notes-organiz

i am a very disorganized person so this file, which may seem like it is a bunch of tips on how to be well-organized from someone who is organized, is really just a bunch of notes to myself on things i've recently tried or that i'd like to try. Some of what is written here is more of an ideal rather than what i actually do. This is a learning experience.


ok now i have a todo system which seems to work pretty well:

On my Android smartphone, i use an app called Simpletask. Simpletask has a widget that i put on my homescreen, in a tall rectangle three boxes tall and two boxes across. This widget shows my top-priority todo items. If i want to see more, i can scroll down. Todo items can be prioritized as A,B,C,D, etc, or they can be unprioritized (which means they are lower priority than letter Z; the default is unprioritized). The widget has a "+" sign at the top, and if i click on it, i go to a screen to add a new todo item. I can delete an item by selecting it and then clicking a 'done' icon. The todo list is saved as a plaintext file in a simple standard format called 'todo.txt' by Gina Trapani et al. Simplelist Android app uses Dropbox to sync the todo.txt file with my computer.

I use priority 'B' to mean things that i won't go to sleep tonight until i do. Priority 'C' is things i am planning to do today but that won't keep me up if i don't. Priority 'D' is things i really should do in the next few days.

Priority 'A' is reserved; 'A' is like 'B' (do today) but is reserved in case things get really hectic and i start messing up and leaving things undone in 'B' -- 'A' should be empty almost all of the time.

I also have a text file in my computer called todoB.txt. Items that aren't important enough to go in todo.txt go here. These are usually things that i start out thinking 'i really need to do this in the next few days' and then later i realize that while it would be great to do them, there is really no deadline for them, at least not anytime soon. I also have a todoC.txt, todoD.txt, etc. I don't leave everything in todo.txt for some reason, not quite sure why. Maybe because when my todo widget isn't blank, i have to think for a moment to realize that all the items it is showing are low-priority, so i prefer to not have low priority items there at all?

When i encounter a new todo item while out, i add it to my todo.txt list from the widget. If it does not deserve to be an A,B, or C, i leave it unprioritized. Every now i then i edit the todo.txt file on my computer and move the unprioritized items to the other todo list files.

When there is an important todo with a distant deadline, i make two entries on my calendar, one at the due date, and one sometime before that when i need to add it to my todo.txt.

For the calendar, i have another Android widget, from an app called Agenda Widget. This widget is next to the todo.txt widget on my home screen. It's also 3 boxes high and 2 boxes wide. It shows the next few items on my calendar. If i want to see more, i can scroll down. I keep my calendar in Google Calendar.

So when i use my smartphone, usually the first thing i see is the next few items on my calendar and my top-priority todo items. This keeps me from forgetting them. Key principal: don't rely on my being rational enough to have the discipline of looking at my todo list multiple times a day on purpose.

Most of my home screen is taken up by the agenda (calendar) widget and the todo.txt widget. Below it there is only one row four boxes wide of free space. Three of those spaces are taken up by: an icon that takes me to edit a text files called 'notes.txt'; an icon that takes me to edit a text files called 'shop.txt'; Ringer Mode Timer Widget.

notes.txt is where i put notes and ideas of all kinds that i write on my smartphone when i'm out. this is just an inbox; i periodically go thru this and move these notes to other notes files.

shop.txt is where i put shopping list items. Both of these are synced with my computer via dropbox. Ringer Mode Timer Widget is a widget (that i wrote) that with one click cycles thru Ring, Vibrate, Silent, but reverts to Vibrate 9 hours afterwards. I use this when i go to sleep at night to set the phone to Silent, so that it'll automatically set itself back to Vibrate the next day. There is one empty spot on my homescreen that i can put other apps or icons in if i am using them a lot.

issues:

later:

trying something a little new. The previous system worked okay for A,B,C,D items, but less urgent items piled up at 'E' and i need to separate the must-do longer term items from the optional ones. So i'm adding meanings to more letters to differentiate these. Also, above i said 'B' is 'definitely do today', but in practice i used it as 'planning to do today' and used 'A' as 'definitely do today', which means that i no longer had any way to differentiate definitely-do-later-today-before-bed from definitely-do-today-really-soon; so i'm adding another letter in there, and also another letter to distinguish planning to do in the next few days from planning to do in the next week or so.

today and tomorrow:

next few weeks:

priority list/context/waiting-on/reactive items. Note: 'reactive' items, such as lists of things to say to a specific person when that person next contacts me, are always placed at these priority levels; A-I is for things that are only waiting on me to get done:

'scan boundary': A-M should be scanned through frequently, lower priority levels don't have to be looked at as often

must or really want to do:

should do:

project/waiting-on/reactive items (where the project itself is already a higher-prioritiy todo list item; so these items don't ever need to be scanned, they are just here so that they can appear when you filter by list or by tag. The difference between these and J,K,L is that J,K,L are above the 'scan boundary' and so you will be periodically reminded of those items even when you are not querying for a list that they are on, whereas you'll mostly only see the items here if you query for something that they match). Uses for these include: (1) sub-items within 'projects' that depend on each other (so you can't do the later ones until you finish the earlier ones); the project itself can be given a @list and go in A-I to remind you to query it, and then you put its subitems in a list (2) things that you can't do until someone else gets back to you or some external event occurs (this assumes that you don't need to followup if it's taking too long and also that you'll remember to check for the dependent items when the event occurs; otherwise, you should scan these every now and then):

for events that i am worried about forgetting about or for tasks that i don't want to start anytime soon but which need to be done later by a certain date, i use three things:

note: most of the todo list is just for tasks and need-to-do projects that might be forgotten, not for goals/larger optional projects. So for example 'buy milk' and 'taxes' both go on this list, but 'learn spanish' and 'do chapter 3 of spanish practice' do not. An exception is the W,X,Y priority levels, which are planned projects for the current week/month/quarter. Longer-term ideas that i may or may not want to ever do go into project folders, or into generic text files like "stuff_to_buy" (stuff to consider buying someday/maybe) or "read.txt" (books to consider reading someday/maybe).

note: i also use this list for reminders of things to remember through repetition; i write 'r ' at the left of the entry, and every time i read it, i move it down one priority level.

note: when i tried to use this sort of list to keep track of 'every task remaining to be done' for a project, i soon found that i had a zillion things under J-M and R-V, many of them duplicates of each other. It's better to have a separate per-project todo list for each project in addition to this one; that's also important so that you can share the per-project todo list with others working on the project with you. You can temporarily add items to this list when you think of them and then move them to the per-project todo list later. You can also, later, copy them back from the per-project todo list back to this one when you want to remember to do them in the next few days, or when you want to remember to mention them to someone else the next time you talk to that person.

later:

some issues:

some ideas:


later notes on simpletask:

simpletask has 'lists' (todo.txt contexts). You can put something on a list by adding the listname prefixed with '@' in the item text (or by using the list icon when editing). simpletask also has 'tags' (todo.txt projects). You can attach a tag to something by adding the tagname prefixed with '+' in the item text (or by using the tag icon when editing). I don't know what the difference between them is; maybe they are just two distinct dimensions along which to organize, each of which operates identically to the other? One item can be on multiple lists and can have multiple tags.

If you swipe left on the main todo.txt page, a menu slides out from the left that lets you filter by any combination of lists and tags.

If you swipe right on the main todo.txt page, a menu slides out from the right that lets you recall saved filters, and save the current filter.

You can create 'hidden tasks' with placeholders to keep specific lists and tags in existence so that they appear in the various list and tag menus in the UI (by putting 'h:1' in their text).

simpletask allows you to set 'threshold dates' and then define filters that hide items before their threshold date (or put them at the end). It also allows you to set 'due dates'. It also allows you to 'manually' (via text) set recurring tasks (see Help documentation for that).

simpletask will add threshold and due date reminders to your calendar.


creativity is incompatible with getting things done, or with good time management.

In order to be creative you have to write down ideas on something when the fancy strikes you. In order to be creative you have to work out ideas on something when the fancy strikes you. Worse, the process of writing down and especially the process of working out an idea often leads to new ideas, which must then be immediately written down and worked out. This can go on all day.

The time for creativity cannot be pre-planned, because often a good idea will come from something tangentially related (e.g. seemingly unrelated).

You cannot just write down the superficial idea when you have it and then come back later at a planned time to write down the rest or to work it out. Most of the time, your planned time will not be a time when you happen to be inspiried for this sort of idea, so you will miss all the other ideas that might have come. (i am not sure about this paragraph but this is my guess).

Now, compare this to getting things done. Getting things done requires time management. Time management requires (a) planning times to do certain things, and when that time comes, actually doing them; and (b) planning times to STOP doing certain things, and when that time comes, actually stopped. But if you are being creative, you cannot always achieve (a) because sometimes the time when you had planned to do something will occur in the middle of a writing ideas down/working ideas out session. You cannot always achieve (b) because you if you are being creative, you cannot cut off a writing ideas down/working ideas out session.

It is important to realize this incompatibility because if you try to be creative AND to get things done at the same time, you will fail (or at least, i do). For years i tried to do this and the result was that i was very creative but i didn't get much done.

Is there any hope? Not much. But there is a little:


a crucial part of time management is putting bounds on elapsed time.


"The common denominator of success --- the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful --- lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do. "

think about what things you should be doing that you don't like to do

opposed: motivate yourself by allowing anything "productive" to be work


tips for physical organization

if a container is hard to get at, or hard to see inside of, then it's important to know what's inside of it. Such containers should either contain a well-defined category of items, or should be inventoried.


i usually end of keeping notes for various things in a plaintext computer file in reverse chronological order (newest note at top), with notes separated by '--' on a line by itself, like this:

note1 blah blah blah

--

note2 blah blah blah

i just do a search through this file to find stuff. i have a main 'notes' file for random notes, and for each project at work i have one too. for files where i'm just writing down ideas, i keep those in forward chronological order.


text files:


ideas regarding todo lists


keeping up

i spend a lot of my time reading tech news on websites like Hackernews. This is a problem. I'm trying to train myself to look at such things yet ignore as much of the content as possible, except when it is truly useful to me, but have not yet been successful.

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interruptions

I've noticed that people who manage their time well have schedules that say how long they will allow themselves to spend on each thing. So this is probably the best thing to do. But of course, there are also interruptions, e.g. a coworker calls you and needs something, so this can't be the whole story.

One form of interruption is new ideas, see below.

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psychological issues

it's important to get the more unpleasant things out of the way earlier in the day when you have more willpower.

it's good to periodically write down some visions/goals. This helps your mind focus on them and helps notice random related opportunities. This worked for Scott Adams. http://www.self-help-and-self-development.com/written-affirmations.html

it's good to focus on things you can change.

"small wins" help with motivation.

Many productivity things are habits that you form. You form a habit by doing something many times over, and by not giving up after you mess up.

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formal todo systems:

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successful people do one thing at a time. but suboptimal people like me are interested in many things.

perhaps a good compromise would be to have goals in 3s; e.g. have 1 primary project but also one secondary and tertiary project

(what would mine be? perhaps, thesis, katherine, ?; maybe ? is making money to support myself?)

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new ideas

the main time management problem for me is new ideas. i get some idea about something and so i want to write it down before i forget it. Then in the process of writing it down i have another related new idea. This can go on for over a week.

not sure what to do here. my PhD? advisor says he just doesn't write them down and if they are good he finds he remembers them, but i really do forget them if i don't write them down and occasionally they seem to be good ones.


organizing space

see tips/roomOrganization.txt


ergonomics

todo

keyboard, mouse height is crucial (wrist angle) rest breaks are crucial stretching is crucial ergo chair foot pedals for pgup, pgdown barmouse vertical keyboard alternate cobra, soma


Managing incoming messages

email client

i use mutt as my email client.

i try to empty my primary inbox as often as possible. this is done mainly by sending any message that has already been viewed to a secondary inbox, named "mbox" (unless i've "flagged" the message, in which case it stays in the primary inbox). Mutt does this automatically whenever i fetch new mail (it asks me for confirmation first).

mbox is for mail that i need to do something about. i also have a tertiary inbox, my "treasure chest", for fun stuff (emails about politics, debates with friends, pictures, jokes, forwards, etc).

when reviewing new mail, i go down and try to either delete, or send to mbox, or send to treasure chest, as many messages as possible.

new mail is color coded (the background color is black):

i'm still not very good about actually reviewing and dealing with the messages in mbox, however.

drafts folder

mutt has a drafts/postpone function where you can start writing a message, stop in the middle, and postpone your draft. then whenever you try to start a new message, it asks you if you want to continue a draft. this gets cumbersome when you have like a million unfinished drafts. so, if anything is here for more than a day or so, i move it out of mutt's system and into a drafts folder:

if i have something i want to tell someone, but i'm still writing it, or for whatever reason i don't want to say it in email, i put it in a drafts folder ("say"). in this folder, there is one file for each person. within the file, any drafts intended to be sent to them are there, seperated by lines with dashes.


notes to self

i have one general "notes" text file that i put all sorts of random notes in. i separate notes or sections of notes with "---" (or sometimes more dashes, e.g. "--------------------------", and sometimes multiple lines of dashes). i just use fulltext search to find the notes, so sometimes i write keywords in with the notes. i don't sweat about going thru this file and deleting old notes, although i've done that once or twice; if something goes in here, it means that i'm okay with it if i never see it again. this file is synced to my phone. this file is pretty much always open in an emacs buffer.

any notes that can be public, i try not to put in this file, but rather on the wiki version of my website (although if it's not important sometimes finding a place to put it on the website is too much bother). my wiki pages are compiled from folders full of plaintext files on my computer that i edit in my text editor. you are reading from one of these now. as you can see, they are organized into a hierarchy by subject, and the hierarchy is somewhat redundant, causing similar information to sometimes be spread over multiple files, until i notice and consolidate.

Because i try to put my personal notes on my public website, much of what is on that website is unimportant or unreadable. I highlight the "good stuff" using my blog.

incoming notes from phone

i have another notes text file on my phone. unlike the general notes file, the notes in here are always processed, i.e. i frequently clean out the file, which usually involves transferring each note to some other computer file. the purpose of this is to allow me to jot something down quickly on my phone without hunting thru my folders to open the appropriate file first.

remember

reminders about habits that i want to improve on go into a "remember" file, to be glanced at from time to time.

the file is synced to my phone, so that i can look at it while waiting in line etc.

long-term project notes files

most long-term projects have their own folder, and in that folder is their own notes file (called PROJECTNAMENotes.txt; if it was just called "notes" then the buffer would be hard to switch to using ido in emacs). many of them have their own todo file, too. some have multiple todo files, see below.

todo lists and calenders

Using text files for todo lists. Using Google Calendar for calendars. All of these text files are synced to my phone. The homepage of my phone displays a shortcut to todo1 and a shortcut to todo2 (using the AnyCut? Android app; see notes-computer-android-apps), as well as a calendar widget (the Agenda Widget Android widget).

Todo lists

the format of these files is: i put a blank line in-between todo items

why have so many lists? The reason is mainly psychological. It's hard to admit that i'll never actually do a task; hence the existence of list 5. Similarly for many of the other lists. Many people recommend not having 5 different todo lists, and if i had the willpower, i'd agree. If not for th psychological consideration, three lists (todo12, todo34, and todo5) would probably do the trick.

the most crucial part is keeping todo1 and todo2 as short as possible, and looking thru them often. If you don't have time to "process" them, just read thru them once quickly; at least then you'll know you're not forgetting anything important. you can do this from time to time when you are waiting in line, etc.

you also have to look thru lists todo3 and todo4 from time to time, otherwise they become synonyms for todo5, and then you'll be reluctant to demote items to them.

it is important to demote items to the less important lists whenever you can bear it.

if i am waiting on some external person or event before i can do an item, i put a "W " in front of it.

if a todo item has some related information that only takes up a few lines of text, i put it right there below it. if it has more, i put the info in my general notes file.

if i have forgotten what a todo item means, i put it at the bottom of the list with a question mark in front of it, hoping i'll remember. eventually i delete it.

big projects have their own set of todoc thru todoe lists. there is only one todo1 and only one todob list, though; all projects get mixed in those.

Calendars

i have the following calendars setup in Google Calendars:

Items with due dates which do not have to be done soon but which i don't want to forget about when the time comes go on the "Bayle Shanks reminders" Google Calendar.

My Agenda widget on my phone displays the Bayle Shanks calendar.

summary of periodic organizational tasks

at least daily

glance at:

at least every couple of days

at least every week

 (i don't actually do this yet but i want to)

when possible

 (i don't actually do this yet but i want to)

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the night before not even trips just a normal day pack everything up just the way you will carry it, and all in one place. this is not just for speed and ease, but mainly for not forgetting stuff.

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priority: i define goal A to be higher priority than goal B iff working on A should preempt working on B.

Under this notion of priority, things of only instrumental value can be higher priority that the more 'important' instrinsically valuable goals. E.g. few people would say that the highest purpose of their life is to breathe; they would say things like raise children, love their family, have spiritual experiences, have novel experiences, enjoy themselves, etc. But if your ability to breathe is threatened, you have to immediately put off pursuing those other goals until after you solve the breathing problem; the breathing goal pre-empts almost all others, so it is of very high priority.

For people into meditation who do think that breathing is the most important thing ever, replace 'breathing' with 'defecating' in the above argument. Or 'drinking water'.

These others are actually an interesting case, because unlike breathing, you can sometimes put off e.g. drinking water while you pursue another, more important goal. But you can't put it off for very long; maybe an hour but not a week. So technically speaking, in order to know priorities you first must specify the timescale of interest. On the timescale of minutes, drinking water is often low-priority (you could easily put it off just to hear the end of a song, for example, or even because you don't feel like getting out of your chair), but on the timescale of weeks, it is high-priority.

Another interesting point to be made is that there are a lot of latent, high-priority negative goals, such as 'don't lose the ability to breath', 'don't get eaten by a lion', 'don't get smashed by a falling rock'. etc, which aren't usually in play (they are usually satisfied) but which are high-priority when they do come into play.

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the key to organizing varied intellectual things, such as bookmarks, or pages on your personal website, is to think about how the user will be using using them.

this is contrary to my initial impulse, which is to organize things first by ontological category (e.g. on my website, is this page just notes aobut something already existing, or is it an idea for some project, or is it a list of recommendations?). but instead you should segment first by different user goals or user types, so that a user with a given goal can find everything they want in one place.

In the case of bookmarks, you also care about minimizing how many clicks it takes you to add a new bookmark, which means minimizing both the depth and breadth of the hierarchy (you don't want to have to click down many levels, but you also don't want to have to scroll too far in any given level). These considerations mean that you should lump more things together than you otherwise would.

For the consumer, too, you may want to lump things together; you want to avoid having your hierarchy be so refined that someone looking for something isn't sure where to look for it; better to make them look through a lot of things when they get there. Even if you are the only person doing the cataloging and also the only person using the catalog, even over a short period of time, i've found that i need to make things less refined than i think. (by 'more refined' i mean having more divisions (folders) rather than less, whether those are breadth or depth)

another tip is to explicitly segment things by priority (or quality). This allows you to make it easy to find the most important/best stuff without having to have the hierarchy be too refined. Consider having roughly geometrically increasing numbers of items as you go to lower priority.

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control of your schedule and 'capturing' activities: it's important that you control your schedule, meaning that at least a few days a week you sit down and say, 'what am i going to work on for the next few hours?'. I'm not saying that the answer won't be predetermined (it might always be 'work on my thesis', for example), i'm just saying that you need to not get held up before that point by recurring tasks such as checking email, reading the news, etc.

Reading magazines is an example of a 'capturing' activity because if you feel you need to do it, the reason is probably because either you don't want to 'miss' any very useful information that everyone in your field 'should know', or because you want to slowly accumulate random useful information. In other words, you want to 'capture' that information.

When you do this, you need to have a way to cut off exploration of new information; e.g. you need to have a list of to-reads, rather than actually reading stuff. You also need to limit overall capturing by having ways to index stuff you want to look thru in a way that it won't ever go away, and then not to actually look thru it as it comes in. You can then do the 'important new stuff everyone else' knows separately by only glancing at the top-indexed items (but if you are prone to get caught up in such things, then see if you can even do without that).

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email organization:

when browsing thru email, be quick to send it to 'mbox' using the single key you mapped above.

when on a trip without a laptop, and you don't want to go thru most of your email, use the Android Gmail client. Select a bunch of messages at once by long-pressing, then send them to your mbox folder. Upon return from the trip, look thru mbox.

it's okay to leave a few emails in your inbox as to-do items for a short period of time when you don't have much else in there, but if there is more than a few of these, or if you are about to go thru a period where you don't empty your inbox daily, or if any of them have been sitting there more than few days, then create todo items for them instead and delete or save the emails. (note: packages that need to be gotten from a PMB need to have individual todo items or emails, so that you can keep track of how many of them should be there)

aside from the few 'todo' emails indicated in the previous paragraph, your goal is to have an empty inbox each time you go thru your email, which should be at least every other day.

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i use the "todo.txt" app on Android. It keeps your todo list in a text file, and syncs the text file via Dropbox. That way i can edit the todo list using an ordinary text editor on my computer, or using the app on my phone.

The todo items in this app have priorities (from A to Z) but they don't have due dates, so if an item has a due date i also put it on my calendar.

Here is how i use the priorities.

I don't put big/obvious, unforgettable items on the todo list; the list is only for things i might forget.

I use Google Calendar.

Also, i have the Dropsync app on my phone, to automatically sync my Dropbox items.

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the avoiding-getting-"into the weeds" thought pattern is useful

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my goal is to glance at new email headers, and scan my SMS homescreen, about once a day. I often respond same-day to what looks like quick questions (esp. if i can do so from my phone while out). But for items that look like they could require more than a minute, i try to put them aside without reading and go back to working on what i had already planned to work on that day -- because otherwise i'd not ever get around to high-importance low-urgency tasks. Therefore, although sometimes i can get back to those things soon, more often i take more than a few days to respond. Especially when thought is required: often i like to write a draft, then sleep on it, etc.

i do try to respond quick when there are severe consequences to delay (physical danger or a lot of money at risk, and only i can stop it).

if someone whom i know really needs to get in touch with me fast, they might put URGENT at the beginning of an email subject header, or if it's an emergency, they might text me in all-caps and also call me on the phone twice -- i'd see that the next time i check my phone.

my goals are to respond within a day for critically important severely urgent things, within 2 days for urgent/important stuff and for quick questions, and within a week for most other 'work' things; or faster when possible.

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