When I first began my military career, it was common among us to use a single hardcover green notebook to record all notes, taskings, background information, and the like from meetings for later reference when organizing one’s personal responsibilities in the undertaking at hand. This was helpful enough, and served a very useful role as a sort of professional journal, as events moved on from one endeavor to another, guiding and informing our specifically defined individual roles in each one.
But when I later was assigned my first staff position, this approach proved distinctly insufficient to the decidedly different nature of the job. Now, my work wasn’t an end product in and of itself, directed at one separate project after another. It was the development and coordination of multiple projects of varying purpose and scope performed by others of widely ranging assignments and organizational relationships to me.
This was some while ago, well before, certainly, the current age of sophisticated and highly specialized computerized organizers – even before the general advent of paper-based daily planners. The typical tools available were desktop calendar pads, the sort where you tore off the page for the month just gone by to reveal the next one, maybe with a small task list down one side (I was once was advised to save the torn off months, rather than just toss them, in order to have a reference archive of sorts; seemed at the time like a brilliant idea, almost out-of-the-box). A sort of luxury, ordinarily marketed to senior executives or those who wanted to be seen as such, were daily or weekly agenda books with sections in the back containing unit-conversion data, area codes, and information about various cities around the country or the world. That, for most of us, was the state of the art available.
But it nevertheless clearly wasn’t good enough to help me stay on top of my current job. So I wound up getting a stenographer’s notepad and consolidating on it all of my taskings from all of my various projects. Back at my desk after every meeting or other development, I would go through my notes and simply list on the steno pad any to-do items, any responsibilities at all that could be expressed as discrete action items.
I found that attempting to organize these into themes, projects, and administrative categories resulted in hairsplitting classification conundrums that just became more-or-less pointless ends in themselves, sidelining the actual process – even running the risk of over-organizing with the result that items got lost in perfectly classified but forgotten corners – so I just listed them as I uncovered them. The result was a complete, albeit unorganized, list of everything I had to do.
Even in this original raw state, the comprehensive to-do list had many benefits. First, it centralized all of my action items – things I had to do. No more sorting through various piles of notes or scanning my green notebook trying to pick out what I ought to be working on.
Second, it forced me to regularly review the full scope of my activities. At the beginning of the day, or whenever I had a block or even just a moment of time available, I would quickly scan the entire to-do list. This served to refresh my awareness of the overall status of my project portfolio, to prioritize according to time-sensitivity and availability, and to select the right action item for immediate prosecution. Sometimes this would simply be the first one down the list that could be done at that time, but it always represented meaningful forward movement rather than dithering about what to do, or even procrastination arising from not having an actionable sense of where to start. The invariable result was that an item was struck off the list, which was then scanned for the next one.
Third, the process of assembling these tasks into a centralized list and scanning them regularly for execution served the very important function of leaving me continually assured that I had captured them all – there was nothing I had failed to note, or that I was forgetting to do; they all were systematically identified and culled out of meeting and other event notes, then regularly scanned for execution. This offered a very valuable reserve of clarity and focus while working, unencumbered by anxiety that something important was being missed.
Interestingly, even at this stage, I used to receive appreciative comments about the organization I was bringing to the position. All because of a completely simple and unsystematic, but centralized and comprehensive to-do list.
Eventually, I began to put items on it that referred me to the filing cabinet for named folders built for specific projects. Other staffers who were in technical fields tended to have professionally designed – even structurally complex – folders for organizing their projects. But I was a generalist, and mine weren’t especially sophisticated; each was in a simple manila folder, which opened to notes loosely placed on the right, and a project to-do list paper-clipped on the left. The main to-do list would contain particularly sensitive action items in this or that project folder, and include a direct cue to pull and update the particular project folder while performing the task.
This ran the previously noted risk of decentralizing, and thus losing track of and failing to execute, particular tasks. I managed, however, to keep it sufficiently unsophisticated to avoid over-organizing to the point that items became lost in too-artfully classified pigeon-holes, or that the organizing process itself ate up time better used for execution.
It was many years later that those dedicated daily planners came along, just in time for my next major staff assignment. We’ll look at that next.
But as we continue, note that we’re going to find that the heart of any organizer system ultimately resolves to the level of straightforward tasks; keeping track of their presence, their priority, and their execution – and, as noted, availing ourselves of the composure and clarity afforded by the confidence that this has been and is being done (please click here for a review of the best book written so far on this still under-appreciated topic).
And, since this is, after all, a review site primarily directed at literature, music, and others of the arts, as well as of the devices we use to appreciate these, we’re going to ultimately see how the one can integrate with the other.
What I was listening too while writing this post: Innovative jazz pianist Bill Evans’s fascinating “Conversations with Myself”