By Gajan Tharmabalan
In the first part of our Controlled Chaos series, we looked at how you can control your email inbox. Part deux looked at how calendars can be used much more effectively. In part three, we graduate to the notion of data organization. Most people collect information from many sources. Stress, anxiety, and even migraines occur when we try to digest all this data at some point. Let me be the first to tell you, it doesn't have to be this way. Throughout this post I will be highlighting how I work, but keep in mind I'm not preaching this as the end all be all. These are guidelines that'll truly help you manage all the information that comes your way. The theme is pretty simple: create a system and stick to it.
1. Minimum is Maximum
Everything you attain, from physical to digital, is received in a series of inboxes. Your email provider gives you an inbox, your mailbox is an inbox, and even your notes app on your smartphone is an inbox. With all the bits of information that attacks us on a daily basis, how do we manage all of it in a smart way? One of the first things to do is create a strict, minimalist system of inboxes. To highlight how this system works, I will go over my personal system of inboxes:
A) While I have multiple email accounts, they feed into two mail apps on my smartphones. I use Mailbox for personal accounts and the traditional iOS mail app for professional accounts. These count as two inboxes for email.
C) I actively type down any tasks I need to get done into Omnifocus 2, which are later classified and scheduled to be completed. This is one inbox for tasks.
D) As previously highlighted, I maintain a multitude of calendars, but they all stay in sync across my mobile platforms. Primarily, I access this information through my phone. This is one inbox for my calendar.
E) Any bits of mail, invoices, and other pieces of paper feed into a drawer in my office. Items here are either actionable or reference materials (more on this later). Eventually, a lot of these items can be disposed of, since they have been acted upon. This physical method of paper management is my last inbox.
In total, I manage six inboxes. Now, information can come from other various means. A phone call, a tweet, or even a face to face conversation can create new information to manage. Ultimately, they all feed into one of the aforementioned inboxes (if they are not acted upon immediately). The trick is to take your time and find the best system that works for you.
For example, it seems like quite a bit of work to have all my physical and digital notes transcribed into Evernote. However, it's a cost I'm willing to pay to access all my random thoughts in one readily available platform. Finding the ideal number of inboxes is the hardest step here, but it can be the most rewarding. When you know exactly where to find something because it adheres to a set of rules... then you know your onto something.
There's a universal habit for humans to often bitch about the lack of time.
2. Make Time
There's a universal habit for humans to often bitch about the lack of time. I used to be that person. Now, I use the lack-of-time to turn down certain jobs and projects, not as a crutch for preventing my personal growth. What I am trying to get at is if you're serious about reducing the chaos of your lifestyle, make some time! If you want to get an awesome system of inboxes (yes, I did use awesome to describe data organization) in your life, then make time to set it up and continue to make time to adhere to it. I decided to write this series of blog entries to share the tips and tricks that I find useful to manage the chaos that is my life. If there's one unifying trend, it's the necessity to make time to manage the system you set in place.
3. Reference and Trash Religiously
Alright, so you built a system of inboxes. You stick to it and make time consistently to use it. Now here's another thing you have to do: reference and trash. You come across a cool article to read, so you email it to yourself for later, or you send it in your own Evernote account. Time has passed, and you haven't gotten to that article. It's gnawing at your brain. It bothers you and keeps you up at night. This feeling sucks. This is a sign that it's time for a sweep.
Go across your inboxes (weekly, monthly, etc) and either reference items so they are easy to find later, or trash them and don't think twice about them again. If you really want to keep all you iTunes receipts, go right ahead. But don't let it take up space in your inbox. Move them to a separate folder for receipts. Alternatively, since you pretty much can't return any intentional purchases from iTunes, maybe you can just delete them all; or delete receipts older than a year. Yes, we live in an age with copious amounts of storage space, but trashing isn't about freeing space. It's more about clearing visual and mental space. This is a step you can do as you manage your inboxes and move things around. All in all, don't be a hoarder.
4. Avoid The Hype
Some people have a tendency to take all these steps a little too seriously and try to find the flashiest solution for everything. While I have a near-ludicrous affinity for nice pens, I try my best to not let that command my system. My system doesn't come to screeching halt if I don't have my specific pen with me. What I am trying to get at is that you don't have to strive to keep iterating on your system. You don't have to move all you notes over to a new platform just because there's a flashy new app. Stay focused the journey, not the car you're driving in. Also, pen and paper trump all.
5. Stick With It
People might think you're crazy. And that's okay. I can't count the number of times people looked at me funny when I took out a notebook to write something down. Don't let the lack of understanding from your peers stop you from attaining a heightened level of organization. Furthermore, don't let the lack of immediate satisfaction stop you from pursuing this need to improved organization. As much as others can hold you back, your own self tends to be your own worst enemy. When you set out on your journey for and improved system of data organization, it might not make all the sense at the time. But I assure you, when you stick to a regiment of allocating specific pieces of information to specified inboxes, your brain will thank you. Your family will thank you. Your entire network of people will thank you in one way or another. When tax season rolls around, documents will be easier to find. When people delete emails from months ago, you will be their savior. But more broadly, when shit hits the fan, you will be better prepared to deal with it. Either directly through this new system, or indirectly because the system you've built has left you with a clearer mind.
BONUS TIP: Find Your Killer App
I have mention it several times before, and it isn't without purpose. Evernote has to be one of the most underrated services available today. It's a free service that give your an online locker for notes, images, and voice memos. Furthermore, any images of text, including hand-written text, are transcribed by their robots online (messy writers beware: results may vary). Another kicker is that Evernote provides an app for just about any electronic device with an internet connection. If you haven't already, be sure to check out Evernote, create your account, and start aggregating your information today. Wow... That sounded like a sales pitch.
From email, to calendars, to managing information, controlling the chaos in your life is no easy task. It's an artform in itself that requires a great deal of persistence. Also, it's an evolving habit that never ceases to, ideally, improve upon itself. The trick is to remove the layers of complexity so you can get back to doing what's most important. And that's what I'll talk about in the last part of this series coming soon: Creation.