Previously, I revisited an older article on how to take better notes. This month, I thought I’d do something similar with staying organized. I wrote the original piece for project managers, but it translates easily to an author business. As you read, think about each book or series as a project, and apply the same approach to staying organized while managing a traditional project to managing your author business.
There are two underlying principles to keep in mind when getting organized:
- The best tool for organizing your world is the one you will use. There is no point in investing time and effort into some fancy software if you don’t use it. If lists work for you, then incorporate them into your organizational tool belt. If spreadsheets work, do that. The end result is what matters.
- There isn’t one magical solution that does everything. You will need multiple tools to use for various activities or situations. If you can integrate them so they work together, even better.
Understanding that everyone is different, below are the things that have worked for me. You should be able to apply similar approaches, whether or not you use the same tool.
One of the best ways to stay focused is to reduce the stress in your life. An easy but often overlooked way to do this is to take care of yourself. In the rush of meetings and deadlines, we sometimes skip important things that keep our stress levels down, causing us to feel and act unorganized.
Get enough sleep. Seriously. Turn it off and go to bed. Besides re-energizing and restoring, you can actually solve some problems while you sleep. Your subconscious keeps working even when you don’t. How many times have you woken up with a resolution to a problem you’ve been thinking about?
Take meal breaks. I occasionally eat at my desk when I am still finishing my presentation for an upcoming meeting, but it’s rare. I need that break and would rather go to lunch with my friends. (Have I mentioned I’m an extrovert?) But even going to the deli downstairs by myself gives me a sense of restoration. And for goodness’ sake, don’t skip the meal altogether! You need the energy and the nutrition.
Rest your eyes. I once saw a brilliant suggestion in a safety presentation called the “20/20/20 rule”. It suggested that every 20 minutes you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to give your eyes a break. I will admit that I’m not very good at following this rule consistently, but I have tried to incorporate it into my routine.
Stand up and stretch. Get up from your desk and walk around. Most project managers do this naturally, as we constantly head towards meetings or run to catch someone, but on those days dedicated to catching up on paperwork, you sometimes need a reminder. Writers, on the other hand… well, we get awfully focused, don’t we?
Actions and Interactions
A great way to keep everything orderly is to practice your organizational skills in real time, as events occur. Here are some ways to keep things organized as they happen.
Actively prioritize. As things come across your desk, assign a priority to them immediately, whether this means mentally ranking the item or putting a colored sticky note on it. And then continually review your priorities as the day progresses.
A good rule of thumb when prioritizing is to use the Urgent/Important principle. This principle ranks an issue based on how important and how urgent it is. The order in priority is:
- Important and Urgent
- Important, but not Urgent
- Urgent, but not Important
- Neither Important nor Urgent
Keep in mind that the terms “Important” and “Urgent” can be subjective, so you must weigh them in relation to other factors in your business. This article from MindTools goes into more depth on the subject: Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle.
File it immediately. I often have a folder on my computer drive for each project and sub-folders for specific activities related to that project. When information comes across my desk regarding that activity, I save it to the sub-folder for that activity. Even though my email app has search capabilities and I know I could find this later if I needed to, I’ve already read it and recognized what it is, so why not file it right away? Then, when I need it later, I know exactly where it is and don’t have to search far.
Touch it once only. This goes right along with filing it immediately, but applies to my physical inbox. Since we’re mostly digital these days, I’m talking about things that have come via the post office like a bill or a notice. If it’s in my inbox, that means I have not looked at it. Once I pick it up, I either action it or file it. Of course, this isn’t always feasible because sometimes you simply can’t take action yet, so refine your filing system to accommodate future actions. I’ve seen people file things by day, week, or month. In this system, items you can’t take action on go into one of these bins.
Keep a scribble pad handy. Often we are interrupted with a phone call or someone dropping by with a piece of information we need. Keeping a notepad on your desk for just that purpose is invaluable.
Pro tip: ALWAYS date your notes on your scribble pad. I cannot tell you how many times I have flipped back through my notepad for something important and having that date has been extremely useful.
Stop and regroup. Often when managing multiple projects (or even one fast-paced project), you can become overwhelmed and feel pulled in many directions at once. When this happens to me, I close my door, put my phone on do not disturb and take a minute to regroup. If you don’t have a door, use headphones or find a quiet place.
It helps me to make a list of the things I need to get done. Lists don’t work for everyone, but they help me. Especially when I have lots of balls in the air that I’m trying to juggle. Again, if this works for you, use it. If not, find something that does. The goal here is to stop spinning and get your focus back. Once you have taken that fifteen minutes to recenter yourself, it usually becomes obvious what your priority is and what the next step should be.
There are a lot of applications available to help you organize. My primary organization tool is Microsoft Outlook, so most of the things referenced below are from my experience with this app. However, other email and calendar applications have similar functionality, so I’ll speak to the functionality as much as possible.
I use my calendar to organize my life, both for work and home. Here are some tricks that keep me straight:
Morning review. The first thing that I do every day is review what’s on my calendar for today and what’s coming up the rest of the week. Invariably, someone catches me away from my desk and wants some of my time. If I don’t know what’s lined up for the day, I might miss an appointment or call because I got pulled into a discussion. Some of my colleagues actually print out today’s agenda and have it handy when they are moving from activity to activity. In today’s world, mobile apps often replace this kind of paper trail, but if paper works for you, then use it.
Use Color. Each of my projects gets their own unique color, so I can see at a glance which meeting belongs to which project. I will also use color for different appointment types, such as a doctor appointment or a monthly departmental meeting.
Be detailed. Include as much detail about the meeting/appointment as possible. This differs depending on what type of meeting it is. Here are the guidelines that I use:
- For a group meeting that I am organizing – Include only the details you want shared ahead of time. I usually include an agenda or at least a justification for holding the meeting so that recipients know why they should attend.
- For a personal appointment only for me – Include as much detail as I need, so I have all in one place. For example, when I travel, my flight, hotel and car rental information all go into one calendar meeting for convenience.
Make appointments private. I’m not sure if this feature is available in other calendar apps, but Outlook lets you mark appointments as Private, which hides both the appointment name and any details from others, even if your calendar is shared or public. This helps keep you organized by allowing you to book your personal appointments alongside your work meetings. This way, you don’t accidentally double-book something when you were scheduled to be at the dentist. And you can add personal reminders like “call your mother” or “drop off the cat at the vet” that you don’t want your colleagues to see.
Change the View. Most of the time, I have my calendar set to see the work week only (Monday through Friday). However, when in planning mode, it is often necessary to look at the entire month (or even the year). Change the view as needed to fit what you are working on. (This one seems obvious, but I’ve watched people painfully scroll back and forth through their calendar when they could have simply changed the view and seen it all at once. It’s embarrassing to book a meeting in the wrong week because you lost your place in your own calendar!)
Use Reminders. Every meeting invite I send out has a 30-minute reminder on it. And I either change or add a 30-minute reminder to every meeting request that I receive. Personally, I prefer getting that much notice so I can wrap up what I’m doing and start preparing for the meeting. And if thirty minutes is too early for the other attendees, they can snooze the reminder to the time when they want to be notified.
Block out task time. I’ve often worked in companies where we share our calendars openly so people can see when we are available. Because of that, my day can fill up quickly with meetings invoked by others. In order to have time to complete my work, I block out time on my calendar that is just for me to work on tasks that I need to finish.
Block out travel time to and from appointments. I learned this trick when working at a company that had multiple locations around the city. My colleagues would book back-to-back meetings in locations that were a thirty-minute drive from each other. Now I enter separate calendar items for any drive time before and after any off-site meetings. This lets people know I am unavailable and not to book anything during that period.
I once had a boss who treated his email inbox like a to do list. It rarely had more than eight or nine emails in it. I don’t know how he did it, but it was impressive. While I regularly rid my email inbox of unimportant emails, I treat it more like an extension of my filing system. How you organize your emails will somewhat depend on your company’s archiving and storage policies, so make sure you are familiar with them.
Here are the tricks that I use:
Use the Follow-up feature. Outlook has a feature that lets you set up some rules regarding following up after you have emailed someone. You can set it to remind you or the recipient. When I need a response, I will let the recipient know within the email itself what day and time I need the answer by, and will also set up a follow-up reminder on the email. Whether the reminder is a full day or just a few hours before the deadline depends on what information I need from them and how much effort needs to be done.
Use Rules. I have a lot of rules set up in my Outlook. I like to keep my inbox as trim as possible, so I set up automatic rules to move any regularly scheduled emails I receive (such as monthly reports) into a separate folder designated for them. (In my home emails, this might be bank statements or Amazon book purchases.) The trick with rules is to make sure you configure them specifically enough that you don’t catch any unintended emails and to review your other folders regularly. You don’t want to sweep a fraud alert email accidentally into the folder with your monthly credit card statements, so use both the Sender and Subject fields to craft your rule.
Use Color. Although not as easy to find as it used to be, Outlook lets you dynamically change the font color on the email list using rules. I have used this feature in the past to change High Priority emails to a red font and to highlight any emails from any VIPs in a bright blue. Fuchsia stands out as well.
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Since discovering it in the mid-2000s, I have been a proponent of Microsoft’s OneNote. My enthusiasm for the product has led a couple of different companies that I’ve worked with to adopt is as part of their base application installation. However, Microsoft’s move to push the cloud version of OneNote has been hugely disappointing for me. Most of the features I liked about the application are missing in this version. The good news is that I have since discovered Scrivener, which I’m leaning towards as a replacement on my MacBook (MacOS). Some people I have worked with like to use a product called Evernote and others simply use MS Word.
Regardless of which application that you use, it is how you arrange your notes that help keep you organized. (I’ll use the language for OneNote, but translate into folders, subfolders, and files.) Here are my basic rules for organizing notes:
Each project gets its own folder. While I typically have one Notebook (folder) for all project work, each individual project gets its own section group (subfolder).
Organize projects according to need. Each project is structured uniquely. In one project, we organized by project phase, so I had section groups (subfolders) for each phase of the project. In other projects, I have organized by team functions. It depends on how you organize your work for that project.
Single out meeting notes. One section group (folder) found in all of my projects is called Meetings. Within Meetings there is a section (subfolder) where I saved notes for each type of regular meeting: Steering Committee, PMO, Team, and Miscellaneous for any unscheduled meetings. Again, adjust your organization structure as needed. In one project, we separated out the application team meetings from the regular team meetings, so I added a separate folder for those meetings. The goal is to be able to refer to those documents as quickly as possible and breaking them out by the meeting type worked for me.
Use date and topic for file names on meeting notes. I save meeting notes in the appropriate section (folder) and name them by date and topic. I like to use the format YYYY-MM-DD so I can order them chronologically. This creates a timeline for you without having to delve into the notes themselves.
These days, we store much of our data in the cloud. Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Cloud, and Apple’s iCloud are the popular services that come to mind. Regardless of whether you store your files on your hard drive or in a cloud service, organize your data so it’s easy to find.
How you organize your hard drive will be unique to what works for you. I organize my hard drive in the same way I do my notes (above).
Each project gets its own folder. If I have a series of related projects, I will have one master folder for the overarching project and subfolders for each related project underneath.
For my books, I have a top-level folder for the series and all series-level documents live in that folder. These documents apply to all books in the series and not just a particular book. Within the series folder, each book gets its own subfolder, which begins with B1, B2, etc., denoting the order of the books in the series.
Add folders as needed. Each project or book will have different informational needs, and they may have different subfolders to store the information. For an implementation project, you may have folders for meetings, project documents, vendor quotes, and user testing. For a book, you may have folders for images, editing, marketing, and research.
Use smart names and versioning on file names. Give your files meaningful names so you know at a glance what the contents are. One cool trick for versioning is to use the date as your version tracking, so you instantly know which file is the latest version. An example: Left-Turn_Dev-Edit_20210603.docx.
Pro Tip: Use underscores and dashes instead of spaces in your filenames. While today’s operating systems can handle spaces, if you’re saving your work to a cloud server, the URL links may not pick up the spaces when you paste it into an email for someone. It’s just easier to develop the habit of eliminating spaces in your filenames.
Back up your files regularly. If you’ve never lost your work before, I’m going to save you some future heartache. If you have lost hours of work, here’s your gentle reminder. Back up your files regularly to a location outside of your computer. Whether you back up to an external thumb drive or to a cloud service, make it a regular habit. Even better if you can automate that process. The writing tool I use (Scrivener) has a setting where you can configure it to back up automatically to the location of your choice when you open or close the file.
These are tips and tricks that have helped me stay organized. Perhaps you already use some of these. Hopefully, you learned something new. Remember, the main thing is to do what works for you.
Did I miss anything? Do you have some tips you can share in the comments? Let me know.
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