How I keep organized despite being an unorganized person

I am not, by nature, a well-organized person. I’ve known people who are always on top of what they need to do and where things are. I can’t do that. And even though I generally do my best to make sure I meet my responsibilities on time, I’ve been known to let things languish too long by accident.

When my wife became pregnant with our second child, I was forced to adapt. Although the pregnancy ended with a healthy, full-term baby, it was a rough one for my dear wife. She was, much to her dismay, effectively confined to the couch for the better part of nine months (at least to the degree that one can remain stationary while parenting a two year old). This left me responsible for the bulk of the housework, in addition to working, grad school, and trying to be a husband and father.

Clearly, I needed to step up my organizational game. For a long time, I used TuDu to manage my todo list. It’s still, from a feature perspective, my favorite such tool, but the fact that mobile access required SSHing to my desktop was not the best user experience. I found Wunderlist and soon decided it was not only a great application, but also worth paying for.

Wunderlist soon became my crutch. Everything I had to do went into Wunderlist. With due dates, categories, and hashtag searches, I could easily see only what I needed to see. I knew the only way I would do things like clean the bathroom on a regular basis was if I had a gentle reminder, so I loaded up with recurring events. During a particularly hectic April (a major project at work had me working almost every night and weekend), I completely outsourced my days to Wunderlist. Whatever the list said, I did. I’m fortune that no one compromised my account,  because I’m not sure I would have paused to consider a “give me all your money” task.

Wunderlist, and more importantly my regular and dedicated use of it, has helped my organization tremendously. Gone are the days of accidentally forgetting to pay a bill because it wasn’t due at the same time as the rest (yes, yes, autopay. I only do that for bills that are semi-regular.) Despite being a one man show, the house is probably cleaner than it was with both of us able to contribute simply because things were regular and scheduled.

Another tool that I’ve fallen in love with, though I haven’t yet started making full use of is Trello. I was introduced to Trello at work. It’s what we use to track development work and large projects. I recently took my list of blog post it was out of Wunderlist and put them into Trello. Now I can have various posts in a variety of states and see at a glance where they are. I’ve introduced it to a community blog I contribute to and to a local free/open source software group I’m a part of.

Of course, I still use TaskJuggler for some things, but it’s not necessarily well-suited for managing my entire life. If I were to attempt to put all of my personal and work projects into a single TaskJuggler project, my computer might explode.

The downside to having everything I need to do mapped out for me is that it’s all so damn visible. When I get sick or tired (as of this writing, I’m a little bit of both), this wall of todo can be incredibly overwhelming. But I am disorganized and lazy by default,  so the fact that I have tools available to help me overcome these traits is generally a life-improver. Now if only there were an app that would clean my office for me…

Managing your time when you’re not very good at it

A friend considering a return to school recently asked me how I manage my time while being (in no particular order) a graduate student, a full-time employee, a husband, a father, a contributor to various projects, etc. As you may have surmised from the frequency with which I update this blog, the answer is “poorly”. But since I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, I decided now is as good a time as any to commit my answer to more words.

I really do maintain that I’m not good at time management, although I’ve done well enough to survive into my third year of graduate school. Maybe the smartest thing I did was to slowly ramp up: I had a semester of school finished before my daughter was born, which was very helpful in allowing me to adjust to both separately. I’ve also borrowed heavily from some of Tom Limoncelli’s sage advice, although I’m not nearly as good about following it as I’d like to be.

To manage the high-level view of things, I have turned to TaskJuggler, a free software project management tool. I use this to manage application development, paper submission, and miscellaneous projects at work. For school, I mostly use it to track the classes I’m taking and progress (such that it is) on my thesis. For larger projects (e.g. research papers) within a course, I’ll include those as sub-tasks, decomposed as necessary.

For smaller tasks, and the miscellaneous to-do items of life, I use a text-based to-do list manager called TuDu. True to Limoncelli’s “The Cycle” methodology, I try to have every task scheduled for a day, even if that day slips. Tasks with no scheduled day often languish forever. The other advantage to scheduling tasks, especially things like homework and other school-related tasks, is that I can make sure I don’t try to do too much in one night. It can be easy to forget how much you have to do until it is too late to do some of it earlier.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about managing my time is that sometimes, things will hit the floor. That’s okay, so long as it’s well-planned. Sometimes you have to decide where effort is best spent. As an example, at the end of last semester, I was facing the last week of classes with two research papers, a group project, and a homework assignment due. I decided to sell out the homework assignment in favor of the research paper for that class, figuring that the paper was worth more to my grade than the homework. I did get a pretty bad score in the class, but my overall grade was still an A.

It helps to set aside time to concentrate on what’s important. Between the time I get home and the time my daughter goes to bed, I spend time with her and my wife. The only time I’ll skip that is if I have something else scheduled that evening, or if I’m hopelessly underwater on my to-do list. When class is cancelled or dismisses extra early, I use that time to work on any outstanding schoolwork I may have. I’ve commited to git repositories while on the bus. And when life settles down a bit, I’m going to take a nice, long breath.