6 rules for organisational peace

Look at these spectacularly organised pins.

Categorised, finely tuned, working in sync. Organised yet somehow mesmerising and beautiful. Creative yet peaceful.

Now imagine this is your working environment.

Or your life.

What rainbow-hued bureaucratic dream am I selling here? Let me begin:

I work in scholarly publishing (geek alert), specifically in the infrastructure side of the scholarly ecosystem (meta-geek alert). One byproduct of working in execution-based roles is that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about getting organised and getting things done. The following is a summary of the techniques and concepts I’ve found powerful.

Some of what I suggest here is transferable to a range of job types and working environments, some are more specific to office-based roles (my background). The majority of these insights come from external tools/resources which are referenced throughout.

It’s not you, it’s your brain

Before we dig into the tangible advice, a quick word about your brain. And my brain, and everyone’s brain. 

One paradigm shift for me was learning that evolution did not optimise the human brain for short-term task retention. What the brain does best is spot patterns, surface connections, think creatively, make decisions, interpret, tell stories… the list goes on.

What it does not do well is keep an accurate, complete to-do list up to date. The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin was the book that clarified this for me [1] but there’s a rabbit hole of fascinating reading on the topic.  

“The most fundamental principle of the organized mind … is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.”

Daniel J. Levitin, author The Orgnaized Mind

If you’re interested in optimising for focus and execution, build a system that works with how your brain functions, not against it.

The useful bit – the big 6

Here are the six main concepts that help me get things done

1 – Have one trusted source of things to do

This is for the big things, small things, tangible tasks, intangible ideas. All of it. In one place. I use a word doc but you could use a notebook, Trello board, spreadsheet etc.  

Once you have this trusted source all you need to remember is one thing: look at it.

You should be using this trusted source to inform how you best spend your time. This concept is a key tenet of Getting Things Done TM [2]

I’d recommend looking at your trusted source at least twice a day: once when you start work so you can decide what your top priorities for the day are, and once at the end of the day to make sure you note anything that needs to be carried forwards. 

This document is a living, breathing, dynamic source of things I need to be aware of. How I use mine:

  • I have a word doc that contains a list of things I need to do, big and small, strategic and granular. Everything. 
  • I also list actions other people own which are important for me to remember e.g. “Tom is working on Project X report, due Monday”
  • The list is categorised based on the type of work e.g. management, operations, commercial, personal development etc…
  • Every time I think of something that needs to be done – even if it is just an idea, I stick it in this list.
  • This is my master list
  • At the start of each week I review the master list, remove anything completed, make updates and then pull things from it that I need to achieve that week
  • That new weekly list lives further down in the document in a “this week” section. That’s what I look at that week when making decisions on how to spend my time.
  • Anytime something new crops up that will roll over past the end of the week I add it to the longer master list at the top of the doc to review at the start of the next week.
  • Does this system take time? Of course. It takes some time at the start of the week to review and prioritise. It takes ongoing maintenance. But persevere, not only does it save you time in the long run the real power is this: it frees up your mind.

2 – Keep the big picture in front of your face

Getting things done comes with the risk that you get stuck in the weeds executing on tasks and don’t come up for air to think, reassess and look at the big picture. To counter this I build the big picture into my system:

  • Your goals, objectives, big projects, whatever it is. Keep that important stuff written clearly and concisely somewhere you will see it every day  – mine is in it’s own summarised section at the top of my trusted source document. 
  • Plan time for yourself to look at this stuff and work on it
  • A good rule of thumb to use the Eisenhower matrix (the urgent/important matrix). Things in the important but not urgent quadrant tend to overlap with goals/strategic initiatives. Identify them, write them down somewhere you will look at them regularly and schedule in time to think about them.

3 – Your calendar is where all the power is – use it to full effect

Look at your calendar and see what is taking up the most real-estate. That’s the thing you’re prioritising right now.

Your time is your most precious non-renewable resource. That’s why your calendar has all the power. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s “just admin”. Or not looking at it at all. The most effective people I know are judicious about what goes into their calendar and fully committed to what does make it in there. 

If this isn’t clear already, I love my calendar. It’s an extension of my brain, but better and outsourced. This is how I use it:

  • For scheduling & recording events (obviously)
  • For reminders to myself e.g. “prepare report for early meeting tomorrow”, “check in on project X due in March”
  • For reminding other people – I send placeholder event invitations (marked as free) with a relevant title to all colleagues that share in the featured work/meeting/task e.g. “RFP deadline due tomorrow”
  • Blocking time
    • My job isn’t to attend meetings. I need time to actually think and work. I block time to work every day and mark them as busy or away. I rarely, if ever reschedule these for conflicting events.
    • Tip: don’t block one uniform section of time. People will see it in your calendar, assume it is time blocking and book over it (in my experience). Either mark yourself as away OR book in the time you need in consecutive 30 minute to 1 hr slots. Sneaky? Yes. Necessary? Yes. 
  • As a feeder to my Trusted Source doc.
    • I review my calendar at least twice a day.  Once in the morning to check what I have coming up so I can prepare, once at the end of the day to note down follow ups from meetings in my trusted source to do list. I never log off work without doing this. It takes about 10 minutes a day total and contributes significantly to my professional success. If you only take one thing from this article, take this. 
  • Sync work/personal calendars
    • I keep separate calendars for work and personal, but if I have a personal event that overlaps with a workday, or vice versa I make sure to put a reminder/placeholder in both calendars e.g. “leave early to catch your train” or “get up early for 8am call”. This has saved me from too many near misses to count. 

After entering something into my calendar, it is officially out of my conscious mind, freeing that space up for what my brain is actually meant to do. 

A note on etiquette: If your time is a precious non-renewable resource then so is other people’s. Treat it with respect. Decline meetings you can’t or don’t want to attend. If you’re not sure, mark yourself as tentative. If you need more information, ask. Apologise if you turn up late. Other people’s time is as important as yours, don’t let them hang out in a meeting room on their own.

4 – Make decisions in the quietest part of your working day

Decision fatigue is real and something you should be mindful of. 

If you need to make decisions as part of your job, it’s best if you can save them for the quietest part of your day and give them your full attention [3,4].

5 – Don’t use your brain for something a piece of paper would do better

Write it down!

(In your trusted source document)

“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe”

Michio Kaku

Your brain is great for decision making, interpreting, making connections, creativity, remembering, story telling, spotting patterns… It’s a really bad notepad [1,2,3,4]. Most people understand this intuitively but putting it into practice is a whole other ball game. You have to be really strict about writing down the important stuff immediately and making sure it gets onto your trusted source document. I promise it’s worth the effort. Once the habit is formed you’ll never look back.

For some real-world examples The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is a great dive into how high-stakes professions like medicine and aviation use checklists to track vital tasks and achieve very low failure rates [5].

6 – Feedback loops are the jet fuel for improvement

Feedback loops are vital for success. They’re also vital for growth, process improvement and personal development. Implementing them in your own work is a (relatively) simple mindset shift.

It can be as simple as reflecting on the outcome of a piece of work you did and identifying areas to change the next time, or making sure to pass on (constructive) feedback to someone else on something they did.

For example:

  • After meetings – Are actions from the meeting clearly defined and ownership assigned? Is a follow-up needed? Is it scheduled?
  • After successes or mistakes – What worked well (or not)? What process adjustments are needed to incorporate what worked into future projects?
  • After completion of big projects – Have a retrospective with relevant team members. Try a post-it exercise (or anonymous survey) on what worked well and what could have gone better to solicit feedback. Document and share that learning with others
  • After big decisions – Did the decision have the impact intended? What were the positives? Were there any negatives/unintended consequences? Summarise this and share with the decision makers

Functioning feedback loops are vital for a successful business and should be open for all colleagues to participate in. Unfortunately there are many reasons feedback loops may not function practically:

  • Colleagues not open to feedback
  • Rotating cast of leadership/management/decision makers
  • High staff turnover
  • Reduced capacity to action feedback

Once you start thinking about feedback loops you’ll start seeing them (and broken ones) everywhere. If you spot feedback loops which aren’t working, raise it. If you can, fix it. If the situation can not/will not be fixed, that’s a red flag. 

Why have I included feedback loops here? Incorporating feedback loops into your own personal approach helps you learn and improve. Using them as a way to work well with others allows you to optimise how you perform as a wider team. This means you can scale the learning and improvement with a powerful impact on how you get things done.

But primarily I’ve included feedback loops here because they reduce the amount of time wasted making the same mistakes over and over again. And that’s vital for getting things done.

Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking [6] is a good read to dive into this further.

The summary

Skipped here for the TL;DR summary? Here it is:

  • Have one trusted source of things to do
  • Keep the big picture in front of your face
  • Your calendar is where all the power is – use it to full effect
  • Make decisions in the quietest part of your working day
  • Write it down!
  • Feedback loops are the jet fuel for improvement

And if you can only take one practical tip from this article then here it is:

Review your calendar at least twice a day. 

  • Once in the morning to check what you have coming up
  • Once at the end to prompt you to add actions from any meetings that day into your trusted source to do list.


  1. The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
  2. Getting Things Done by David Allen
  3. Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
  4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  5. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
  6. Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Stand up comedy: the gift that keeps on giving in my corporate job

Using the stand-up approach when drafting a business case at work

I used to do stand up comedy. It started with an evening class in 2014 and ended in a dizzying year of gigs and showcases on London’s amateur comedy circuit. I was lucky enough to perform alongside some really talented people and made some great friends. 

It was fun, exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually stand up and I parted ways. Writing and refining my set was the part of the process I enjoyed the most so it felt natural to stop performing and move on to something that focussed more on writing. The experience was hugely helpful as I embarked on a new interest in sitcom scripts.  

My experience in comedy has proven invaluable in most areas of my life, especially professionally

What came as a surprise was how much stand up would help me in my day job. I have a science background and during the day you can find me working in an operations role in the scholarly and academic sector. I use the skills I learned on (and off) stage to this very day. From public speaking and giving presentations to nurturing creativity and the importance of failure. My experience in comedy has proven invaluable in most areas of my life, especially professionally. 

Most recently I noticed my experience from stand up came in handy as I was drafting a business case with colleagues. How we approached it reminded me of writing my first set with my classmates. 

I’ve summarised the five main steps below.

The steps

  • Step 1: The Brain dump
  • Step 2: Edit, structure, rinse & repeat
    • Step 2 a): Know your audience
    • Step 2 b): Bring the context
  • Step 3: Feedback
  • Step 4: Confidence
  • Step 5: Feedback (again)

In detail

Step 1: The brain dump

“You can’t write a good joke without writing (at least) 9 bad ones first” 

[I’ve heard various versions of this and struggled to track down a single source. This particular version came from my stand-up course teacher, Kate Smurthwaite ]. 

It’s the same for all types of writing. When drafting a business case, start by writing down all the points you want to cover, the arguments you want to make, the evidence you want to cite etc. Don’t worry about it being good, or about structure or polish at this stage, just get it all documented. 

Step 2: Edit, structure, rinse & repeat

Come back and look at your ideas and start culling. It’s all in the edit and polish. Keep doing this until you’re happy you have enough strong content for the time you need to fill. Now you can structure it. 

  • Look at what you’ve got – how can you order your points to make the most sense for the audience?
  • Keep it tight, no filler. 
  • Consider what supporting evidence will you need to bolster your case? Do you have it yet? If not -> that’s another action point for you. 
  • Choose the right format – in general I’d lean towards keeping it concise and having supplementary material for more detail. Think a short presentation (2-3 slides) or a 1 page document linking out to additional reading, analysis or resources. 

Step 2 a): Know your audience

It’s easier to make someone laugh if you try to understand them first.

Taking a similar approach to presenting your case at work can be really impactful. Think about who will be reading your business case?

  • What’s important to them?
  • What perspective are they likely to have on this? 
  • What evidence will they need to see?
  • What are their priorities and constraints?
  • Make sure to explain some helpful background needed before presenting your argument like key industry trends (and cite your sources).
  • Make sure to flag upfront if you’ve done some cost-benefit analysis, workload analysis or similar

Step 2 b): Bring the context

Everyone’s funny when they’re with their friends. So why doesn’t that easily transfer to stage? Context. Your friends know you, they know your character and all the in jokes and shared memories you have. 

Your standup audience won’t have that context (usually). They won’t know you. So it’s important to make sure for every joke in your set you’re bringing the context with you and sharing it with them before you get to the funny bit. 

Context is vital for your business case too. You’re the expert here, your audience may not be. Will they have access to all the context you do when they’re evaluating your argument? Are they experts in this product or business area? Do they remember last year’s numbers/current projections/the latest business intelligence report?

If the answer is “no”, “not sure”, or “yes but they won’t know where to find it” then you need to include it in your business case. 

Start with pulling out key context points in a background/intro section. Everything else can probably go in an appendix/ref section

Step 3: Feedback


Get feedback from as many peers as you can. Ideally as wide a group of people as possible and including a few who don’t always share your sense of humour. Listen to what they have to say. Thank them for their time (and reciprocate when they have work they want previewed). Review your work based on their feedback and decide if you want to put the changes through. 

Business case: 

Have some peers review your business case before finalising and sending off (if possible). It could be your manager or someone on your team. 

Their comments will be valuable to sense-check your arguments, the robustness of the evidence you’ve cited and troubleshoot likely questions from the decision makers. 

Step 4: Confidence

You’ve got the microphone, you’re the only one in the room allowed to talk.

^ paraphrased quote about stand up from Katherine Ryan:

That sentiment can be helpful for building confidence to share and present your business case:

  • You’re the expert
  • You prepared
  • You got feedback
  • You iterated on your work
  • Now it’s ready
  • Send it/submit it

You put the work in, you’re the one people will want to speak to about your ideas. You’re the one allowed to talk in the meeting about your ideas (but remember: this is a conversation, it won’t be as one-way as most stand up, let people ask questions)

Step 5: Feedback (again)

What was the feedback on your business case? What questions did you get?

  • Loads? Did the audience understand what you were proposing? Was your case clear and simple enough?
  • None/very few? Perhaps you’ve been super clear and convincing – great! If you think that’s not what’s happened – would it be appropriate to prompt and ask for feedback?
  • When you were answering the questions at any point did you think “damn, I should have included that point in the business case”? If so note that down and do it next time


I hope you found this helpful – good luck putting your business case (or stand up set!) together.