Those who know me would point out that I am an organization freak. I separate shirts by colors and patterns. Proudly present my inbox zero to co-workers with more than a thousand unread emails.
What is my “secret”?
I call them Personal Management Systems. These are frameworks that ensure everything fulfills the tasks required.
People use management systems in their everyday lives without even noticing.
A prime example is the shopping list, so you won’t forget what to pick at the supermarket. Some use apps specifically for that purpose while others prefer the old pen and paper.
Everyone is trying to get the same output: remembering what to buy at the supermarket. However, different people use different systems to achieve that goal.
Systems exist for many reasons. They can save:
- Time: the assembly line, saving a company millions of hours per year
- Money: banks stopped sending their customers letter and instead publish online statements
- Effort: the alarm clock, that reduces your stress to accidentally oversleep
Sometimes systems can cover more than one advantage. Evernote saves you both time and effort. You jot notes down and are ready to go. And when you search for a particular note you will immediately find it (if you are organizing Evernote the right way).
A perfect system would then cover all the three since it solves three questions. However, most systems solve one or two reasons (and that’s completely fine).
Look at the repetitive tasks you do every day in your personal life. For example: waking up, getting dressed, showering, and walking/driving to work/school. You can optimize them by using a system. In fact, you probably already do it, by always being on the lookout for a faster route to drive to work, for example.
You might not realize some of these systems but they are there. I took notes of an entire week to discover repetitive tasks that I did every day or even several times a day.
The first step then is to access what tasks you repeat every day. Then look at what systems you have in place and which ones can be optimized.
The first question to ask yourself is: do I need a system?
Sometimes the best organizational system in not needing one.
Let’s focus the ‘yes’ answer to that question. Here’s how I build fail-proof management systems every single time.
How to Set Up a Management System
You have completed the first step in evaluating the need for a management system. Awesome! Now it’s time to set the ground rules.
The first rule of the productivity club? Your system must mimic how your brain searches rather than setting up a new task that you must learn. This removes the friction to continue applying your system in the future.
When deciding what to wear the default action of the brain is to dress accordingly to the weather. It remembers when you were cold because you decided to wear a t-shirt instead of a sweater. Looking outside will tell your brain the weather, helping it make the decision on what to wear.
It makes sense to divide your clothes per type then. Divide by: t-shirts, polos, shirts, sweater, and jackets. Having everything coupled together by type means your only decision is in color.
Since the brain also has a sense of fashion there are only a finite number of colors you can use with red pants. That’s why it makes sense to organize your clothes per color of some sort.
This ensures that in the end you only decide on a few items rather than your entire wardrobe.
The same thinking is applied to any productivity system. Setting it up the same way your brain works will make it easy to adopt, adapt and continue to use it in the long run.
You don’t want to spend time thinking about a system and setting it up only to stop using it. Or – even worse – make you do additional steps every time.
At its very core a productivity system must check three main points:
1. Easy to Search
You must be able to find anything you are looking for under 5 seconds.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a digital – organizing notes in Evernote – or physical system – organizing the movie collection. You must be able to find exactly what you are looking for fast.
In other words: the entire structure around your system must help you be more efficient.
2. Minimal Setup
You want to be able to set up your management system fast once and for all.
The only reason you are creating a system in the first place is to make your life simple, not more complicated. Don’t try to come up with the ‘perfect system’ that is at the same time super complicated to use and to set up.
Sometimes the simpler the system, the more efficient it will be. Less is more. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
3. Easy to Maintain
After setting up the system you will keep adding stuff to it – whether its clothes, notes or emails.
What this means is that you will be affecting the system by inputting more content into it. Having a system that it’s easy to maintain will ensure that it always stays organized.
Follow the rule of ‘two actions’: if it takes more than two actions to complete something, you are doing it wrong.
Digital life? Same rule, different naming: ‘two clicks’. If you are looking for a specific ebook and you have to go through folders and folders to find it, then it’s a broken system.
Folders are not how the brain works. The brain works by thinking of something and finding it. You should be able to go to your documents folder and search for it immediately. The organization should not rely on folders but rather on the names of the actual document.
Follow these three rules and the system will simplify your life (rather than complicating it).
We have covered the essentials of any management system. It’s time to think on a deeper level about your system.
Here’s the question you want to ask yourself:
What is the major problem I am trying to solve?
Often we overlook the reason why we create a system: we just want to be organized for the sake of it.
This is normally the confusion with people that all of the sudden want to adopt minimalism in their lives. They want to own less stuff for the sake of owning less stuff. They ‘join the cult’ because it’s cool, because everyone is doing it, because it’s trendy, because Kondo said so.
Most of these people will have their stuff back in a couple of months or years. The minimalist lifestyle was just a ‘phase’. Now stuff is cool again and they are free to buy and own stuff again. Joy to the world!
To write a blog all you need is a computer: I write all my posts in Evernote and Google Docs and it works fine. I don’t need fancy software for something I can do right now with what I have.
The same logic applies to weight loss, for example. They are not trying to solve a problem, they are just trying to lose weight to conform to social norms. That’s the reason most people will remain their weight back shortly afterward. The motivation was wrong.
I decided to lose weight a couple of years ago. I was a little bit overweight due to college life, not sleeping well, eating junk food and drinking a lot of beer. My main motivation was to be fitter and sharper to do my job, to feel better about myself and boost my confidence.
Obviously, I didn’t mind looking better and carving some abs.
However, if I did it just to look good on the beach then it would have been for the wrong reasons. Today I still have a small routine that I follow every day that keeps me sharp and in good shape. I haven’t gained my weight back because I still want to achieve that goal, continuously.
Which brings me to the original question: what pain are you trying to solve?
This could be spending less money or not forgetting stuff, being quicker making decisions (or eliminating decisions at all). Whatever it is, make sure you know it: you will build your system around it.
The bigger the pain the more you will use your system. Hopefully, at one point, it will replace the pain completely with happiness instead.
Building your Minimum Viable System (MVS)
Now that we have covered the groundwork, it’s time to start thinking about the architecture of your system.
This includes thinking of the hierarchy that you will be putting into place. How many layers are you going to need? How many actions do you need to get to the deeper level of everything?
I cannot stress this enough: simpler is better!
Building a simpler system means that you will cover the three main rules to perfection. It will be easier to search, minimal setup will be necessary and will be quick to maintain.
Organization is normally confused with compartmentalizing information to the tiniest of detail.
People set up multiple filters and folders in the email to separate all kinds of emails. This makes them feel productive and at the same time have everything ‘organized’.
This is far from ideal.
Making the system simpler will make your life simpler.
I only have one folder for newsletters. This means that all the websites I am subscribed to end up being filtered to the same folder.
Why is this important?
It allows me to process them in batch and go through them in a couple of minutes. This is simpler than going through multiple folder and filters to read all of them.
It’s also simpler to search. If I am searching for a newsletter, I can search within that folder only.
It took me less than 5 minutes to set everything up, using a couple of filters. If I subscribe to a new newsletter I simply include the new address on the filter (less than ten seconds).
I have other folders for Family, Friends and each of my projects.
The same principle should be applied to your system. Start by thinking of what you can join by type and what big groups you need to create.
You can even do the initial architecture on a piece of paper or, if you want to be a little more fancy, using a wireframe app such as Lucid Chart of Balsamiq (paint will also do!).
This problem tends to be more common in the digital organization. The restrictions on space we normally have offline are uncommon online since there is an almost infinite amount of space.
It would be weird to have different drawers for socks that have different colors. You would have one for black socks, another for blue socks and so on. This doesn’t happen: space is limited.
It then makes it easier to get carried away and create hundreds of folders or actions when in fact we need only a couple.
Finally, if you are setting a system that will be used by more people than you, then you need to make it easy for other people to learn it.
It’s easy to get carried away building a complex system. However, you’ll end up discovering that no one but you is using it (hint: this happens a lot in companies).
If you are building a new social media posting system, make sure you can explain how it works in under ten minutes. And be prepared to make some adjustments after getting feedback from your team.
Embrace the criticism: sometimes we are too close to the problem to see easier solutions to it.
At the very extreme, I would say that you should always have external sources reviewing your system, whether it’s a personal system or otherwise.
You would be amazed at the flaws they will point out.
The First Cleanup
You have decided on the architecture of our system. Yipee! Let’s move to do the first cleanup of all the existing items that will make part of it.
All items will now be an integrated part of your system and will be organized accordingly.
Let’s say you want to organize your music on iTunes. It makes sense to add all the music that is scattered around your computer/cloud/external storage into it. This will make sure that you can find all your music in one place.
To make life easier and start seeing progress fast – especially if you have thousands of items -, process them in batch. Follow 80/20 rule: focus the first 20% of your time into 80% of the items.
Focus on everything that you can process in bulk. You want to find things that you can either archive or delete altogether.
Following with the music example, this could mean music that you don’t listen to anymore. It’s quick to just delete it in one swipe, leaving you time to focus on the important artists that you currently like.
A lot of people stumble when they have to delete something from their life. They’re afraid they will need it later on and this is especially true for physical items. Trust me on this one: you won’t. Get it done and unclutter your life.
After completing the majority of the work, you can focus your effort on the stuff that actually matters.
When organizing Pocket, I deleted almost everything related to podcasts, books, music or apps recommendations. I didn’t even bother opening the bookmarks, I just straight up deleted them. The only links I saved were from recommendations from people I admire. These were less than 1% of the links, so I ended up deleting 40% of my Pocket in under one hour.
It’s easy to think I would need those resources. Truth is I never bothered opening them and whenever I want a new recommendation I Google it. They weren’t taking any space – so to speak – but they were fog amongst what I truly wanted to save.
After that, I identified the major websites of news and deleted almost everything. Finally, I knew which websites I would be most likely to save to Evernote for later reference, so I processed those as well.
After that, I had around 20% of my Pocket links left, at which point I started opening and reading it. I would then decide to do two actions only: archive with a tag or delete.
The ‘hack’ was to focus on the 80% of the task first. Do the same for your items.
One piece of advice: don’t make your system more complicated on the go because of past items. One or two modifications might be fine, but more than that and it’s time to revisit the architecture of your system.
The first cleanup can be mentally and physically draining, depending on the number of items you have. But it’s a necessary evil to stay organized from day one.
Up until now, we have been trying to correct the past. It’s now time to look into the future and move to the final step: using and keeping your system moving forward.
Keeping Your System Organized
The main mistake after setting a new system is to forget how to use it going forward.
You make it more complex by adding layers, complicate search and don’t process incoming items.
Setting up more filters in Gmail because you now have a new kind of email that needs to go to a different place. Most of the times you can insert it into an already filtered label.
You want to make your system simpler, not more complicated. Thus you should aim to remove filters, not add them.
If you have made it this far you are officially a productivity nerd: welcome to the club!
This post wouldn’t be complete without handing out some examples of productivity systems.
Hopefully, they will inspire you to start decluttering your life and become more organized!
Examples of Productivity Systems
Here are a couple of productivity systems to serve as inspiration.
Email to Inbox Zero
Ah, email, the corporate evil of the 21st century. I could only start with email in the examples.
I organized my inbox with only a handful of labels and I use multiple inboxes to view it in two columns. This turned my email into a GTD Gmail Inbox.
Anything that is not currently filtered will make its way to my inbox. This ensures that all important emails will always be on top, without being cluttered with promotional messages. Whenever I receive an email I have only three actions: reply, archive or delete.
Add a couple of Gmail tricks and you can tweak this system to your liking.
Everything is a Note
I have a lot of ideas per day – some good, some bad and a lot of them terrible. I also read a lot online and sometimes find great stuff that I want to save. And I manage many projects, so I must stay organized to find all my blog posts and ideas for them fast.
I use Evernote for all of the three things above, and more.
It’s the number one application in my life and one of the few that I am happy to pay for the upgrade. Almost everything that goes through my brain goes into it. I have book summaries, quotes I like, ideas for new projects, shopping list, updates on a project I am working on, restaurant reports, etc.
I keep the organization simple: everything arrives in my inbox and gets sorted from there to either a notebook or trash. The inbox is my default notebook for screenshots as well.
I have three different separate stacks: personal, projects and work. It’s pretty easy to understand what each one refers to, but I also try to keep the notebooks inside each stack to a minimal. This means using a broader category to aggregate different notes that are essentially the same type.
My notebook ‘Ideas’ contains new projects I could start, content for blog posts, and cool stuff I find on the internet for inspiration. They are different types of ideas but staying inside that notebook helps me to know when I search: if it’s an idea I had it’s definitely in that notebook.
Knowing what notebook I have to search in makes sure I find things fast, as I only search within that specific notebook.
A lot of people like to add notebook stacks and tags to make search more advanced and find exactly the one note they are looking for. But for now, this system is very simple to search and maintain (tagging takes time) and works well for the number of notes that I have.
Remember: less is more.
Always Know What to Wear
In this post, I touched briefly on how I organize my clothes.
Currently, all the hoodies, shirts, polos and t-shirts are on a hanger, in that order. There is also enough space for the pants there. I then have a small drawer dresser where I keep the underwear and socks, sweaters and sports clothes.
Everything is divided by category – hoodies, shirts, etc. – and then organized by color – from black to white – inside that category. I simply ask two questions: how cold is it and what color are my pants?
The first goes to my categories – cold for a shirt or hot for a t-shirt or polo – and the second goes to colors that match. By choosing the pants first I have more choices to match (I own considerably more upper parts than pants).
This system makes it super simple to find what I want to wear in the morning.
Every time I revise the architecture of the system, I try to make it simpler, either by removing layers or removing actions.
However, I am fully aware that removing most of the colors altogether would be more efficient and even have repetitive clothes.
I am not afraid to admit that I am vain and like to dress differently every day and find the idea of wearing the same thing every day a little bit extreme. But who knows, I might give it a try for one month and see what happens.
A big one. You can do it using pen and paper, an online tool, looking at your bank statement or using a money management app.
Again, this doesn’t have to be more complicated than it needs.
I use a simple spreadsheet. I fill it every weekend with the following fields: how much, when, what, what type, perishable or not.
Breaking down each section this is what I input:
- How much: the actual value of the expense
- When: the date of the purchase
- What: the specific expense within a category
- What type: refers to categories, such as health or food
- Perishable or not: simply to track if I buy only perishables or not (part of a 30-day challenge)
The trick is to not have a lot of categories, just enough so you can see where you are spending your money on.
I don’t differentiate between drinks, entries to a club, Karaoke or going to the movies. These are all under ‘Entertainment’. If I see a big number in any category in a month then I can go one level deeper – to the ‘what’ – and see the main expenses.
I separate ‘Food’ from ‘Eating Out’ because I want to have an overview of how much I spend eating out. I sacrifice the creation of one more category to see a specific type of spending.
However, this is the exception, not the rule. Don’t try to make a lot of exceptions in your system.
This takes me less than 10 minutes to do by checking receipts and online bank statement.
Uff, that was a long read.
I’m glad you made it this far and are now ready to put a system into place.
Remember the golden rules to build a great system:
- Searchable: find anything in 5 seconds or less
- Easy to set up: the simpler the system the easier it will be to set it up; aim for less than one hour
- Easy to maintain: don’t add complexity as you go, instead try to remove layers
When setting your system for the first time you will need to process everything going backward. This means categorizing and filling all the items that will be in your system.
The easiest hack is to follow the 80/20 rule. Focus 20% of your efforts on 80% of the items so you clear the way to work on things that demand your attention. Those are the 20% of items which are the really important ones.
Start by processing larger items. Then batch the remaining ones by grouping them into related categories as you process them.
Finally, read some of the systems I have implemented for inspiration on how to start organizing your life and be more productive.
Let me know the systems that you have implemented by dropping me an email. I will be more than glad to review and suggest alternative simpler approaches.