I recently met with a colleague who wanted to get started on organizing her workflows - and I was reminded that I sometimes reference terms or software without providing some context for how those terms or applications can be effectively used. Since summer is kind of our reorganization time, I thought I’d share a short primer on some of the basics of getting workflows set up.
Inbox - An inbox is a place where stuff gets directed, and most often processed from. I have an Inbox in my reference system, one in my task manager, and one in my Dropbox. David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) suggests that one have as many inboxes as they need - no more and no less. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I am really trying to limit the number of inboxes I have to process. Here’s how I manage that…
- Major Inboxes - My two most important inboxes are in OmniFocus, Evernote, and email. I process much of the email out of my email inbox, and send it to OmniFocus or Evernote (or delete or archive it). If I need to DO something, I send it to Omnifocus - if I need to remember something, I send it to Evernote. The idea is to funnel as much into these two spaces as possible, and then process those inboxes (organize, delegate, defer, or do).
- Minor Inboxes - These are inboxes that I don’t mind if they fill up over time. I’ll process them “when I get to them.” For example, I have an inbox of papers that need to be scanned, or articles to read in Zotero, or things to read in Feedly. Actually, to be very honest, I treat my voicemail at work the same way - I’m going to try to do better on that in the coming months.
- Automated Inboxes - I don’t always get to control how information and tasks are sent to me, but whenever I can automate the transfer of information from other inboxes to my task manager or reference manager, I figure it’s a good use of my time. IFTTT.com and Zapier.com are great starting places for these kinds of automation.
Project - I refer to “projects” a lot, but this term is widely defined. I think of projects that are objectives that have more than one step (task), or tasks that are somewhat grouped together. For example, if I am building a new course, it’s a project - it will take more than one task for me to complete the objective. When I am teaching a course, I have a number of tasks that are related to do that work - so I group the tasks together as a “project.”
To be clear, software is not necessary to have good workflows (we sent a man to the moon with slide rulers and typewriters). There are some applications, however, that give me a great deal of peace, security, mobility, and access. Here’s my list of necessities…
- Reference Manager - The reference manager holds information that I may need to get to later. Having one place to send and retrieve information is immensely valuable. A good system will allow one to share reference material with others for collaboration. I use Evernote,* but there are several other options available as well. Almost every reference item (receipts, meeting notes, course material, etc.) goes into my Evernote. I used to keep academic references in Evernote as well - but in the last year, I’ve broken down and used Zotero (to see a comparison of Zotero and Mendeley, CLICK HERE) to manage journal articles and books. Limitation: A reference manager is great for finding stuff you want to LOOK for - but being reminded of things you want to DO is a different ball-game.
- Task Manager - The task manager holds information that I need to DO. Some things that need to be completed are projects (research project), and some are just stand-alone tasks (take out the trash). A good system will have several features: the ability to organize projects, integration with email, start dates (to defer tasks) and due dates, and tags (or contexts). I have tried a BUNCH of these, and I have discovered that you get what you pay for. I use OmniFocus, but I also really like Asana, Todoist, and Nozbe. Limitation: A task manager needs to be reviewed consistently to ensure that the most important tasks are visible and ready for work. Also, having “to-dos” organized does not mean that they get done. The point of a task manager is to DO stuff.
- Appointment Manager - I like to think of a calendar as an appointment manager. Any specific time I have dedicated to spending with others (meetings, class, dinner) gets a place on the calendar, as well as any specific time I have made an appointment with myself (exercise, project, reading). I use Google Calendar, primarily because my campus uses it - but gCal has some great integrations, and syncs well with other calendar apps. I’ve grown quite fond of using alarms before appointments, as I find I can sometimes get lost in a project or a conversation and potentially miss the next appointment. Limitation: Using the calendar as a task manager can become cumbersome. I rely on my task manager to remind me of upcoming due dates, rather than putting them on my calendar.
- Contact Manager - I’ve become increasingly convicted of the idea of treating students and coworkers like a small business might treat customers. As a result, I have abandoned the idea of using an “address book,” and picked up the idea of a Contact Resource Manager (CRM) that helps me track conversations, phone calls, and meetings. I recently wrote about using BusyCal to manage my contacts, and I grow increasingly dependent on this software to help me see what conversations have recently transpired with a colleague or friend. Limitation: Contact information is constantly changing. It is important to occasionally clean the contacts list (merging duplicate entries, deleting old email addresses, etc.).
- Email - ‘Cuz, well … email. I am a believer that the best way to handle email is to get stuff out of the inbox - I send stuff to Evernote (for reference), OmniFocus (for tasks), or archive so that my inbox is completely empty by the end of the workday. Limitation: Bill Lumbergh returns to make the point.
- Start with a task manager - Even of you aren’t going to use Omnifocus, take a look HERE for some excellent tips on thinking about organizing tasks effectively. Some folks use Evernote to manage tasks - but I do not recommend it (I tried it for a while). A legal pad of “to-dos” is fine, but you’re missing out on some real developments in achieving greater focus, peace, and efficiency if you’re using paper. I have spent enough time with my system that “capturing” a task is a seamless part of my day.
- Start with Free - BUT - With some rare exceptions, I have learned that free software is usually worth its price. I recommend trying out software that has a free trial (the App Store on Mac and iOS needs to figure out how to offer free trials), and then purchase the one that gives you the best performance. Also, consider watching the online tutorials (like on youtube) before making a purchase to see how others are using the technology.
- Build Structurally - There are lots of apps and services that can nickel and dime a user into spending serious dough, only to find that they are not as useful as you thought they’d be. For example, I like Taskclone to pull tasks out of Evernote and into OmniFocus - but that purchase makes no sense if I decided not to use Evernote.
- It Takes Time to Save Time - I’ve lost track of how many people tell me that they downloaded Evernote, and it didn’t work for them. When that conversation develops, it usually ends up with a statement like, “Well, maybe I didn’t really spend much time looking at how I could use it.” I totally respect that . You may not have much time to spare to learn how to use a new tool - but I think it’s smart to make a note to come back to create a little space later and try again. Besides, saving time is only one goal of greater efficiency in my workflows - I also want peace from the nagging fear that I forgot something, freedom to think creatively, and easy access to responsibilities.
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