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I confess: I’m a terrible scatterbrain. It takes a lot for me to force my thoughts into a nice, orderly line and to keep them there — particularly in those busy times when I have a lot of competing priorities. In those times, I’ll often find […]

1206626_note_padI confess: I’m a terrible scatterbrain. It takes a lot for me to force my thoughts into a nice, orderly line and to keep them there — particularly in those busy times when I have a lot of competing priorities. In those times, I’ll often find myself working on one project while ideas for other tasks pop into my head at random.

Those thoughts can be as simple as “don’t forget to email Pete about that invoice” or as intricate as a new angle on an idea I’d been working on before. They’re basically the random things my brain spews out while I’m trying to focus on something else. I know I’m not alone — a lot of people experience the same thing.

Through a long process of trial and error, I’ve found that the best way to deal with these random thoughts — thoughts that are important and valuable, but unrelated to the task I’m working on — is to note them down. This way, I can be sure I won’t forget them, but I also reduce their interruption into my focus on other tasks.

For this reason, the handiest tool in my home office is a pen and paper. I’ve tried using online tools to note down my ideas, but I find that going online to add a task to my to-do list is like opening a door to the world: The temptation to check the news, weather, or my email is often too great to resist.

The problem with noting these random — but important — tasks in something as simple as my text editor is that, as a result of my scattered approach to work, I usually end up with so many apps open, and so many things going on, that I can forget I have my list hidden behind five other panes. Sometimes, I have trouble finding it at all.

My pen and paper are always at my elbow, so I don’t have any difficulty finding them. I like the fact that they’re physically separate from my computer: the place where I do my work. That physical separation helps me mentally divorce these thoughts from what I’m doing, which prevents them from distracting me from the task at hand.

My notepad is my “random thoughts” area, so I treat it as such; my tasks lists are online, well-planned and carefully formulated. But my notepad is a space that’s dedicated to shards of thoughts, germs of ideas that I know need more work and attention before I can do something with them.

And I do give them that attention — sooner or later. Usually, I try to take a look at my list when I get to a break point in what I’m doing. I can take the easy-to-do stuff, prioritize it, and add it to my task list immediately. And I can check my schedule to see when I can set aside half an hour for thinking more about the new angle for that previously concepted idea. Perhaps I’ll also take the opportunity to find my brainstorming notes for that idea and add the new thought to them, ensuring that I keep all the thoughts about that project together.

Once I’ve sorted through the items on my page, I turn it over and start a new page: a clean slate for new random thoughts that may occur in the next work period. So, my pen and notepad are the handiest tools in my home office.

What about you? What remote working tool do you value most?

Photo credit: stock.xchng user RAWKU5.

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By Georgina Laidlaw

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  1. Very close to regular paper and pen is my “pocket briefcase” from Levenger:

    http://www.levenger.com/PAGETEMPLATES/PRODUCT/Product.asp?Params=Category=16-901|Level=2-3|pageid=2398

    It is a leather case that holds 3 x 5 cards with the lines going across the 3″ width rather than the usual 5″ orientation.

    • It stays in my pocket making it as handy as it can possibly be.
    • It has pockets to keep blank cards and my “reference cards” (I have a terrible time with names, so I usually write a person’s name down on a card as soon as I can so I won’t forget it), receipts, and other small paper items.
    • It is very well-constructed of fine leather, and having my initials embossed on it gives it a rather classy appearance. I have tried others and always found them lacking.
    • The 3 x 5 cards are much easier to archive in a box than paper from a memo pad.
    • It provides a solid surface to write on if I’m standing or seated in a vehicle or someplace where a desk is not available.

    I really like fountain pens, so that’s the other half of the set.

    1. I have something similar to the Levenger “pocket briefcase”, except mine is a cheaper makeshift version.

      I have a more feminine, brightly colored case with four business card-sized slots and two index card-sized slots on the left side, and a stack of paper on the right. I bought index cards from OfficeDepot (they’re lined the way you described, across the 3″ axis instead of 5″) and clipped them together with a binder clip. The pen I keep at the center is a Pilot G2 gel pen. The whole setup couldn’t have cost more than $25.

      It’s not as durable or professional-looking as leather, but it’s more than sufficient for my purpose, which is to manage life as a college student. My “office” must fit in my backpack, so I use simple, cheap, and portable supplies to help me get my work done.

    2. By the way, I don’t want to come off as if I’m criticizing the Levenger product, because it does look stunning. It seems like something my dad or any other professional would make great use of. Having one’s initials embossed on it would give it a nice finishing touch.

  2. Stephen McGehee Thursday, October 1, 2009

    I guess I should also point out that I keep a regular spiral bound (bound at the top) notepad on my desk at all times. That is where all phone messages, quick “to do” tasks are written, and general “scribble notes” are made.

    For a guy who has been making a living writing software for the past 14 years, my organizational techniques are decidedly old-school. My use of 3-ring binders is another topic though.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. One can learn a lot from it. To be more organized in fulfilling my daily errands I use Chandler “Running-To-Do-Lists” and thus my day does not feel so stressful and packed. Email Sorter Wizard, an Outlook add-in, helps me to stay organized with my email inbox too. Organizing, sorting and filing are the specialties of this helpful little wiz and it is easy to create the rules for it. I enjoyed reading this interesting post.

  5. Funny, I just found myself trying this out. If I have a task to remember to do first thing in the morning, it goes onto a page on my desk. I’m with you, I need the divorce from the computer or I’ll never see it.

    I’ve tried emailing myself via SMS and even set up a tag in gmail to help filter my random thoughts, but I forget to check it later! I’m going to try Evernote but for now, the ol’ pen and paper will do!

  6. Stephen Clay McGehee Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    Tim, I haven’t found any software tool that works as well as paper and pen when it comes to all-around usefulness. There are clearly software tools that do certain office tasks better, but pen and paper is still my number one tool.

    I recently bought a new laptop, and I have been setting it up based on lessons learned over the years. I have been moving away from the Microsoft monopoly as much as possible (since the software I write is Windows-based, I can’t get away completely), so I look for software that can be used with both Windows and Linux (I use both on the 8 computers here in our office). I have found that Mozilla Sunbird does calendar functions far better than Outlook – at least for the way I use it. When it comes to software tools for the office, Sunbird is probably the top spot on my list. The fact that it is free is a great plus. I also use other Mozilla software such as Thunderbird and Firefox. Check into getting away from the Microsoft monopoly and you’ll find there are plenty of great tools out there.

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