I have systems set up to help me keep track of most of my personal information (files, images, etc.). Sometimes, these systems break down, especially when I get busy or overwhelmed.

  • I spent 30 minutes this morning searching for a picture of notes written on a white board in a meeting last Spring.
  • The pile of paperwork associated with my daughter’s Kindergarten class is growing and I have no idea how to manage it.
  • Yesterday, I searched through digital and paper files trying to find a homework assignment I gave to introductory biology students last year.

Obviously, my systems don’t always work. But, I tend to follow four main principles when trying to organize my stuff:

Identify the types of things you are trying to organize: In order to get organized, you need to know what kinds of things you are organizing. This works really well for most of my work items. I have lesson plans and homework exercises, meeting minutes, personal meeting notes, saved websites and bookmarks, reference data, and many other types of things. Once I understand what I have, I can develop systems to keep track of it. I use Evernote for digital lesson plans, saving websites and bookmarks, and for writing things like blog posts. Meeting minutes go in our library wiki, and personal notes go in my notebook. I have paper files for printed lesson plans and worksheets, and separate files for each of my writing projects.

The system has broken down at home as I have struggled to organize all of the information my daughter is now bringing home from Kindergarten. There are art projects and worksheets and notes home and coloring pages and all sorts of things. I find that I am just now getting a handle on what she is bringing home. Hopefully I’ll have a system in place before Christmas.

Keep things simple: I am a fan of new and shiny gadgets. But shiny and new doesn’t necessarily mean better. I could use Evernote for my personal notes (from meetings, etc.) but Evernote is really more complicated than I need for this task, and sitting behind a computer in a meeting can be distracting (to me and others). Instead, I use a plain composition notebook. I can draw diagrams and connect things with arrows. It works. Because I use a bound composition notebook, the pages don’t fall out or get lost, and I can always go back and look for notes from last year (or earlier) in my saved notebooks. If these notes end up needing to be associated with additional information, I take a picture of my notes and add it to Evernote. So I don’t need to get any fancier.

I used to spend a lot of time looking at productivity tools and strategies. As I’ve learned about what works best for me, I spend less time on this, and I’m more confident in my systems. I once spent time looking at the “Getting Things Done” strategy (and the tools behind them). I eventually realized that this was more complicated than I needed, so I failed to be consistent.

Set up automatic tools: I use IFTTT quite often to transfer information between services like Twitter, Evernote, my iPhone, dropbox, etc. This saves me time, and I don’t have to worry about forgetting to do something.

Consistency: This is where I run in to trouble. I have systems set up to organize my stuff, but if I don’t use them, I can’t find things. I have found that it is easier for me to be consistent with simple systems, and that complicated strategies often get left behind. When I get busy I also tend to just throw things on my desk (or desktop).

This is what works for me. But that doesn’t mean it will work for you. Have you identified any bad habits and implemented strategies to get around them? How do you use different tools to organize different types of things?