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  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 
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 .
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.
- 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  is a good read to dive into this further.
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.