At first glance, my office looks like a neat and tidy den of well-organized supplies, electronic equipment and an in-control inbox. So much so that visitors to my work area often blurt out an astonished, “Does your office always look like this, or did you clean […]

At first glance, my office looks like a neat and tidy den of well-organized supplies, electronic equipment and an in-control inbox. So much so that visitors to my work area often blurt out an astonished, “Does your office always look like this, or did you clean it up for me?”

“No,” I sheepishly say. “It pretty much looks like this all the time.” Inevitably my response brings an involuntary shake of their heads, followed by a statement that always goes something like, “Wow, I wish my work area was this together.” If they only knew.

On the surface, my office is a well-oiled organizational machine, and, compared to many people, I suppose my compulsive neat-freak streak does win out. But the deep, dark secret of my organizational shame is that my computer, while well placed on my uncluttered desk, is harboring enough unfinished business to choke a horse.

The problem is particle management. Up until a year ago, I was mostly working with five to six major corporate clients at one time. But in the wake of the economic shakeup, I now find myself juggling 10-20 smaller ones. And this requires a whole new way of thinking and managing information. I hunt for data on my computer the way I look for lost keys at the bottom of my purse — shaking the whole thing out on the table and sorting through the junk until I find what I’m looking for.

Let’s face it, my old systems for client and information management had broken down, and I was a loose-ends mess. So I went in search of a system of simplification that would help me regain my sense of equanimity, track my to-do’s effectively, follow up with potential clients efficiently and invoice in a timely manner. I don’t think that’s too much to ask – do you?

In my attempts to find software or web solutions that would keep things from falling through the cracks, I’ve tried at least five to-do-list managers, four contact management systems and several CRM products — all to no avail.

I even consulted my husband Jon for his sage advice. His recommendations seemed sound, but Jon, being a web designer and Internet marketing specialist, was all about the latest and greatest technology. Too much for me, since in spite of all my web work, I’m a simple girl, technologically speaking.

Frustrated, I turned to my administrative assistant Shelah for help. I ran Jon’s ideas by her. “Too complicated,” she immediately said. “Let’s start with the simplest solution and work our way up from there.” And what was Shelah’s simple solution? An Excel spreadsheet, and the to-do list built into my Apple Mail.

“Excel?” I said. “How could a simple spreadsheet resolve my complex workflow issues?”
“Here, I’ll show you,” said Sheila. Two hours later, all the data I had been hunting and pecking to find on my hard drive was integrated, organized and optimized into one nice, easy-to-find document with tidy tabs. I wanted to cry.

Next, we took all of the to-do’s off my very sophisticated to-do-list software — with its customized priority, multiple-context, project assigning capabilities — and moved them to my Apple Mail basic to-do list. You know, the kind that reminds you of the pen-and-legal-pad method we used to use, but a bit more sophisticated. I could enter the item to be done, the date it was due and its basic priority (high, medium or low). At the click of a button, I could see what I needed to do on what day and easily move items to a different date as I needed to. Again with the crying.

Now, I’m not saying that an Excel spreadsheet or a mail program to-do list is the right answer for everyone, so please — no cards and letters. But what I am suggesting is that folks who work in the world of high tech often look for more functionality in their productivity solutions than they really need in practicality.

How often do we as web workers make things more complex than they need to be? Because in the end, productivity isn’t about how many bells and whistles a solution has; it’s about how easy, practical and efficient it is to use. Sometimes, less really is more.

Are your productivity systems overly complicated?

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By Karen Leland

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  1. Excel?!

    Have you, by any chance, had a look at the offerings by 37signals (Basecamp)?


  2. I’m looking for someone who can do a small job for me now, possibly turning into a larger job later. I won’t know until I rate my response. Here is what I need now:

    I have a very simple web site; about four pages of text with an eagle as a logo. Aside from the eagle, no pictures, no graphics. Check it out at — citpac.com.

    My old copy at citpac.com has a number of spelling errors and more important it carries a mailing address that I cancelled months ago. I want to take that copy down and replace it with my improved version. The new version includes Pay Pal selling a small booklet.

    Is this something you can do? If so, please quote prices. If not would you like to recommend some one.

  3. Can you share the basics of the spreadsheet?

    Did you link the tasks between both programs, or are you managing them separately?

    1. I use the spreadsheet to manage the basic data of my business. One tab for each of the following:

      Potential Clients
      Current Clients
      Cash Flow
      Media Contacts

      These are the basic categories I need to manage everyday. In this form, I can do a quick review of all of these very easily. Hope that helps.

      1. Ijuggle clients and tasks everyday but my salvation was being introduced to the ‘Weboffice’ through http://www.vhqsolutions.co.uk , a collaborative working environment for everything. Free trials are a good way of testing if a system works for you. Take a look!

  4. I think simple is best in just about everything. I do love the 37 Signals products (using High Rise now and have used Basecamp in the past), but one of my favorite pieces of “technology” is a plain index card. They are so good for planning (1 idea per card), writing down future blog post ideas (they hardly ever come when I’m at the computer), or sorting the steps to a website/project on the desk or floor to get a good visual.

    I used to be tied to the latest and greatest, but now I just want the simplest thing that will do what I need it to do. Sometimes that is the latest technology, and sometimes that is old-school pencil and paper.

    1. Amen Betsy;

      I have gone back to taking notes on a yellow pad for just this reason. Sure I have to transfer them to my computer later, but my brain works differently with pen and paper.

  5. less folders i have on my pc, less time i need to find something, really have to thik twice before bringing someething in

    self organizing tips

  6. Try Things from Cultured Code for To-Do list management. Simple like Mail.app with a little more power.

  7. cadewhitbourn Monday, January 18, 2010

    Yes please, I would be interested in the basics of the spreadsheet as well. I’ve developed my own spreadsheet system recently for tracking tasks to be completed by a small team and I would be interested in comparing.

  8. Less is definitely more. Backup is also important. Two simple and free choices for backing up your business critical spreadsheet are:

    1. Move it to Google Docs
    2. Save it in a Dropbox folder.

    My company sells a terrific CRM system that we will customize as far as anyone wants and can pay for, but we use spreadsheets for our own finance, HR and many other areas.

    Less is more.

  9. I agree with you about making it simple and workable. I’ve tested out numerous ToDo list programs, several aimed at integrating with my iPhone. The two I’m juggling right now and comparing are Google Task Lists and a paper system called Planner Pads.

    Google Tasks is nice, it has the ability to create separate lists for a client (or category) and assign a due date. The only drawbacks to me are the inability to share a list or a ToDo in a collaborative manner, and the inability to create a repeating ToDo with a due date – e.g. every Monday. So I have ToDo’s in both my calendar and my Task List as a result.

    The Planner Pads (plannerpads.com) is nice because its system is much simpler than other paper versions I’ve used before. It allows for weekly ToDo’s and Daily ToDo’s and the system is actually very effective for someone like me – I have a tendency to color code and that works great for me. The drawback is that, of course, its paper and one more thing to lug around with me. I’d actually like a system that combines this system with some technology….

    … maybe I should just use an excel chart?

  10. David Stiernholm Monday, January 18, 2010

    I totally agree. Simplicity is for me one of the key components of a well structured workplace. What I like with Excel is that it’s so easy to define my own categories or perspectives (just add another column) and I can even work out an algoritm that makes it easier for me to prioritize. I’m not dependent on what functions someone else (the to-do-app-designer) thinks I should need.

    We can get the latest task management tool with all its bells and whistles, and yet, sometimes, even a well structured paper notebook is all we need.

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