My attempts at organising life

My attempts at organising life
Photo by Thought Catalog / Unsplash

I did my bachelor's degree in early 2013, and I started my official professional career shortly after.

Looking back, the uni life was relatively straightforward. There was a goal (graduating), clearly marked checkpoints (semesters/years) and clear rules on how to pass them (exams, projects). While there were a lot of variables around — like grumpy, old and incompetent lecturers glorifying one specific database management system — each of them could be treated more or less in separation and worked around.

Paul Graham wrote about this issue in his essay two years ago. Things we learn at school are not real skills, but rather the knowledge about playing the system. It's the same story in uni — only that students have relatively more freedom there when compared to high schoolers. It could give a somewhat different perception, where people put more thought into the bigger picture and their role in it. Nonetheless, there's still a system to play, and rules on how to do it.

The school is great at giving purpose and organising life around it. The 20-something years old me didn't have to think hard about what I wanted to do with my life — at least during that specific year. The goal was to get the degree, and the way to achieve it was through projects, exams, lectures. Someone set a plan in front of me and my job was simply to execute it. Until I graduated, got my diploma, and the tutorial was finished.

So out of the uni I was, with my degree in hand, and with more free time than ever. Since I spent the previous 15 or so years following a system with rules, some of that time went into recreating a similar system. It simply felt natural to do that.

The early days: GTD

I've started my adventure with Getting Things Done after reading David Allen's book on the topic. After exploring several software options for keeping track of my life, I finally landed on GetOnTracks, which — as my records indicate — I've used for almost four years, between 2014 and late 2017.

If I had to summarise GTD in one sentence, it would be: a system to ruthlessly and categorically process incoming tasks ("stuff") to eliminate indecisiveness and promote the act of actually doing things.

The official website summarises it as "a personal productivity methodology that redefines how you approach your life and work", which... sounds more profound, yeah.

Looks like something a company selling GTD products would post to their Facebook page, which would then be reposted to /r/FellowKids.

There were parts of GTD I really enjoyed — so much that I've incorporated them in my subsequent systems in some way.

Get a single (ideally physical) inbox for capturing all your thoughts, todos, references and whatnot. I really like the idea of a physical inbox, because you can put physical stuff inside — like documents and small items, eg. a pendrive. I've been using the Ikea traysLooks like they're no longer available? Booooo. for all that time, and they've served really well. I use the top tray for all the unprocessed stuff, the middle tray for things that need to be archived somewhere (usually a specific section in a specific binder), and the bottom tray for all the documents to be destroyed (because they contain sensitive information to be simply thrown away).

That being said, it's really really hard to end up with just one inbox. You have different streams of tasks & thoughts. Your emails end up in your email inbox. Your work stuff ends up in Slack, Jira, work email or some other system you use. When you're on the go, ideally you'd have a notepad with you all the time, or some note-keeping app on your phone. If not, you end up writing sticky notes to yourself and put them on your laptop or in your pocket.And then you recover the sticky notes from your pants after laundry is done.

Process the inbox regularly. For me, it was twice a week. And inboxes, plural, given all the streams of input I mentioned above. I think I had six or seven of those at the peak time (two private email, work email, notes in Keep, notes in the physical inbox, and others I don't remember anymore). Ideally, you want all of that to converge to just one place, so that you can process it easily. If that's not possible, you just need to do them one by one.

The flowchart. I love the GTD flowchart. Not because it's a flowchart, but because it encourages you to take some action for every item in your inbox: do it, delegate it, or defer it—either to a specific day, or to the "next actions" pile. It's decisive, it doesn't leave any blind spot. If you follow it, you won't end up with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The flowchart.

You will end up with an empty inbox, a clear list of next actions, as well as more clarity as to which actions or projects are really important. If you feel like taking piano lessons, but then you decide to trash the piece of paper with "piano lessons?" written on it, at least you consciously processed the idea and decided not to follow up on it. Which is better than just dreaming and thinking about maybe potentially taking piano lessons when things are finally down and you have time and the lockdown ends and you're finally done with that work project and whatnot. (If you truly wanted to wait until things are down, you'd create a "Piano lessons" project and defer the action.)

Dump your mind down. The very first activity the book recommends is booking some time and trying to move absolutely everything out of your head and onto paper, and then into the inbox. One idea per one piece of paper. The book recommends using an A4 sheet per idea, but I think that's a huge waste — I've used memo blocks. I tried to do this activity in the full brainstorming mode: write down everything, no matter how unrealistic or silly or misaligned it is. After writing it down, stop thinking about it and move on.

The adjustment I've done is that I've repeated this activity every now and then, as opposed to doing it only at the start of the GTD journey. I treated the weekly reviews more as the system's maintenance, making sure all tasks are in the right projects and with the right dates — that is, busywork. There wasn't much opportunity to go wild with ideas, which is what I used this activity for.

So every month or two, I'd sit with an empty inbox and a memo pad cube, set the timer to 20-30 minutes, and start writing. The aim was to generate as many cards as possible.

One GTD rule which I tried to embrace was two actions are a project. This sounds great on paper: if something is more complex than a task, then you should give it a proper label to highlight that.

However, GTD advocates for putting absolutely every task, no matter how small, in the system — and then if you have two or more separate steps of a task, you should turn it into a project. My problem is with granularity here: if I need to hang a picture on a wall, but first I need to buy a hammer, would that be a project? How would you name this project? "Hanging the picture 2021.08"? The overhead of managing such a project is bigger than the value it gives me.

GetOnTracks had a nice way out of it, which I haven't found in other tasks managers: sequence of tasks, or dependent tasks. Follow up tasks become active only if their ancestor is marked as done. This way, the "more than 1 action is a project" rule can be bypassed while still staying organised.

Post GTD disorder

Getting Things Done served me well for over 3 years. Thanks to this system, I survived through an M.Sc. degree while working full time — an ordeal where I barely had any free time and weekends for 18 months.

It also helped me stay organised while moving countries, and doing all fun things related to that. (Sell useless stuff! find a job! find accommodation! buy flight tickets! get visas! get other random paperwork! etc.)

But after those three years, I felt that my life was too organised and I focused too much on accomplishing specific and discrete projects. There was little room for just having fun, and enjoying what I already had. I was tired of following the system, and I yearned for carelessness — I didn't see a way for both of them to run together.

Moreover, I focused a lot on reviewing my list of concrete, specific projects. The system didn't encourage me a lot to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. (And looking back, that was the piece which was missing, which I'm touching on more below.)

After getting less and less strict with my reviews and process, and feeling more and more guilty about itImagine: you know you have the process for staying on top of your life, but you also don't want to use it. But you know it's there, waiting to be used. The longer you not use it, the more dusty it takes, and the more energy you'd need to put in order to bring it back to life., I've more or less abandoned it. My GetOnTracks instance had only a few recurring tasks by the time I stopped using it for good.

At first, I treated it as a well-deserved break. Here I was, spending a few years rigidly following a system to get my life in order — surely I could take some time off, right? I'm eligible for some holidays!

Except that "some time off" turned out to be too long. Weeks of not following the system turned to months, and then months turned to years. It was long enough so that I started feeling stagnation and lack of direction.

I didn't employ any full-fledged system then. I've tried taking in the good parts of GTD I enjoyed and applying them in my life, half-assedly. I still kept the physical inbox, I still had a GTD-like list of projects somewhere (most recently it was in Todoist, and then Notion), I still did the mind-dumping exercise every now and then. But I surely wasn't reviewing the system once a week to stay on top of it, which is a crucial part of the working system.I feel similarly about retrospectives: it's the most important and high quality ceremony you can run in a team. Well-functioning team will use that time to improve and be honest with each other. Less functioning team will skip it, or do it too infrequently, or use it just to praise or complain about obvious things, without enough honesty and openness.

If you take just one thing from this post, then make it the need for a healthy balance between a strict and structured system, and a carefree approach without any worries, thinking only about the current day. It's fine to spend some time (a few months tops) leaning too much towards one side, but it's not something you can sustain for longer.

Enter: areas

Recently, I chatted with my friend who's also on a never-ending pursue after a more organised life. I complained about my lack of self-organisation, and he introduced me to the PARA method. I started using it, and my life has suddenly improved sixfold, and then rainbows appeared in the sky, and unicorns started roaming the streets! This is a miracle! yeah nah, it never works like that.

Embracing a full-fledged system invented by someone else poses the risk of not doing some activities because they don't fit my mindset, and then feeling guilty about not doing them, and fearing that I'm not doing the system "right".

Instead, I'm taking a bottom-up approach: I'm going to borrow concepts when they click with me, and try to embed them in my custom-made system.

This is a video about the PARA method, which is good in itself, but it's presented in a way that's really aligned with me: start small and add complexity and concepts as you need them. The magic moment is at 4:11 when she turns a plain list into a set of pages. This is when it clicked with me, and this is the bottom-up approach I want to do:

One thing which stood out to me in PARA was the concept of areas. Projects are supposed to end with some outcome and should be bound in time. It's hard to capture things through them which are either vague, or don't require any specific action — just some maintenance every now and then. It's easy to miss the bigger picture, similar to a corporation focusing more on quarterly results and less on the growth pattern during the last 5 years.

An area is a part of my life which I care about—or want to care about. It's important enough to put in that list, and be reminded of it every time I open my organising system. And additional guilt for those areas I find/want to find important, but which I'm not really moving forward.

Areas have goals: time-bound objectives to achieve, after which I'll feel good about myself. And goals might have specific projects attached to them: these are smaller and concrete chunks of work.

I've read the original Getting Things Done book a few good years ago, and I didn't remember anything about a concept like that. So this was the issue with my previous system! It was all wrong! what I thought, but then I double-checked the book itself. And indeed, it mentions the six-level model for reviewing your own work, which is a model of altitudes and corresponding modes of review. The third one in the scale is called 6096 metres 20,000 feet, and corresponds to areas of responsibility. Which are then enumerated on subsequent pages similarly to what you've seen on the video.

In my defence, the book touches on that topic only gently, in the total of two chapters, and with a tone of "when reviewing your tasks, remember to compare them against our other lists, such as the six-level model". I don't remember it asking to create a List of Areas and treat it as a first-class citizen.

Present time

And here we come to the present time, and my most recent attempt to get on top of things. I feel the need to organise parts of my life. At the same time, I don't want the overhead of a system which won't allow me to enjoy the present moment. I'll probably need to invent something on my own, something in-between, something that works for me.

One thing I'm definitely keeping is the physical inbox, as well as the philosophy behind the GTD flowchart: be ruthless about emptying the inbox. If it's actionable, clearly define the next action; if not, decide if it's something to defer, or drop.

The other thing I really like is the bigger focus on my areas of responsibility, as well as defined goals to advance each of them. Such an overview should help me as a heuristic on what to focus my time.

The card view from Notion is probably not the most readable one, but it definitely looks cool.

So for example, "Skills" is one of my current areas. I want to keep getting better and advancing my abilitiesWriting that, I realised that I'll probably soon have to split that area into smaller, more specific areas. But that's something for the future Tomek to tackle. He's the best, always taking care of all the hard work.. "Get better at writing" is one of the goals advancing that area. And attached to that goal is a project called "Publish 10 blog posts until the end of October", which has a specific and measurable outcome. Unlike the goal itself, where "getting better" is subjectively phrased. And not to mention "skills", which is simply vague.

That being said, it's only been three or four weeks since I started, and it seems so there's a non-zero chance it's just the very motivated me writing these words. And there's a similar chance that me 6 months from now will retract these words.

But I'm fine with that. Rather than looking for the One Ultimate Solution, I'm happy to keep looking for the sweet, balanced spot between system overhead, and not having it suck the fun out of life.But hey, if it's helping me stay on top of things, it means it's working as intended, right?