The Organization Techniques that Changed My Life

I was a kid who just loooooved organization. August school supply shopping was just as exciting as Christmas. Come on, I was not the only one counting down the days until I picked out my brand new shiny Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. I've typically been ahead of the game when it comes to an organized life.

But the gloating comes to a screeching halt here, as recent years have gotten the best of me. Among competing work priorities, personal and work travel, and all the life stuff (my gosh the life stuff), I needed help. While I still never missed a work deadline, my personal life organization suffered immensely, causing me to not fulfill my share of duties at home - as well as that awful to-do-list hangover feeling, weighing down my every move. My Outlook calendar and task list system wasn't enough anymore. If you're someone who can be sleek and streamlined and do all the stuff digitally, more power to you (my digital rolemodel Sarah Stephens). But me? I need more help than Mr. Gates offers in his Office Suite 2010.

After my friend Emily received her 2016 Day Designer in the mail, her son Henry declared his new role at home: "I have the planner. I'm the Mommy!"

After my friend Emily received her 2016 Day Designer in the mail, her son Henry declared his new role at home: "I have the planner. I'm the Mommy!"

Then, earlier this year I happened upon a blog post written by one of my favorite Pilates instructors, who touted this Day Designer. (I don't know about you, but someone who is brilliant enough to market a boring calendar as a "Day Designer" deserves my money). As a former student of hers, it seemed from afar that she accomplished a lot while being on the go, so I marked my calendar for the next release and tried to wait patiently. Finally, the day came, and I was ready to sit on my throne of organization once again.

Okay, the last statement is misleading. Like any other human, I am not in control of every single day. I still have days that feel like work swallowed me whole and spit me out on the other side of 5pm. However, since I've adopted some organization techniques prompted by the Day Designer I unhealthily worship, I have noticed a significant uptick in my productivity and more days where I am in control, and I actually check off everything on my to-do list.


Here's my daily organization routine:

  • Schedule yourself a time block to get organized every morning. Annoyingly meta, isn't it? "Schedule time to make your schedule." It is so tempting to dive right into those emails that came in overnight or head straight into your first morning meeting or class, especially if it's an early one. But try blocking out 30 minutes before your first commitment every morning to review what you didn't get done the day before and prioritize for the day ahead. This is step 1 to you controlling your day vs. the day controlling you.


  • Buffer your meetings, classes, and appointments. I always over-schedule time when meeting with other people, as well as make myself a 30 minute buffer between meetings. I know that this isn't always possible, as sometimes you're not in charge of the meeting or schedule. For example, if you work at my company, people are constantly stalking your Outlook calendar, searching for a free block of time they can steal from you. But you are the person setting the meeting or scheduling your classes some of the time. Having a buffer will allow you (a) to not be in a rush and (b) give you a few minutes to take care of any quick follow-ups or preparation required for what's next.


  • Review yesterday's to-do list and carry over what you weren't able to complete. Add them to today's to-do list, but think critically: are they a priority for today? Maybe it's actually wiser to add them to another day's list vs. playing the constant carryover game. 


  • Establish today's top priorities. This takes some self-honesty, as many of us will quickly retort: "Everything is a priority!" No, it's really not. Pick the top 3 things that you must do before the end of the day. Focus your productive energy on these 3 priorities before being distracted with the other stuff on your list or that you must react to. If you leave the day having completed your top 3, that is success.


  • Then, prioritize the other stuff. Some days, getting through the top 3 will be a struggle. Some days, you there may not actually be time-sensitive priorities to complete (I said, "some" days!). Other days, you'll have 3 priorities, but they'll only take you 2 hours. When this is the case, I number all my other to-dos so that there's no distracting myself with internet-browsing or chitchat when trying to decide what to do next. It takes the choice out: don't think about it; just move onto the next number.


  • Have a system for completing your items. This is another tip I got from Whitney English (the inventor of Day Designer). Unfortunately, life is full of half-completed items, follow-ups, and waiting on others to fully complete a task. Try this:
    • If you've completed your part of the task but are waiting on someone else to mark it 100% finito, put a circle around it. This trains your eye to not re-read the things you can't actually do anything about quite yet.
    • If you have to carry over an item to another day, mark it with -->. Again, this is a tool for keeping you in charge of your list; not the other way around.
    • And the most satisfying and obvious one: when you are done, you are done. Smugly jot down that big, fat check mark or X an move on!


These are just some of my favorites, but I'm always looking for ways to improve. What are your best organization tips? Any suggestions on great digital organizers? I love the physical act of crossing off an item, but I'm open to progressive change!  Please share...


PS - new quote on deadlines and organization


Posted on December 3, 2015 and filed under Tips & Tools.