Living an organised life in the clouds, part 5: References and Ticklers

There are two big parts to organising my life: using my time well, and not losing key information that I need to know. So far I’ve described how I organise my time using Fixed Blocks, Anytime Tasks and Projects. In this post I’m going to try and sum up the laundry list of techniques I have for tracking of all the info in my life. I’ll also mention what I do to capture inspiration and track my money (not the same thing) so apologies in advance for the length of this post!

As I highlighted in the introduction to this series, there is a lot of information that I need to keep track of. Documents, files, account numbers, receipts, warranties and contracts. Also passwords, educational information, great essays and articles I read, notes on my projects, other data best stored in tabular form and CRM-like information to help me remember who and when I last contacted people in my social and professional network.

Almost everything goes into EverNote. In fact, if you read this article and wonder “Why doesn’t Christo track Important Information Foobar” then it’s probably the case that I do, and I store it in EverNote, and I just haven’t bothered to mention it explicitly. EverNote is a cloud-based note taking and record keeping application that has native apps on all operating systems and a great API, so there are plenty of free extensions to it.

All the paper documents that I need to keep like bills, employment agreements, official documents and important receipts go into a pile, and every week or so I clear this pile and scan them direct to EverNote. Likewise, if I ever come across a web page that’s interesting I use the Chrome addin to save it to EverNote, and I also have a collection of manually written notes for each of my projects or for information that I just need to keep track of (like great restaurants near Palo Alto). It’s hard to describe just how flexible and useful EverNote is but maybe this link and this link will explain a little more.

Of course, just storing my files isn’t enough – I also need to be able to find information in them again. In the past, using foolscap filing boxes, this was tedious and slow at best. EverNote’s search and offline sync capabilities are great though – I’m so lazy now that I don’t bother to look up account numbers or customer references before I start a phone call. Instead, I just search for it in EverNote while I’m talking. Suffice to say the extra added efficiency this gives me is a sweet bonus on top of the fact I don’t have piles of paper cluttering up my mind and my room!

That said, I’m also careful to organise how I keep my EverNotes so that the search works as well as it does for me. The incremental benefit of this organisation is probably only a few more percentage points of efficiency, but it’s also personally satisifying for me to know that every single piece of information in my life is organised, so I’m happy to spend the small extra time to do it.

Each entry in EverNote goes into a notebook, the fundamental unit of EverNote organisation. Notebooks can be shared with others and you can choose to sync them offline or not (depending on the space available on my phone). To that end, I have my Notebooks organised by year (2012, 2013, …), and I will just keep as many of the most recent ones I have space for sync’ed offline – right now, that’s both of them. I also have a number of other special purpose notebooks:

  • A Big notebook (for things so large I don’t want to automatically sync them offline)
  • A Shared notebook (for storing documents I need to share with my wife)
  • A Core notebook (for storing documents I will always want to have offline, even if they aren’t recent)
  • An “Inbox” notebook for storing incomplete and working entries

Then I also use tags to help classify notes. For the sake of brevity I won’t enumerate these explicitly, but basically every note has at least one tag that classifies what it is (a bill, a project note etc) and possibly some other tags that group things by topic (e.g. tax2013).

And that’s EverNote. Alone it covers probably 90% of my information-tracking needs, and right now I’m adding more than 200 new entries a month. However, EverNote is really only good for text notes, files and webpages. For other types of reference and what turns out to be my only tickler I use other tools.

For example, some data is naturally tabular – e.g. savings plans and a reference list of people I send Christmas cards to with their addresses. EverNote is rubbish at tables, and it also is not very good at collaborative editing. For both of these sorts of documents I use Google Docs, although the fact it does not have offline sync is annoying.

A tickler is a reference system that makes it easy to see and be reminded of items by date. Classically, this was a set of folders, e.g. one for each of the week. If you needed to do something next Wednesday you’d put a note in the Wednesday folder, and each day you’d look in the folder to be “tickled” about what you needed to do that day. Anytime Tasks and modern digital tools have made ticklers like this redundant, but tickler structures are still great as reminders of when I last did something.

In my case, I use a Trello as a contact log for everyone in my professional network, with one board for each quarter and one card for each person with information about their physical location and their tags (e.g. “Startup expertise”), plus a checklist with notes from each meeting. When I see someone I drag their card to the current quarter and update their contact log. This is great because it means that I can get a quick overview of professional contacts that I’ve not been in touch with for a while then dive deeper by looking at their card if I need to. Unfortunately, the fact that Trello does not sync offline with my mobile is even more annoying here than it is for projects and I am actively looking for a better solution than this!

All my personal email lives in gmail, and I’ve never had to delete any email (though I have a running tag of “To Delete” and “Big” emails in case I ever run short of space and need to prune things). I also store all my contacts in Google. I use PasswordSafe to track my passwords and synchronise this across multiple devices using DropBox. Finally, I have a slew of other tools I use here and there like for my to-read list, GoodReads for my finished-reading list and Pinterest to track gift ideas and occasional things I want to buy. In effect, although there isn’t a single tool that I can use to track all my information, that’s OK and having multiple tools works fine because I’ve decided deliberately how to track each type of information in my life. Ultimately that, and the fact that each type of information has just one place it lives in, helps make this system so effective.

Which brings me to the gaps (capturing inspiration) and things I don’t care about (tracking my money). For inspiration I don’t have a good solution yet. Pinterest is good for storing pictures from webpages, but that all it stores and sometimes its words that I want to highlight or annotate. EverNote is OK at this, but it doesn’t help me see the connections between pieces of inspiration. This is a gap.

I don’t care about tracking my money? In short, no. Once upon a time I did, and diligently tracked every expense and reconciling them with my bank accounts each month. The funny thing was that this spandrel did not glean me any new information or change how I behaved. It took a little leap of faith, but now I don’t track anything. Of course I still check my statements for erroneous charges (found one last month – bad American Express!), but I’m pretty good at saving lots and not spending more than I earn, and Katie is the same or better, so now my system is just to pay attention to what I’m spending my money on and think carefully about big purchases.

And that sums up how I track it all. Like with Projects, my References and (one) Tickler systems aren’t perfect and I’m actively looking for ways to improve them. If you have any suggestions please comment or email me! I’ve also left out a lot of detail about how I use each of these tools. This post is long enough as it is, but maybe I’ll write more on each one someday soon You’re life will be different anyway though and so you’ll use them differently. In any case, in the next and final post for this series I’ll take a step sideways and think about what it actually takes to use the system I’ve described. Because it turns out the hard part is not figuring out what to do. It’s actually doing it. More on that shortly…


6 thoughts on “Living an organised life in the clouds, part 5: References and Ticklers

  1. Google Doc has an option to save stuff offline. Just download the Google Drive app. It’s better than Evernote because you don’t have to organise stuff according to what you need to save offline and what you don’t. You can simply choose whichever file you want offline. Yes that means that you have to do it every single file that you want, but I found that to be easier because I realised that I don’t need so many files offline.

    I think Google Drive is great. For me it acts like a combination of Dropbox and Evernote, thus making my life a lot simpler. There are two features that Google Drive lacks, which, if added, would make it better than anything out there. First is the tagging system and second is a webclipper app.

    And yeah, totally agree with you on the tracking money point. I used to meticulously keep expenses at one time, but don’t do that anymore. Though I do think that the exercise of keeping track of money helped me form habits which still help me live a frugally rich life.

    • That is a real plus for Google Docs – I will have to look into it. I find I use evernote across my iPad, iPhone and computer (sometimes all three simultaneously as I work on different tasks). I’ve found Google Doc support on non-pc devices to be pretty poor, but that might have changed – I’ll look into it more.

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