How I organize

I am a busy lady. I’ve got a husband and am the dedicated mom to a toddler son. I speak at conferences. I run a meetup. I help organize other meetups. I meet weekly with a mentor. I’m on the RailsConf program committee. I’m a full time developer. I have run the ruby and rails scholar/guide program. I’m part of an Elixir book club. I’m a part of a social book club. I am NOT a senior developer. I keep my inbox clear and clean. Man, i’m almost exhausted just writing all of those things.

This is a lot. Really, almost a crazy amount of stuff to be doing on a regular basis. If I wasn’t organized, I would probably go crazy. So, I thought i’d share how I juggle all these things and make sure no balls get dropped.

Tweetdeck: Twitter is an important part of how I learn and find interesting things to read. I use tweetdeck to organize my twitter streams and people I follow into specific categories and then I have them listed in order or priority. There are some streams I check twice a day, while others I just check once a week or when I have time. It helps me keep focus on a specific subject and stay in context amidst the twitter noise. It also helps me not miss important announcements like conferences cfp openings or meetups and keep up with friends.

EverNote: This is now a legacy system for me because of their changed pricing, but evernote was great when I used it. It’s flexible and searchable. You can even take pictures of things you’ve written by hand and that will also be searchable (sort of… depending on how legible your handwriting is). You can also organize things into notebooks and you can open up notes in separate windows enabling you to look at multiple notes at once. I use evernote to keep track of to-do lists, thoughts, blog post ideas, conference talk proposals (before they’re fully formulated), code notes, and terminal commands or screenshots after walking through code so I can look over it again in the future. The downside is the new free plan limits you to 2 devices and there are always syncing issues.

OneNote: I switched to OneNote when EverNote changed to having their service only available on 2 devices. OneNote is pretty good. The same syncing issues exist in OneNote as do in EverNote. Additionally, the thing sthat really drives me crazy is that OneNote is constantly asking me to sign in in order to sync. But there are some great features. Besides being able to use it for the same purposes as EverNote above (ie- idea management, notebooks, code notes, etc.), but within a notebook, these items can show up as tabs and within tabs you can have many pages. So, for example, I create a list of items I’d like to cover in my weekly 1:1s. I keep a 1:1s tab in my work notebook and then under the tab, I have a “page” for every week. It’s easy to find the notebook/tab/page when the meeting rolls around or when I have an item to add to it. The major downside to OneNote is that you can’t open up tabs, notes, or pages into separate windows so you can only look at one note at a time. In terms of note-taking/to do type applications, I’ve also heard good things about todoist, wunderlist, and, if you’ve got some $$, Ulysses.

Airmail: I’m a big believer keeping up with email. Maybe this is an irrational stresser, but when I’ve got that red number hovering, I feel like it’s something that NEEDS to be taken care of (this is also why I often close my email or hide the app bar when I’m programming.) Airmail allows you to get all of your inboxes in one place. I currently have five email addresses and if I had to go to separate places for all of them, I’d go crazy. The other nice thing is that you can easily file specific emails into folders in a different email address and you can get an email at one address but reply from another which I find really convenient. One tricky part is that any time you need to create a new folder, you need to go into the interface to create it and then re-map the account. Another is that you need to be careful to make sure you’re emailing and responding from the account that you want to be.

Github repos: Github is great for a variety of reasons. I use public and private repos for the same reason others do… to keep track of projects and things I’ve worked on codewise. One thing that’s a little unique, I think, is that I use a private repo to keep track of conference talk proposals. For unique conference proposals, I create a folder for that conference and keep any proposals I’ve submitted under that conference’s folder. For proposals that are more standard and the basic information like abstract and details, I just keep the proposal files in root. I also have a file for my bio and the list of conferences I’ve proposed to or want to propose to with the date of the conference, location, and when the proposal is due. The BIGGEST win for this approach is that when I’d like feedback, I can just create a PR and invite a few people to review it. They can review in one place and see each other’s comments to agree or disagree.

Calendars, a few of them: If you think five email accounts are crazy, wait until I tell you how many calendars I look at…. it’s eight. A few works ones, a few personal ones including both one that I share with my husband and one that is just my personal one. Calendars are great and I basically live my life by them. My work calendar tends to be pretty succinct and simple but my personal calendars are a bit more complex. Mostly, my calendar with my husband has EVERYTHING. It’s how we know who’s doing what for which evenings (we each get at least one night a week toddler-free) which allows us to figure out which nights are best to cook (we still cook 4ish nights a week), in addition to things like doctor appointments, conferences, travel, and more. The most helpful aspect of calendaring is using it as a reminder system. If there’s something that needs to be done in a few months (like an appointment to be made) or a person I need to follow up with, I set it in my calendar and am reminded to do so. Finally, since I work from home I also use my personal calendar to remind myself to take a walk a couple times a week.

OneTab: OneTab is a great chrome extension that keeps me focused. The premise is simple. If you have lots of tabs open, you can pull them all into one tab. When you pull everything into one tab, it organizes all the tabs/links into a group and then you can close, re-open, and move around the tabs. It’s really helpful. I do, however, make sure that once I hit 90 tabs, I take some time to prune them or go through them and read the things.

To-Do lists: I LIVE by my to do list. I used to do it pen and paper but ultimately decided to migrate it to a virtual platform so that it would sync and so that I could add to it regardless of where I was and what piece of tech I had with me. My to do list is fairly specific which is why it’s been difficult for me to use some of the other options I metioned earlier. My to do list is broken down by day of the week. At the end of every day, I look at the list for the next day, decide what didn’t get done from that day and decide what day i’ll move it to. Every weekend I look at every day of the upcoming week and I make sure things are balanced… days i’ll have more meetings and therefore might be choppy, I’ll put some additioanl smaller tasks because I likely won’t go heads down as much, and days where I’m mostly free, I limit my to do list items so I can focus on code. I also look at evenings and make sure I’m only making a day’s to do list as long as the amount of time I have in that day. So, for example, if the daytime AND evening look pretty packed, I try not to have more than 4-5 items on the to do list and i’ll balance it by having a few more things on the to do list for different days. Now, here’s where my to do list doesn’t fit the mold… I have a “weekend” section and an “other” section. The weekend section is often things I think about during the week that are personal and need to be taken care of over the weekend. The other section are longer term things… things that don’t need to happen this week or next week, but maybe a month from now that I don’t want to lose track of. For example, recently I’ve been thinking about purchasing a new keyboard. I don’t want to put this on the calendar because it’s not really a “remind me to do this at some point” type of to-do. It’s a “when the time seems right and I’ve got some extra funds, pull the trigger on this”. Occassionally if something has remained on “other” too long, i’ll try to filter it into the to do list for that week or the following one if it makes sense. Finally, there are a few recurring items on the to do list, like a personal retro every Friday (more info on that below).

Personal retros: Being busy can be really challenging. In order to make sure you’re accomplishing and not falling into the trap of being busy for busy sake, you need time to reflect. Every Friday I take 30 minutes to do a personal retro. It’s super simple and I keep all the notes in a OneNote notebook. I look at the previous week and think about what I’ve LIKED, what I’ve LEARNED, and whats LACKED. This is not just focused on work things but should definitely include work stuff (especially the learned part so you can keep track of what you’re learning).

Time blocking for specific types of tasks: The last part of the puzzle is minimizing context switching. I can’t code for 30 minutes and then read a book and then answer some emails and then make a haircut appointment, etc. etc. If I’m going to have a lot of meetings, I put lots of small tasks on that day… knock out a few blog posts, think about solutions for a committee I’m on, tweet to recruit speakers for the meetup, etc. Which also means that those tasks are taken care of for the days I do have pretty clear and on those days I can really go heads down and focus focus focus on technical challenges. Even within the smaller tasks, I try to limit context switching. If I know I have a meeting related to a specific topic, I’ll try to also accomplish related to do list items.

None of these tools are perfect. There are trade-offs to each one. And sometimes I still go a little crazy or feel a little overwhelmed. These systems took a bit of time to put in place initially, but now that they’re established, they’ve become lifesavers for me and my busy life. I’d love to hear your favorite apps for organizing!

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