A Simple, Yet Complete Guide To Organize Your Life

Organization: it’s more important to be decisive than to find the perfect system.

peace

This is what an organized mind feels like.

Are Your Ideas & Decisions Floating?

Organization means having a system to organize your life through, but a backlog can prevent us from having a system, because we’re overwhelmed with what needed to be done yesterday. It really doesn’t take much to overwhelm a person: studies have found our minds can only hold a few things at a time. Given life’s 800 trillion variables, well, the math doesn’t work out favorably for us.

If we were to grab a random human and examine their mind and life, we’d be aliens find a lot of needless repetitive thoughts and ideas. To an outsider, the person would seem crazy to think, “I should find one go-to place to write my ideas down” and then do nothing, only to have the same exact thought a week later. In that moment, though, the person is more than happy to “bounce” that idea back up into the air to float.

Floating decisions are what create backlogs, so the first step in getting organized is to nail down those floating decisions.

Floated decision: “Let me think about that for a while.” *proceeds to not think about it*

The problem with unaddressed ideas and unmade decisions is that they don’t exactly “float” up there. I believe David Allen calls them “open loops” because they’re unresolved parts of our life. These open loops are not balloons floating above us, they are more like small anchors that weigh on our shoulders. Individually, they seem harmless, but together they can stress you out and give you a sense that the underlying theme of your life is best described as “controlled chaos.”

chaos

Remember the first picture? Compare it to this one, which is what happens when you “float” too many decisions. She’s trying to focus on the newspaper, but in the corner of her eye, she sees a several other pages fly by that look interesting, and behind her, she hears even more papers flapping and rustling in the wind. This is what a chaotic mind is like. Nothing has a place. Thoughts are thrown in corners for later analysis, only to be forgotten and found again at inappropriate times.

Why do we let it happen? 

It’s Comforting Not To Decide, But It’s Harmful Too

There’s comfort and safety in not making a decision, and bouncing it up for a later version of you to handle.

Upon analyzing myself while floating a decision, I realize it’s because I think I’ll know “the right answer” later. That’s wrong! The later version of you won’t be much better than the current you. In the future, you’ll have a little bit more information, but how many times is that new information pertinent to your decision? Not often in my experience!

I’m the worst offender of floating my decisions. That example of “one place to write down ideas” is the exact thought I’ve bounced up into the air DOZENS of times for MONTHS and months and months. It’s embarrassing to admit. Just imagine the cumulative “annoyance” I’ve felt from my brain reminding me to find a solution for this!

But I’m going to decide right now, because I want to show you how easy, yet powerful this process is.

My “idea capturing system” decision:

  1. I want something to hold my ideas that syncs between my phone and the computer, as those are my main idea-capturing devices and I don’t want to manually have to match them up. 
  2. Evernote comes to mind as the most popular solution. I’ve tried it. It’s too complex for my tastes. This is the part of the process where I’d always give up and “float the decision.”
  3. I’m thinking of Evernote functionality, but a simpler “blank digital sheet of paper” that shows up on both devices easily. 
  4. The solution is to find something simple enough for my tastes, rather than terminate the thought at “Evernote won’t work.” Thus, a quick google search has me reading an article on “simple evernote alternatives now.” It’s promising!
  5. BOOM! I’ve just set up Google Keep on my computer and phone. They’re both tied to my gmail address and will sync.
  6. Decision made. I didn’t even look at the other 4 solutions in that article because this will work (also, Google Keep can convert voice recordings into a note, which is useful in the car or for 3 AM ideas). This will be my simple idea capture system for the rest of my life unless something changes.

Do you see how powerful that is? This is an open loop I’ve had on and off for years and I permanently solved it in less than 10 minutes. Before this, I let the problem remain vague and had my ideas everywhere. And because I had ideas in multiple places that I rarely checked, I didn’t often write down ideas because who knows when I’d see them again. I lost so many million dollar ideas (all of my ideas are worth exactly one million dollars. It’s uncanny…).

Update: It’s been two weeks since I started using Google Keep, and I’ve documented about a dozen new ideas since setting this up. I even had one of those 3 AM ideas last night and was able to capture it. This is great!

Take Action: This is a general mindset that you can develop. Refuse to have open loops. Refuse to bounce decisions up for future you to decide. The positive impact from this change can be massive. If successful, you’ll develop a quicker decision habit, destroy procrastination, and feel (and BE) in more control over your life.

Decisions Feel Best In Hindsight (Don’t Expect It Beforehand)

Before we get organized, let me ask you: have you noticed that decisions only feel good once you make them? Before you make a decision, there’s pressure; there’s risk of choosing wrong; it’s often uncomfortable and hard. But when you say, “I’m doing this. Period.” It’s like that mini anchor is lifted right off of your back, because you’ve closed a loop! 

If you’re agreeing with me on this, and I hope you are, then I fully recommend that you join me by firmly choosing the systems that will you will use to organize your life. I’ll guide you through the process below with the basics that everyone should have a go-to solution for. Cut right through the lingering uncertainty that haunts you and let today be the day you decide. Do not quit if a decision is hard and requires research. Don’t believe it when you tell yourself that later would be a better time to do it. That’s how decisions get “floated” indefinitely. Do it now.

This guide is simple, and as stated first in this post, you’ll find the key factor is less about what solution you choose and more about making that firm decision of how you’re going to do things. 

Making firm decisions doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later, it means that based on the information you have now, this looks best. You can even say that you’ll use it until you find something better. Even if your choice isn’t ideal, it still beats not deciding, which results in a chaotic life. If chaos is your life now, you need the guide below.

Let’s Get Organized!

We’re going to go through the essentials. But if you’re going through this to organize your life, do NOT skip a single section without deciding on it. Don’t even read the next one.

If any of these options are undecided, know that they are an ANCHOR on your mind. You need clarify with the essentials. I don’t care if you decide, “I’m going to manage this one in my head.” That is unequivocally the worst way to manage things, but if you can make that call decisively and confidently, at least you know what you’re doing and why. You might already have a solution in place some of these, which is great! If you do, think about how well it works for you and act accordingly.

Many of these can be combined. For example, a calendar can be used for concrete events, checking off daily habits, your to-do list, and more. But is that how you want to structure it? You must decide this in advance or when the time comes for you to plan your day, you’ll get stuck on how exactly to do it. You could open up a word processor, you could grab a piece of paper, you could use an app on your phone, and a million other ways. This small amount of friction of not knowing where to organize specific plans is enough to stop most people, because we prefer the easy path by default (which is to “bounce” it to a later time). 

As we cover these, think about what works best for your lifestyle. For example, many people will have their phone as the go-to device for managing their life. 

1. Select a calendar for required events

calendar

I use my phone’s google calendar to remind me of events (because it’s always with me). Whatever you choose, don’t put your calendar information anywhere else! Why make yourself check TWO calendars? That’s a good way to go insane, because you’ll wonder, “did I check the kitchen calendar or just my phone?”

You can use two calendars, but make sure there is a clear line drawn between their specific uses. I use a giant calendar on my wall, but it’s ONLY for checking off my mini habits every day. I know not to look there for what time a meeting is, because that information will always be on my phone calendar. Some may want a work and personal life calendar. In Google calendar, this works well because you can view and hide them on one calendar (to see them together or individually). 

I recommend a calendar solution that syncs or a calendar that you can access when it matters. Most people will use the built-in calendars that come with Android or iOS phones: they’re both good solutions that can sync to your desktop computer and tablet. There are other calendar apps out there too.

If you’re home most of the time, you can probably use a physical calendar. If you decide on a physical calendar, decide now what your vacation calendar solution is. Do you bring it with you? Do you use a digital device for that week? A folded up piece of paper? Do you even need it for vacation? This probably depends on if your vacation style is planning or exploring.

Decision: What is my calendar choice for concrete plans, meetings, and events?

Sub-decision (if physical calendar) : What will I use while away from home? What will I use on vacation? 

Sub-decision (if phone calendar) : Which calendar app will I use?

2. Decide where to write down non-concrete plans (to-do list)

todo

This is a creative way to do it. The actual to-do items are “erasable,” but the title, lines, and boxes are a real tattoo. Most of us will choose a different solution. 🙂

If you’d like, you can also use your calendar for plans that either aren’t certain and/or don’t have a specific time. Will you? The problem with this is typically space. Having 10 to-do items amidst “must-do” items might not work very well. It depends on the calendar and personal preference.

This is not a decision you can brush off, because things you’d like to do are very different than a mandatory meeting! Most articles on to-do lists tell you why you need to make to-do lists and how to choose your tasks. But they miss the very first step that stumps people more often than realized: where do we write it down?

Now is the time to decide exactly where you’re going to write down your daily to-do list or occasional “today I’d like to…” list. It can be a scrap piece of paper (sticky notes, printer paper, etc). Scrap paper is actually my choice, and I have a stack of discarded printer papers (cut into thirds) just for it. You can’t choose scrap paper and then have to fish 5 minutes for a new piece every time. If scrap paper is your choice, have a stack! The fact that a scrap piece of paper can work perfectly for this shows you that the value is not what you decide, but that you decide. If you don’t decide, your lack of a go-to option can prevent you from doing it at all!

Other good options for this are a dry-erase board, a to-do app that syncs across devices, and a notepad.

Choosing where you’ll write it down is not the same as committing to write it down every day. I don’t always use a to-do list, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…I mean, when I do, I use the scrap paper on my desk.

App options: there are so many “to-do apps” out there that it can be overwhelming. No, it IS overwhelming. I recommend looking at some of the “best of” lists online to start; they’ll break down the pros and cons of these apps to help you decide. Here’s a good article: Lifehacker readers nominated their favorite to-do apps (Google Keep, my “idea app” that I do not use for to-do lists, was actually one of them). 

Decision: If I want to write a to-do list, what is the one paper source, app, or software program I’ll use to do it?

Decision: If I would like to, but won’t definitely do something on a day in the future, where will I write it down? On my calendar with mandatory events? How will I know the difference? 

3. Have a dedicated place for ideas and notes (at home and on the go)

googlekeep

This is Google Keep. It has a very simple interface, which is why I love it! Hey, don’t steal my ideas! *blurrrrrr*

Where do you write down the brilliant idea you just had? Where should you write down your business plans? If you can’t answer these questions in less than three seconds, you’re missing out! Sometimes, we erroneously think that we’ll “remember the idea later.” I’ve experienced it enough times to know that if I don’t write down that obscure idea, I may never think of it again. Unless you’re the second Rainman, you need an idea pad.

I like using Google Keep for this because it’s an easy way to categorize my thoughts. 

For longer notes and ideas, such as an outline for a story I might write someday, I use nvALT. It’s HIGHLY recommended for note-taking: it’s a modified version (e.g., it shows word count) of the popular notational velocity note-taking app. My general deciding factor is about one page: anything above one page probably goes into nvALT and anything below goes into Google Keep. 

nvALT

This is nvALT, the best note-taking app on earth (sorry PC users, it’s Mac only).

I don’t do this, but if you want to, you can combine your idea pad with your daily to-do notes. For example, Google Keep is suitable for writing both ideas and lists such as a to-do list.

These are reasons to combine them:

  • Consolidate your tools
  • See everything in one place

These are reasons to separate them:

  • Separate daily tasks from “sometime” ideas that aren’t as pressing
  • Frequency of checking: some ideas you might only check once per month or less, but to-do lists are looked at several times per day. It might make more sense to organize your life based on the frequency at which you check these things. For example, do you want an obscure “maybe in 10 years” idea to be right next to “take out the trash”? I don’t. This is why I’ve separated mine. But if you kept your to-do list at the top of your “idea pad” and cleared it each day, I’m sure it could work.

Decision: If I have a trillion dollar idea, how will I capture it before it floats away? What will I do if I have an idea in the car, on vacation, or in bed late at night?

Decision: Where will I keep more detailed notes and lengthy ideas? Will it work with my idea capturing system or will I use a separate method to capture these?

4. Designate a place for official documents, papers, and reference information

portfolio

This is the portfolio I use. It’s excellent if you can fit everything in here. It accordions out, so it will hold more than you might think.

Unless you’re awesome and have gone all digital by scanning everything, the answer for this is almost certainly a filing cabinet, or if you’re minimalist like me, an A-Z portfolio (the one pictured above is the one I bought on Amazon and I like it).

Things you might store here: worthless college diplomas (just me?), social security card, passport, recipes, insurance documents, birth certificate, photos, small sentimental items, letters, that drawing of a Tyrannosaurus Rex/green blob from when you were six, medical and dental papers, car papers, and instruction manuals (my favorite: all of my manuals are under “M”).

If you don’t currently have a place to file things, decide what you will use. Write it down on your calendar or to-do list!

Decision: Will I use a filing cabinet or a more compact portfolio for documents and reference information? If I don’t have one already, when will I buy it? If I don’t use either one, what am I going to do?!

5. Choose a place for mid-range goals and dreams

paradisecroatia

This slice of paradise is in Croatia. Buy your ticket yet?

If you truly want to visit Croatia, do you know the first thing you should do? Write it down somewhere. When you write your intentions down, they are much more likely to come to fruition. If you want, you can do what I did and use whatever “notepad” you chose from step 3 for this. This can be an additional “category” in your ideas location.

I’m using Google Keep, a simple list-making and note-taking app, and so it works perfectly for me to add a list of someday dreams and ambitions. It doesn’t work well for mid-range goals, however, as it isn’t something I’ll be checking every day. My mid-range goals are my mini habits, and as mentioned earlier, I use a giant calendar for that (and have the mini habit checklist written on a dry-erase board nearby in plain sight). These are small actions I must do every day, so this setup of simplicity and high visibility works well for that.

My choices are based on simplicity and the lowest-possible maintenance, because I know I’ll rebel otherwise. I found the lowest-friction methods I could find for each of these categories. Subscribers will get to hear more about the system I use in the 5/6/14 email. Join Deep Existence via email at the end of this post to be able to read it.

Decision: Where will I write my dreams and mid-range ambitions? A journal? In my idea pad? In a special video diary that I secretly upload to youtube?

Decision: Will my mid-range goals be separate from my someday/maybe goals? If so, where will each one go?

6. Create an accountability system (optional)

What can go wrong next is that your goals and plans themselves go stale. Many people can benefit from an accountability system that keeps their goals aligned with their values. It can be a journal. It can be a weekly or monthly reminder to mentally go over your plans and progress.

My mini habits keep me in line, so I don’t use this, but I wanted to include it because it can be a big help for some people and some personalities.

That’s it! If you firmly decide on each of these, you will:

  • Have a reliable calendar system to remind you of all upcoming events
  • Have a dedicated note & idea “pad” to write down and retrieve your brilliant ideas
  • Have a standard of where to write your to-do lists
  • Have one place where all reference papers and small items can be stored and found easily
  • Have a secure outlet to write down your mid-range and “someday” goals to inspire you to pursue them

If you have all of this in place, you are a well-organized person. There’s no reason you can’t decide on this entire list in less than an hour or two. And when you do, you’ll have a sense of freedom and comfort because your mind’s many thoughts will finally each have their own safe place outside of your mind. This lifts a huge weight off of you to try to manage everything in your head because you didn’t have a system you could trust.

Systems like Getting Things Done are fantastic all-in-one solutions that account for all of these areas, but they can be an absolute pain to manage. I’ve read the GTD book twice and have implemented it twice too, but each time, I rebelled against the large amount of micromanagement required to keep it functioning. My system has become simpler and lower maintenance over time. This makes it a bit more fragmented than Evernote, but as long as I know where everything goes, it’s not a problem.

I hope this guide has helped you organize your life and exposed the areas you’ve left up to chaos until now. Please share this guide with others so we can make the world a bit less chaotic. 🙂

The subscriber-only message on 5/6/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

Photos: silence by Lel4nd, chaos by Nhoj, calendar by DafneCholet, tattoodo by robstephaustralia, Croatia by Antti Simonen

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.