The Box: A Simple Way to Stay Organized and Productive

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).

backpack-boxes

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 (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).

gmail-labels-v3

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

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