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The Box: A Simple Way to Stay Organized and Productive

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boxI just finished reading Twyla Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” Although it focuses more on creative types, much of the advice can be applied to solo entrepreneurs and small business owners.

One helpful tip was her organizational system: a box.

“Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box. I start every [project] with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as [it] progresses, I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the [project].”

This resonated with me since I like to think of all of my work in terms of projects, and at any given point, I usually have several of them going on. I’ve modified the idea a bit for my purposes.

The box concept provides a way to become better organized so that capturing, processing, and actually taking action on information becomes seamless.

Step 1: Capturing Information

The first step in any organizational system has to be capturing information. I’ve tried almost every possibility, but the one that works best for me is simple pen and paper. I like to use a small binder (the kind that holds 8 1/2″ by 5 1/2″ pages) as my capture device.

Every note, idea, and to-do goes into the binder. I use one sheet per task/idea, and I only write on front of pages so that information is easier to organize and so that I reduce the likelihood of missing something written on the back of a sheet.

Occasionally, I’ll sort the binder pages and organize into related groups. Otherwise, I just purge every so often.

Step 2: Purging and Organizing

Once I accumulate twenty pages or so (usually a couple of times per week), I purge my notes and put everything online into my favorite organizational tool Backpack.

  • Article/Podcast Ideas. I use Backpack’s writeboard feature to file beginnings of article/podcast ideas. I put one idea per writeboard and title each writeboard by topic or idea. Then I write out any initial thoughts about the article or podcast within the writeboard. Once I’m ready to flesh out the idea further, it goes into a Zoho Writer document.
  • Other Notes and To-Dos. Other notes and to-dos generally go into one of my Backpack “boxes” (see image below).


Within Backpack, my box pages are all tagged as “Boxes” and then removed from my sidebar so that I can just click on the “Boxes” tag and see all of them at once (plus, this keeps my sidebar clean).

I currently have eight boxes, and they’re based on my open projects. All other ideas go into my “Someday/Maybe” page. My open projects at this point are kind of context-based and fall into one of the three moving parts (or income buckets) for my business — coaching for solo entrepreneurs, web site design, and writing. I sub-divide the writing boxes so that I keep them separated by medium (blog, newsletter, podcast, writing gigs, etc.).

Within each “box” (or Backpack page), I have notes and to-dos related to each project. I generally create separate to-do lists for each sub-project within those boxes. In my radio page/box, for instance, I have each episode broken down into a separate to-do list, and I can then drag and drop the episodes so that I know which one is up next.

google-calendar-schedule-v2Step 3: Taking Action

Of course, all the organizing in the world won’t help, if I never take action on the information collected, so I use a couple of other tools to help me with this step.

  • My Calendar. I have to take action on each of the boxes at some point each week, so I have time blocks to accommodate them within my Google Calendar (s goog) (see image to right). When I get to a time block, I set an alarm for the time allotted, open the corresponding “box,” and get to work. I stop when the alarm goes off and move on to the next thing on my calendar. I’ve been leaving my calendar open all the time so that I check in frequently, which helps me stay on task.
  • Gmail Folders. I also use Gmail folders (also known as labels) to organize action-related information (see image below).


For instance, I have an “Interviews” label, and when I line up a guest to be interviewed for an article or podcast, I mark that conversation with the “Interviews” label and archive it. Then I can go to my “Interviews” folder each day to prepare for upcoming interviews (without clogging up my Inbox). As I conduct interviews, I remove the labels and, thus, the conversations from that folder. I’ve been using red exclamation points to mark those that I must take action on before the interview, but I’ve started sending out standard guest packets, so I really take action on all interviews now and will eventually stop using stars within the folder.

Step 4: Polish and Refine

Naturally, it’s not completely flawless. It still needs some polishing, but it’s definitely working better than my previous organizational system. For now, I’m just trying to faithfully stick to the system, knowing that, in turn, it will faithfully keep me on track. As I see areas that can be improved upon, I know I’ll modify them, but so far, it’s working pretty well.

How do you “box” your information? What systems, tools, and techniques help you stay organized and productive?

Box image from Flickr by John-Morgan

14 Responses to “The Box: A Simple Way to Stay Organized and Productive”

  1. I use evernote to capture info, when I’m out of the pc I use the evernote app for blackberry; in order to put everything just in one box.

    For Purging and Organizing, I use Gmail tasks and Gcalendar. Again, I am able to check those things right from my BBerry.

    But, as you say, pen and paper is always necesary.

    Greetings from Ecuador.

  2. A lot of freelancers I know have no organization skills what-so-ever. I tend to go a little OCD on itmyself (I just spent half the morning rearranging the whole office) but I can’t ever seem to concentrate when my office and files are a mess.

    • Amber Riviere

      I agree, Amber. It’s hard to concentrate and be productive when things feel upside down. Usually, it’s worth it for me to stop what I’m doing, organize things, and then get back to work.

  3. Thanks for this excellent post.

    I smiled when I saw Twyla Tharp’s name in your tweet about the post. I knew what book you were referring to – and it’s one I love.

    Thanks for sharing your system of organizing and moving ideas forward to action and results.

    Among the tools I use are NovaMind for mindmapping and capturing the initial ideas as I brainstorm about a project or article. I use OmniFocus for capturing and refining the “to do” list of tasks for specific projects, when I have worked those details out. And sometimes when I write or plan, I find that I need the linear structure of an outlining program, rather than a mindmap. For that I use OmniOutliner. I have project planning software, among other tools, but find I do not go to them as often as I use a combination of these three programs.

    I’ll try some of the ideas you provide here, as well.


    • Amber Riviere

      Thanks for the added tips, Jan. Mind mapping is a great tool for organizing information, and like you said, it’s good to have several options for different circumstances.

  4. I really liked the calendar setup you have. I use Google calendar but have only been using it for appointments and not my tasks. I’m going to start putting my tasks into my calendar as well and keeping it open like you suggest. I think that will help me stay on task each week and prevent the oh so common forgotten project. Nice article.

    • Amber Riviere

      Thanks, Jake. My calendar setup was inspired by Darren at Problogger. He uses a similar setup, and I liked the idea of color coding so that, at a glance, I could tell what type of activities were on my schedule.

      For me, personal items are pink (helps me see if I’m balancing somewhat), calls and work-related appointments are in orange (tells me those are hard set), admin stuff is in blue (potential delegation stuff down the line), and then I have a color for each income “bucket” (writing, game work, web work).

      This setup is working very well for me. If someone asks me to do something, without really thinking, I can see how a day or time is lining up.

      Keeping the calendar open at all times has been key. It’s getting to where I want to know what’s in there over my email inbox, which is great.

      Glad it helps!

    • I really like the idea of the BOX. I’ve been trying to keep better organized with only marginal success. I’ll definitely give this a shot.

      One thing I wanted to suggest especially since you are using gCal is the product, reQall. (No, I don’t work for them). With reQall I can add tasks via voice/text/etc from my iPhone and they will sync with gCal. So if I’m on the road or away from a computer I can get a reminder of what’s going on and check things off as I go. It’s helpful for those quick items or ideas that are easily forgotten.

      Too many features to list, you may want to check it out for yourself.

      Great article, thanks for posting, Amber.