal, keep in mind that it was a conscious compromise. My system is different from five years ago and will probably be different five years from now, even though the principles are the same.

Application: Tools

I use three tools:

  1. Google Calendar
  2. One Google Docs document
  3. Gmail (customized)

Google Calendar is for time-boxing, and it’s pretty straightforward. I move the boxes around and try to make them fit.

That one document is my storage doc. At the top, I have (at most) two active, long-term projects with a list of broken-down work items for each. Below active projects, I keep a brief list of ideas for the future.

Google runs on email, and Gmail is the designated workhorse (I miss you, Inbox by Gmail). There are many other tools to make a person productive, but everything ends up in my inbox one way or another. Did someone share a presentation with me? I get an email. Someone mentioned me in a doc and needs my response? I get an email, and if I respond to it, the reply is added without me even opening the doc. Did someone ping me on chat to do something? I can forward that request as an email in one click. Google Groups? So many emails. Issue trackers? Email replies make comments on issues. Instead of fighting email, I decided to embrace it.

Gmail is my notification center and the list of tasks. My main screen is split into three parts (multiple inboxes):

  1. an inbox for incoming email
  2. things I need to do this week
  3. things I need to do in the next few weeks

The last two are managed through two separate labels. If I need an email to live in a particular section, I assign it an appropriate label. If an email needs to get resolved today, I star it. I might use additional permanent and temporary labels across those sections, but they are not as critical.

My customized Gmail interface showing three sections I use for planning.

I have another email address, and if I send anything to it, it’s automatically labeled as something I need to address this week. That’s how I create new items for myself in Gmail, and it’s super fast when using keyboard shortcuts. Yes, we’re in the third decade of the twenty-first century, and I’m still sending emails to myself as reminders.

Application: Process

I dedicate sixty to ninety minutes every Monday morning to plan my week. My “this week’s items” section is always empty at this point, so I review the other section and the storage document (the list of items of active, long-term projects). There might be items that I have to do this week, but I also look for non-urgent and important items which are often overlooked. All items I plan to work on have to end up in Gmail at the end, so some copying is necessary. Prioritizing across several places is always painful, so I avoid it as much as possible.

I open Google Calendar and time-box all items that I would like to tackle this week. It’s an iterative process, and it may take me some time to find a good schedule that can accomplish what I need. I always leave some free slots as a buffer because I didn’t live through a week when something unexpected didn’t happen or someone didn’t ask me to do more work.

I repeat the prioritization and time-boxing process at the beginning of every workday. Since big things are set on Monday and there isn’t that much volatility, it takes about five to ten minutes to complete.

I tackle incoming emails several times throughout the day. Possible actions for each email:

  • Respond or act immediately if it takes me under a minute to complete the requested action.
  • If it requires more time, I label and categorize it appropriately. If it’s for this week and requires more than fifteen minutes, I’ll immediately try to find a slot in Google Calendar.
  • If I need to address it only at or after a specific date, I’ll label and snooze it until that date.
  • Archive or mute it (almost always through a bulk action).
  • Create a filter that handles this type of email.

If I decided how I want to handle a type of email in the future, I don’t want to make that decision every time, so I create a filter to do the job. For example, I used to contribute some front-end code as part of my design work, and I would get notifications about committed code, test results, and issues from the whole team. Those were useful to know if other work is affecting mine, but it became too much to parse once I moved to a managerial role and started to oversee several designers and product areas. I created a filter that surfaces items that are only addressed to me directly; I never see 99.99% of other items. Similarly, there are reports that I want to read every week, so they skip my incoming inbox and automatically get labeled as something I need to do this week.

I’m efficient and work intensely during work hours. If I finish today’s list, I continue with the one for the week. If I’m done with that one, I start with the next week’s list. I work hard, but then I rest when I’m done.

When I notice that I regularly postpone some items for several weeks or months, I remove them. If they weren’t important in the past several months, they aren’t important enough.

At the end of the week, I look if there are any items left on that week’s list. If there are some, I reflect on why it is so: has other more critical work come in unexpectedly, or have I underestimated the size? I move the unfinished items to the next week’s list, and then I log off until Monday morning.

Additional notes: Private

I use the same principles to organize at home, but the implementation is very different. Instead of digital tools, I use a physical notebook. Instead of a week for planning, I use a month. Luckily for me, my home life is less hectic and a bit slower than work.

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