Creating a Framework for my Life

Over the past year, I’ve been working with an accountability partner, Andrew, to help “get my act together”. I wrote a little bit about this a while back, but I wanted to dig deeper into one change that I’ve made because I’m working with him.

In the past, I had a master list of tasks similar to what David Allen talks about in Getting Things Done. First off, if you haven’t read the book…get a copy and read it. His methodology isn’t for everybody, and he’s a bit militant in his approach (you’re either doing GTD completely or you’re not doing it right), but those points aside, it’s pretty much a foundational work for anybody who wants to be more productive.

Master Task ListThere I was, with a completely unorganized master list containing all the tasks I could think of that I needed to do. As I thought of things, I would add them to the list. Over time I got better and better at this capture. I’d think of something and put it on the list. I developed all sorts of different ways to make sure that I could capture the tasks I thought of. I would send myself e-mails. I dictated into my phone. I wrote on scraps of paper. Then all those sources were pulled together and I transcribed the tasks onto my list. Eventually I transitioned the list from paper to the computer. That way I could move tasks around and group them logically. If a bunch of tasks led from one to another, I would put them together in project. And the project got a name.

When I discovered task management apps, I found a whole new way to stay on top of the things I had on my lists. My discovery of the ToodleDo task app was a life-changer for me. I now had a way to manipulate my projects and tasks on my computer and mobile phone. No matter where I was, I had access to the things I was supposed to do. The problem that I ran into was that the overhead to get everything setup and maintained was a lot of work. On days when I got everything setup in advance and then just had to execute, I got phenomenal amounts of things done. I was a productivity superhero. But that meant that I had to be a productivity accountant prior to that. I had to spend time reordering tasks, adding tasks, deleting tasks, and generally doing the accounting for the projects and tasks that I was involved in. And let’s face it…most of us aren’t accountants. It’s simply not fun for most of us.

Spidey-PotatoHeadI would have a couple productivity superhero days, and then long stretches where I avoided being a productivity accountant. Other days I’d fall off the wagon entirely and not be a superhero…I’d be much worse. But through it all, I kept capturing the tasks that I thought of. For some reason that habit stuck with me. My master task list would get bigger, yet I was only whittling away at the list on an infrequent basis.

Things were bad.

I have several different areas where I’m responsible. I’ve got things to do for the kids and for my wife. I need to manage stuff for Hectic Manor. There’s business stuff to attend to. Finally, there are things that I need to be doing for myself for either my mental or physical health. The master list of tasks and even my master list of projects wasn’t configured to handle those things. Like many people I broke my life into two segments business and house. Another way of saying that is work and life. See where I’m going…into that whole work-life balance arena.

But don’t quit on me just yet. I wrote a long series of posts about how I believe that we’re all mostly stuck with work-life IMbalance, and that’s OK. I’m not going to rehash all of that, just suffice it to say that there are times when one side of the seesaw is going to naturally tend to be more important than the other. There will be almost not times when things are totally balanced. Not only is that hard to do…it’s not all that fun. It’s the ups and downs that make life interesting.

What matters is that there has to be some way to push the seesaw up when you’ve stuck on the ground, and you have to figure out a way to get down when you’re at the top. You need to be active about it!

3-D Teeter TotterAndrew offered a framework for how he organized his tasks and projects that immediately resonated with me. He helped me realize that I have five major areas of responsibility that I need to manage.

  • Business
  • Family
  • Financial
  • Household
  • Personal

Each of those areas covers a lot of ground, but they represent a great balance between generality and granularity. Don’t think that one category is more important than another. I list them everywhere in alphabetical order. That way I can avoid any value judgments when I’m looking at the list. And frankly I also avoid a lot of the guilt that I’ve felt in the past by ordering one before another. It’s a weird psychological trick, but it works for me.

ATimeLogger-ScreenshotI’ve even associated colors with each of the categories. For instance, in my current task manager Todoist, all my business tasks and projects are blue. Over in ATimeLogger2 my business time-tracking is blue. In Google Drive my business folders are blue. Although I’d love to get away from physical files, I still have several cabinets of them. And you guessed it, anything that’s business-related is in blue hanging folders.

The importance of this coloration is that it helps me remind myself, in a subtle way, as to what area I’m working on at the moment. If I’ve got blue folders on my desk, then I’m reminded that this is business time. If they’re yellow then it’s household time. It’s not overwhelming, and it’s not really in-my-face, like I said, it’s a subtle reminder. Since I time-tag my activities throughout the day in ATimeLogger2 and the specific times are tagged to an activity and the activities all have colors associated with them, I can take a quick look at a particular day and see where I spent my time among the five big categories.

So my life isn’t really a seesaw that balances between work and life. It’s some weird pentagon shaped outline that has a balancing point in the center. It swings wildly from one point to another, never remaining on one side for too long. But the framework for tracking, storing, and organizing my stuff, tasks, and projects allows me to be a heck of a lot more proactive about managing what I’m doing and what I have. By using colors for the categories, I’m able to give myself a nudge as to how my brain should be working.

What about you, do you have any systems or tricks that you use as a framework for your life?