Think you’re disorganized? For years I had no calendar, no to-do lists, no system for taking notes. Chaos reigned. Everything lived—or died—in my head. I’d flake on birthdays, flub errands, and wake up at night, panicked, remembering something I had due the next day. Plus, “keeping it all in my head” burned valuable mental energy, which could have been harnessed to actually get things done.
Enough, I thought recently. I’m a grown-ass man—I need to get my life in order. So I researched the best tools, tried them out, and, believe it or not, I’m now shockingly organized.
If you, too, would like to get your proverbial ducks in a row, try the five-step method I used.
Step 1: Find the right organizational system
Recommendation: Getting Things Done
When it comes to productivity, first you need to find an overall “guiding” system—then add the specific tools and apps to put it into effect.
There are lots to choose from, such as the “Pomodoro Technique,” where you work in 25-minute bursts, take a break, then work again for 25 minutes, and so on. There’s also the famed “Eisenhower Matrix” (popularized by the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), which has you deposit tasks into quadrants labeled Urgent, Important, Not Urgent, Not Important—but as smart as it seems, I found I spent more time trying to choose the right quadrant for a task than I spent actually doing it.
The system I came to rely on is spelled out in David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done, popularly known as GTD. Its philosophy is simple but sneakily powerful: Clear your head and execute a “brain dump” of everything you need to do; break down big projects into manageable chunks; focus only on the tasks at hand; and, finally, review.
So instead of feeling overwhelmed by the 137 things you have on your plate, with GTD you focus only on the one thing you can do in that moment—then do it.
Step 2: Pick the right app to implement the system
Now that you have a system, you need the right tools to put it into motion.
For those in the iOS ecosystem, it’s Things, a silky-smooth app that’s a pleasure to use. This matters, as enjoying it means you’re more likely to use it. Even the tutorial is a delight. It’s easy to see how projects break down into subprojects, then tasks, then mini checklists. It all syncs across all your devices—computer, iPad, smartphone—merges with your calendar, then serves up your to-dos exactly when you need them.
Using Things, I did my “brain dump” and dashed off all the various to-dos that stressed me out about a book I was writing (“Revise Ch. 3,” “Find 2nd source,” “Restock beer”) and chunked those into projects (“Research”) and subprojects (“Conduct interviews,” “Review transcript”).
And just like that I had clarity. It felt better than a cold beer after great sex.
Note: At a one-time cost of $49 for a Mac, $20 for an iPad, and $10 for an iPhone, it’s pricey—but worth it.
For Android/Windows users, you’ve got a freebie option: Todoist. The interface may not be as sleek as Things, but you get most of the same functionality, including bells and whistles like collaboration tools, syncing across all devices, and even a GPS reminder to, say, buy milk when you pass a grocery—no more getting home empty-handed.
Step 3: Consolidate your notes
In the old days, if I had to jot down a reminder—flight details, work notes, a recipe—I might email it to myself, scribble it on a scrap of paper I’d soon lose, or ink it on my hand, where it would end up sweaty and illegible.
That was before I discovered Bear. Light, quick, and easy on the eyes, Bear syncs from iOS phone to laptop to tablet and lets you easily input random text, photos, Web clippings—anything you need—for just $1.50 a month.
Organization is a snap. You can sprinkle in some hashtags in your notes (like #receipts, #travel, #gym, #charity), then use those to fetch them later. Bonus: You can pin notes to the top—super useful if, for instance, you’re traveling and need directions or a confirmation number quickly.
For Android/Windows users, opt for Evernote, the granddaddy of notekeeping apps. It’s so powerful it can feel overwhelming at times, but it will hoover up all your documents and scraps, giving you easy access to everything in one convenient place.
For romantics who still love scribbling notes, Evernote partners with Moleskine to let you write your thoughts in a journal, then digitally zap them into Evernote’s vault. Slick.
Evernote’s basic plan, with 60MB of uploads per month and syncing across two devices (for more, just use the Web browser), is free; but if you’ll be uploading lots of Web clips—one of Evernote’s nicest features—you may want to opt for the $35/year “Plus” level.
Step 4: Promote the apps
Of course, tools are useless if they’re ignored, so you need to make them part of your routine.
I added both Things and Bear to my phone’s dock and now use them more than any other app. Every morning I crack open Things to get the day’s hit list, and when I realize, “Oh, damn, I need to do such-and-such,” I quickly toss the item into my Things inbox.
If my sister mentions something that sparks an idea for a birthday gift, I’d normally forget it ASAP—now I pop it into Bear labeling it #gifts.
Step 5: Do a weekly review
A key component of GTD: At least once a week, take a deep dive into your goals, priorities, and how you spend your time. Skip this step and you end up scurrying from task to task, rarely assessing what’s important. There is an upside to doing this: When you re-evaluate and reassess projects, you start thinking about all the things you could be accomplishing, not just the bare minimum. There’s a halo effect.
Example: While tinkering with Things, I added a group called “Family/Friends” and thought about what I could be doing more of—maybe stay in better touch? Recurring task: Call someone on that list once a week. I even added a project for “Growth” and tossed in tasks like “Explore a goddamn museum”. (Pro tip: Injecting profanity makes you more likely to do the goddamn task.)
Will I do them all? Probably not. But that’s OK. It’s not a panacea, but it is progress.
Jeff Wilser is the author of The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, in stores October 24.