I coach a leadership program out in Colorado, and recently coaches and participants alike have been talking a lot about how to effectively manage the demands of the program in conjunction with work, family responsibilities, to-do lists, personal care, and all the other things life entails.
I’m no organizational expert myself, but I do have some tools and systems that work well for me. So I thought I’d share share a bit about these various tools and how I use them, and my hope is that they might be helpful for others as well.
Before diving in, I’ll preface all of this by saying that each of these tools and techniques is a means to an end – they are things that cultivate specific ways of being. For example, my daily calendar reminds me what I have planned for the day (thing), so that I can go about my day with a sense of ease and focus (way of being). Tools are great, but it’s also good to keep in mind that our ways of being are what really drive our behavior and results. Whatever tool helps you create that, well that’s the right tool for you!
Okay, without further ado, here is a summary of the tools that I use to organize my life:
- SELF Journal
- Google Calendar
How I use it: my one-stop shop for All The Things™, from my high-level vision down to my daily goals.
If I had to pick one tool to recommend above all others, this would be the one. A friend turned me on to the SELF Journal a while back, and I was blown away by its effectiveness. This well-crafted notebook is actually several tools in one, self-described as follows:
A 13-week planning, productivity, and positivity system for inevitable goal success.
As humans, we tend to be more productive and fulfilled when we can relate our daily activities back to some larger vision that speaks to the “why” driving our actions. The SELF Journal shines in this area, starting big-picture and then moving into more specific tactics, with each progressive section of the journal feeding into the next:
- High-level vision and 3 juicy goals
- Weekly breakdown into action steps, daily habits, and reflections
- Daily scheduling, targets, gratitudes, and reflections
The SELF Journal is great if you’re looking for a single tool to do full-spectrum organizing all in one place, from your grand 3-month vision all the way down to when you’re meditating on Thursday. Plus, it does a great job encouraging ongoing reflection, which I really like for fostering mindfulness.
How I use it: all my personal and work scheduling, both long-term dates as well as my hour-to-hour daily plan.
Maintaining clear long and short term schedules is absolutely essential for me to keep track of all that’s going on, and Google Calendar is the best online calendar, period. While it might seem like all calendars are made equal, there are a number of features that make Google Calendar stand out:
- Create and filter multiple calendars to group different types of events (e.g. work vs. personal)
- Set reminders for your phone, email, desktop notifications, etc.
- Automatically send invites to the people you’re meeting with, and allow them to RSVP and update event info
- It’s a Google product, which means it integrates with everything
As mentioned above, I use Google Calendar for both my work and personal life, each in slightly different ways.
My work life is broken down into many meetings, planning sessions, and heads-down work blocks throughout a given day, sometimes down to the 15-minute interval. Here’s an example of a typical day at work, which can be extremely full:
My personal calendar, on the other hand, typically helps me keep a longer-term eye out for weekly/monthly events like vacations, birthdays, date nights, etc. What’s also really nice is that I can toggle my wife’s calendar to see her schedule as well:
Lastly, while it’s nice to have my work and personal calendars controlled separately, I’ve also made sure to share both of them with each other, so that regardless of whether I’m logged on to my personal or work account, I can toggle either calendar’s visibility to see them side-by-side and make sure I’m getting a full view of what’s coming up.
How I use it: my central source for lists of all kinds.
Wunderlist is a simple app that’s great for creating and organizing lists of all kinds. The interface is intuitive and easy-to-use. Not a ton else to say. There are a few handy features (web + mobile support, reminders, sharing), but honestly a good list app should basically just make it really easy to create and organize lists, and Wunderlist does just that.
One thing to note is that Microsoft acquired Wunderlist a little while back and has now spun up their own app called To-Do. Might be worth checking out.
As mentioned above, I use Wunderlist for lists of all kinds:
- Tasks and to-do’s organized by context (a strategy for tackling the right things at the right times, popularized in Getting Things Done by David Allen)
- Book and movie recommendations
- Topics for further research and exploration (e.g. management, software engineering, woodworking)
- Ideas for passion projects (e.g. tool shed, remodeling our guest bathroom, landscaping the backyard)
- Notes and reminders for my ongoing conversations with the participants I coach
- Notes and callouts for review cycles at my work (I keep a separate list for myself, my reports, and my colleagues for whom I provide peer reviews)
- People I want to reach out to about various things (e.g. the leadership program I’m coaching)
- Topics for discussion in upcoming conversations (e.g. my weekly phone call with my personal leadership coach)
- Travel destination ideas
- A few other random lists (e.g. highlights/achievements from this leadership program so that I can reflect on all the wins when it’s all done)
Here’s an example of what it all looks like:
How I use it: my list of high-visibility work to-do’s.
Momentum is a browser extension that does a few cool things every time you open a new tab:
- Inspirational photos and quotes (added bonus: the photos include location name so you can inspire your travel bug)
- Set a daily goal/intention
- Track to-do’s
I use Momentum primarily for its high visibility and low barrier for adding/editing items. My work days are often jam-packed with back-to-back meetings, and amidst the many different lists and to-do’s I have across my whole life, I want my work to-do’s specifically to be separate and very convenient to access.
Momentum means I see my pending action items every time I open a new tab (along with a beautiful photo and inspiring quote, which is a nice bonus), and adding/editing items is as simple as opening a new tab. Plus I can easily drag-and-drop my to-do’s to stack rank them in order of priority, which is a nice feature. As I complete items, I check them off. Then at the end of the work day (or the beginning of the next), I re-groom my list and go from there.
This tool is great if you already spend a lot of time on your computer and want regular, unmissable reminders. Sometimes amidst the work day busy-ness it’s tough for me to peel my eyes away from the screen, and I’m much less likely to open up my SELF Journal or another app. Momentum meets me where I’m at, and ensures I get an unavoidable (yet unobtrusive) reminder each of the dozens of times I open a new tab every day.
A Typical Day
So how does it all fit together? Here’s what a typical week day might look like for me, and how I use all my tools:
Sit down with my coffee and complete the morning section of my SELF Journal (including checking Google Calendar for blocking out my daily schedule). Usually I try to reflect on the lessons learned from my previous days’s SELF Journal reflections to inform my goals for today.
Check Momentum to review and prioritize my work to-do’s before diving in for the day. Depending on how busy my day is, block out some dedicated time slots in Google Calendar to get these things done.
- 9:30am – 12:00pm
Check Google Calendar continuously for my ongoing meetings and commitments. Use Wunderlist intermittently to take notes and reference topics for 1-on-1’s and ongoing conversations.
- 12:00pm (lunch)
Review my SELF Journal to check my progress and remind myself of my targets for the day (it can be easy to lose sight of these on a busy work day). I also tend to check my personal Google Calendar to see if I have anything planned after work (e.g. date night, appointment, friend time).
- 1:00pm – 5:00pm
Same as the 9:30am – 12:00pm slot.
Check Momentum one final time to make sure I handled all my important work commitments for the day. Prioritize and clean up my task list for tomorrow.
- Bed Time
Complete the evening section of my SELF Journal, including reflections on the day and gratitudes. Make note of any lessons learned to consider in tomorrow’s morning journal session.
That’s it! My hope is that some of these tools are as helpful for you as they are for me. If you have other tools or practices that work well for you, please drop a comment below and share with the rest of us. Thanks!