How I Organize my Thoughts, Time, and Tasks

Posted by Heather Kelly on

Hello! I'm Heather. I'm a planner, organizer, idea-catcher, and doer. And I’m the founder and CEO of Noteabler. Warm welcome to this blog and boutique.

I thought that my first post here should be full disclosure transparency: how I organize my life. Well, how I do it currently. Because, the truth is this is always evolving for me.

I joke that time and task management are my extreme sports. 'How on earth do you stay organized and do everything you do?" is a question I get a lot. My quick response is that my life is in my notebooks and I'm a hardcore scheduler. My notebooks are where you find my ideas, inspirations, details I don't want to forget, mind-maps, meeting notes, to-dos, stream of consciousness writes, and of course many, many lists.

Since this is my first post, you, dear reader, might be a friend or colleague who knows me. And therefore know that I juggle a high-volume 'lifestyle job' in the arts (where audiences' play time is our work time - in addition to regular business hours), plus a marketing consulting company, am a member of two boards of directors, co-chair a national committee, volunteer at a nonprofit, lead a culture district of 22 organizations, write and publish poetry - and develop this awesome new store and blog that I am very excited about. I mention this not to impress, annoy, or exhaust you, but to confirm that I have a lot to think about and organize. A gazillion big ideas and tiny details to capture, keep on track, and ensure are effective and successful. 

So, between notebooks and my calendar how do I approach it? Well, that is always evolving. Until recently, I had a system for many years that worked well and was seemingly more streamlined than my current system. Then I tried a fairly drastic shift. And I have come to where I am now. I'll explain.

For many years I mainly used one regular hardcover 5x8 lined notebook daily. The first 5-10 pages were company or project focused: each company (or project) I am involved with had its 2-page spread to note to-dos that may not be all done right way but I didn't want to forget. Plus there was a 2-page spread for personal general tasks, and pages for personal creativity. After those pages for each company or project, I created daily dated to-do pages. Complete with self-made check-boxes before each task. (Tip: I found that if I used every second line on the page, and aligned the list with my digital calendar, the list was achievable that day.) This is the notebook I carried to work, made notes from meetings, and jotted personal thoughts, lists, creative ideas - a catchall. Which was great for daily tasks and not missing or forgetting anything, but it was a little tricky to find past brainstorms, meeting notes, ideas, and random creative thoughts. At the same time, I also had additional notebooks on the go for other purposes. 

Then I tried something radical (for me): no more lists! To be specific and accurate: no more to-do task lists. Every task went directly into my digital calendar. I loved this. (Just corrected a typo where I'd written 'I lived this'. Also true.) No more carrying over to dos. Some of which I had copied from notebook to notebook, and carried over year to year. Everything going into the calendar meant that it got scheduled to get done, or it got let go. I cleared off all of my old personal to-dos this year. It took me about 8 months, as some required travel to help family members in other cities. I love that those way-too-long standing to-dos are no longer in my notebooks or my consciousnesses. But all that said, I still used notebooks, still needed my lists, and I started using sticky notes for the first time.

So what do I do now? I toggle between 4 notebooks, one sticky note a day, and my electronic calendar.

I love how my basic iPhone calendar makes it easy to move each item around, and to colour code. I have various Outlook and Google calendars consolidated into one personal master calendar on my iPhone.

I'll explain why so many notebooks, plus the sticky note. Each one serves a purpose based on what content I use it for. 

1. I use a small GET SHIT DONE A6 (4.1 x 5.8 inch) notebook similarly to how I described that I used notebooks earlier. The difference is that I have a section per organization or project. Nothing else. Just tasks I want to remember and need to get done. Ideally everything in this book is also scheduled in my digital calendar. I like this book because it's pocket sized, and easily fits into my suit jacket so I can carry it easily and refer to it through the day.

2. My daily tasks are written on a sticky note placed in the inside front cover of the GET SHIT DONE notebook. This list is pretty much the same as my digital calendar, plus a few added details or smaller tasks to fit in between scheduled meetings and tasks. I check or scratch things off as they get done. Each evening, the sticky note is garbaged and replaced with tomorrow's list. I have come to like not having old and past daily task lists in my notebooks.

3. One of my team members gave me a pretty 7x9 book with a cover (with pockets on inside covers) around a replaceable coil-bound notebook, that I use for ideas and meeting notes. I consider this the net to capture the thoughts, but not the home for that content. Usually the notes get typed up into meeting summary emails or a strategy or plan of some sort. Some items are transferred to the GET SHIT DONE task list notebook and scheduled into my calendar. I also use this book for my end-of-day quick note: "Best Thing About Today."

4. A LEUCHTTURN1917 notebook is the home for my ongoing lists. I make a lot of lists! Everything you can think of. And since my lists have a longer lifespan than the raw idea capture, meeting notes, or daily tasks, the lists have a place to live where they don’t have to be rewritten each time I start a new notebook. So now I have a notebook where my lists can be added to rather than recreated. This book includes 46 lists currently - from tracking things I want to do more of/less of;  companies that may be potential partners; personal aspirations and inspirations for health, creativity, work, and other areas of life; to art or writing project ideas. My approach to organizing them is this: I have hand-numbered the bottom of each right-side page in the notebook. The first pages of the notebook are used like an index. Each time I start a new list, I note its topic and page number in the front of the book. It's easy to find any topic I look for, as I refer to or add to the lists.

5. I use the thinner LEUCHTTURN1917 notebooks, sometimes lined sometimes unlined, for my pre-everything morning writes. This is pure brain-flow stream of consciousness stuff that helps me recognize what's on my mind, capture ideas that are bubbling below the surface, and write through to solutions for issues I'm facing. The discipline of morning writing is sacred to me, the writes are so incredibly beneficial. And I never read them again after having written them. Once the stuff is brought fully into my conscious mind, I don't need to.

These are elements of my system of keeping organized across personal and career. I have additional systems, and numerous spreadsheets and schedules, for leading and managing projects and campaigns. Perhaps a topic for a future post.

I'm sure my system will evolve as I discover and test (play with!) new products to share with you on this site.  

What’s your system? I’d love to hear what works for you and what isn’t working for you. Please let me know!

1 comment

  • You should offer seminars. Or webinars.

    Catherine on

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