Joshua Heyer wrote me today with a question which I’ve never given much thought. Writing out my answer surprised me in how much I could articulate that which I do almost subconsciously. Joshua wrote:
“I have a simple question for you. How do you stay organized? I’m struggling with keeping things on point and I’m wondering what you use. [...] Any thoughts on how to improve my organization with software, practices, etc… are much appreciated.”
I’ve never answered this question, even to myself, so it’s a little tricky to think about it. I’ll do my best. It’s a pretty broad question that can get into all kinds of areas. I think I’ve been organized most of my life. My mother would probably back this up. I was always rearranging my bedroom, or tearing apart my closet growing up, reorganizing so everything made sense to me and looked the way I wanted it. To do that, I often pulled everything out, and only put back in the things I knew I wanted/needed to keep. Everything else either found a new home, or eventually got donated or tossed. I can see relationships in organization with both my physical and digital worlds.
Physically, I prefer to have less things visible in my environment than more. When my desk is cluttered, I feel disorganized. Like I’m really behind. The messiness represents a time period when I’ve been too busy to keep things organized. In my mind, once I have familiarity with a place (apartment, office, hotel, etc.) everything I have with me usually has a logical place it belongs, and I’m pretty diligent about putting it there. Sometimes I slack, and forget to put things in some designated or logical place, so it takes an hour or two on a Saturday morning to clean and file away the little things.
I also believe in keeping a pretty open filing system. I have filing cabinets at home (my desk there is a big thick door on two filing cabinets). And I made sure I had plenty of file drawers in the new office. The files at the office are mostly empty right now. But they’ll get filled up soon, once I port some of my stuff from home, and begin using them here.
Digitally, my practices follow suit. Everything has a place, even if those places are hierarchical, like directories and folders. I rarely have more then 5 or 6 files/folders on my desktop at any one time. The items that are there are either awaiting storage in the correct place, or are items I need to deal with in the upcoming days or weeks. Otherwise, all files belong somewhere, which ensures I can find them later when/if I ever need them.
I use a Palm pretty often. I carry a Palm in my messenger bag all the time, and make constant use of its to-do lists and other databases. All contacts are stored there, and I’m fairly rigorous about keeping them up to date. SplashID helps keep all my personal data (accounts, serial numbers, etc) in one convenient place, and keeps it all encrypted too. From the same company SplashShopper is a blown-out version of the old free HandyShopper. I use SplashShopper for much more than just shopping lists: movies I want to see or rent, books I hear about that sound interesting, packing lists for international trips.
I saw BurnoutMenu 2.0 mentioned the other day on Merlin’s 43 Folders, and I’ve been giving it a spin. So far, I love how easily accessible it makes all my to-do lists. I have a keyboard shortcut that pulls up the menu extra at any time, showing me everything in my lists. Hierarchical, color-coded priorities, and dead-simple to quick-add new items to the list.
I’ve been traveling a lot over the past few years, so I’m also fond of a little app for the Palm called Travel Tracker, which I’ve been using for four years now. It’s invaluable in keeping all my travel plans (flights, hotel, car rentals, restaurant reservations) in one spot. TT automatically adds entries to your datebook, and maintains them if you ever make a change, so it acts as a good central spot for all travel-related data management.
For projects, I have a clients folder within my user folder. Inside each client folder is a folder for each project. I keep all relevant sketches, comps, and source artwork grouped together, usually in a folder called “art”, within a folder for that project. I keep any relevant contracts, MOUs, and documentation in a folder called “docs”. I repeat this system over and over again, to the point that I don’t even think about it anymore. Current projects for current clients are added to the sidebar (Mac OS X finder windows) so they’re quickly and easily accessible.
In design, my patterns can be seen all over again. Simplicity. Clean space. Tear everything away, start fresh, and only add in the things that are needed. Keep them that way. Design serves a purpose, but shouldn’t get in the way. If I’ve added too many elements in, I may need to go back and prune more away. One of my mentors was the Creative Director at HotWired, Barbara Kuhr. She was constantly coming over to my desk, pointing at my design, and asking my why I needed that line. Why I put this element in. And I’d be forced to either justify it, or remove it. She’d push me to make design bolder and more interesting and use less at the same time. A great lesson for life in general.
The same practices apply with coding, like authoring CSS. I set up certain sections in my CSS files that are almost always present: page structure, links, header, footer, lists, etc. Those sections are always demarcated by commented text and lines created by dashes. This way, I almost always know where a certain rule should go, or where to find one when I want to edit or troubleshoot.
After writing so much CSS, I’m even a little anal as to the order of properties within each declaration block. Backgrounds always go first. Then position or float information. Then width/height measurements. Then margin/padding/border. Then text formatting and color. Not every one of those properties is always present, but that’s the general order I usually try to follow. I’m usually not even conscious I’m doing it by now.
Most of the above is second nature to me. But every now and then I find new methods and tools, and try incorporating them into my life and practices. Some stick, some don’t. How do you stay organized?