My Personal Organization System — How I Organize My Life
The past 6 years of being an entrepreneur has been an incredible journey for me. I’ve had opportunities to work on many projects and talk to many successful individuals. Needless to say, I’ve been completely exposed to the outside world. And throughout these journey of occasional victories and frequent defeat, I’ve come to understand that most of my failures are caused by the lack of perspective, my inability to see the full picture due to stress, and at times, mostly due to my state of mind.
I’ve always been obsessed with efficiency, and I’ve always been fascinated with systems and processes. During work, instead of tackling problems and crisis as isolated incidents, I’d like to categorize the problem, and try to handle that problem with the same set of process or procedure that we’ve previously developed to solve similar problems. However, creating processes only from the perspective of the company was insufficient and it was greatly affecting my work-life balance. Therefore, I was determined to create a personal organization system that would help me manage all the chaos that I experience in my life, so that I can reach true tranquility of mind, be able to see the bigger picture, and be the most efficient and effective version of myself.
Before I dive into this, I just want you to know that this article is not going to give you isolated tips to manage your life. Rather, this is a self-contained system that I’ve been developing, using and optimizing to handle every facet of my life, be it personal or professional.
The objectives of my organization system are to:
- Eliminate stress and achieve tranquility of mind
- Maintain good health, relationships and overall happiness
- Empower me to work effectively and efficiently
- Turn crazy dreams into reality
Dealing with Chaos
Before I talk about how to best deal with chaos, I think it’s important to understand that there are two main sources where chaos comes from:
- My Phone
- My Mind
If you are a high level achiever, or a business owner, you are going to get a lot of emails, chat messages, and phone calls. If you are a creative artist, you are going to have wild thoughts and crazy ideas throughout the day at random times. Life is full of chaos, that’s a fact, you can’t change it.
But what you can change is how you respond to it. Most people take a very reactive, passive approach when it comes to dealing with chaos. They are easily distracted by their phone and their mind, and sometimes they even abandon the task at hand, and end up being thrown around into different situations, switching tasks, and juggling 15 balls at once.
By this time, I think you already know that multitasking is a myth- you are simply switching from one task to another. According to the research by the American Psychological Association, multitasking is 40% more inefficient and ineffective than focusing on one task at a time. This is due to the lag time while your brain shifts attention from one task to the other. The difference is especially glaring for more complex tasks.
While some people working in high pressure jobs and work environment believe that multitasking and external distractions are necessary evils, I am here to say that it’s not. Because most of the time, these habitual distractions can be dealt with. And dealing with them will liberate our minds for greater creativity and productivity.
In the following sections, I will detail my philosophy and system of dealing with chaos, both from my phone, and my mind.
So how do I manage my phone?
Cut Notifications, Turn on DND, Manage your Inbox
My phone is the most important tool in my life, and it’s probably the same with you. It’s powerful, convenient, and it’s the central hub of my communication. Therefore it’s ever more important that it is well managed.
Let me give you a few steps in how I manage my phone:
Step 1: Turn off all your unnecessary notifications.
PUSH NOTIFICATIONS ARE RUINING YOUR LIFE. They are the buzzing and dinging sounds on your phone that endlessly call for your attention- like a cacophonous waterfall of nonsense.
After checking my phone last week using Screen Time, I learned that I was getting 1120 notifications per day. Do I really have to be notified when an acquaintance comments on a stranger’s Facebook post, or when I show that I don’t care about comes on Netflix, and do I really need to know that my cousin just posted a photo on Facebook, because it’s been a while since he’s done so?
The answer is no. Turning off unnecessary notifications has put me back in control of my time and attention, and has allowed me to be more mindful and focus on the task and mission at hand. In addition, the notifications that you choose not to turn off (for example: personal messages from love ones, important work emails, etc.) are less likely to be neglected, or lost in the wasteland that you once called “your phone”.
So go ahead and turn them off!
Step 2: Turn on “Do not disturb” when you are working or meeting someone.
I’m not going to dwell on this one for too long, because it’s similar to the first step. I believe in mutual respect, and I believe that one of the most disrespectful things that you can do is to look at your phone while other people are speaking to you. If you agree with me, and believe this to be a bad manner, take a step further — turn on “Do not disturb” when you are meeting someone, so only urgent and important calls get through. Then take it one more step further, respect your work as much as you respect your peers. When you are working, do not let people disturb you!
Step 3: Manage your inbox: Where no next action is required, archive! Achieve Inbox Zero.
Our inboxes have become perpetually overflowing mountains of irritation — and instead of helping us to be more productive, they just seem to suck hours out of our days, and make us anxious.
Gone are the good old days when we only have to worry about one inbox — our email. Now we have WhatsApp, iMessage, Messenger, WeChat on top of our email inbox, so how should we manage it?
It’s actually simple. Go over to every single conversation thread in your inbox and ask yourself this question:
Do I have to do anything here?
If none (for example, you are just waiting for them to reply), then archive it.
If there is indeed something you have to do (for example, respond to the message, or store notes on information), then do keep it open.
Then from here, apply David Allen’s “2-Minute Rule”.
Can I do this thing in less than 2 minutes?
If you can, then do it.
If you can’t, keep it open and don’t worry about it. We will deal with it, I promise.
The result that it creates is remarkable. The fact that I have an empty or almost empty inbox means that important message will not be lost or neglected, while the minimalistic view of my inbox liberates me from worrying about catching up, and falling behind with my work.
One thing to remember is this: You don’t check your phone when you are working because it is on Do Not Disturb. Check it only during down time- it’s plenty enough.
Conclusion for Dealing with Chaos on your phone
Here’s how you can deal with the chaos on your phone:
- Stop the notification
- Do not disturb when working
- Manage your inbox!
When you are managing your inbox, remember the 2-Minute Rule: If you can do it within 2 minutes, do it. If you can’t, leave it unarchived, and handle them later.
What you’ve essentially done here is to turn all your correspondences into a few unarchived conversation threads that need your attention. I’d say that’s pretty awesome!
If you are able to do this, you are one step closer to achieving maximum productivity and Zen-like tranquility of mind.
How do I manage my mind?
2 Minute Rule & Braindump!
In order to develop a system to manage my mind, it’s important to understand how my mind works. Inspired by David Allen’s GTD’s system, I’ve come to realize that my mind is amazing at coming up with connections and ideas, but it’s bad at remembering them.
I’ve previously created note-taking systems for me to deal with mental chaos. Whenever an idea comes to my head, I will note them down and organize it into the correct folder. I was greatly unsatisfied with the result, as I had many thoughts and ideas slip through the crank. This was because having to deliberately explain and organize the thoughts and ideas whenever one comes to mind was extremely difficult and it will lead you to decreases in the amount of information collected, and most importantly distract you from doing focused, high quality work that you previously scheduled.
Now, I have a solution with these two steps: We will ensure that all of our ideas and thoughts are either meticulously stored for future reference or turned into reality.
Step 1: Follow the 2-Minute Rule.
You’ve just had an actionable idea.
“Make your bed” or “Tidy the Desk” or “Respond to RSVP”.
Can you do it in two minutes?
Yes, let’s do it
No, okay, let’s store it into the braindump.
You’d be surprised how much you can get done by only following this rule, it’s amazing!
Step 2: Collect everything into your BRAINDUMP.
Braindump is a place where you can capture anything that has your attention. Create your braindump, then capture any thoughts and ideas that come to mind. The result of this practice is to have everything out of your head which allows for your mind to be optimally clear. This will also make your braindump more important and functional.
The braindump should be designed with minimum barrier. The barrier to using it should be so low that there’s never a reason for you to say “I’ll add it later.” You want to capture everything as soon as it happens so you don’t have to think about it again. This way, you always capture your ideas, and you’d never forget about them.
For me personally, I created a WhatsApp group with myself as my braindump. I think it’s amazing! Whenever I think of something, I would message myself, or send myself a voice memo. I could even forward other people’s messages into the braindump! I never let anything slip my mind!
Recap for Dealing with Chaos in your mind:
If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it.
If it’s not an actionable thought, braindump it
If it takes longer, braindump it.
Because we will organize it later!
Organizing the Braindump and Unarchived Chats
The good news: all your thoughts are safe in your braindump and all communication threads that require your attention are here. Bad News? They are not organised and it’s messy.
Because we want the braindump to be an easy place for you to easily store all your thoughts and ideas without you having to format or structure them, it can get kind of messy. Therefore, I host a daily organization meeting at 10am with myself to process all of the information in my backlog.
The objective of this daily organization meeting is to refine these information and to turn the useful snippets into:
- Notes: the place where you can find the information that you need instantly.
- Deliverables: the place where you can keep track of what you need to deliver and when.
Every morning, I go over each snippet of the Braindump, and each unarchived conversation in the following ways:
- Is it useful?
If yes, Proceed to step 2, if not, put it in the trash
2. Is it actionable?
If yes, Proceed to step 3;
If not, store it as a note. Notes can be sorted into three categories:
Thoughts & Ideas: put it in Evernote
Contacts: If the note is contact related, put it in Cloze
Passwords and Keys: If the note is a password or key that you’d have to remember, put it in 1Password
3. Can you do it in 2 mins?
If yes, just do it!
If not, proceed to step 4
4. Is it urgent?
If yes, setup the deliverable in Asana.
Now remember, deliverables are not tasks. They are not something that you need to do, like “Buy Present for Dave”. Rather, they are milestones that you have to complete, and they are always phased in passive voice. So instead of “Buy Present for Dave”, the correct deliverable form is “Present for Dave Prepared”.
The deliverable name must be in passive voice, and it must be clear enough for you to comprehend end result of the deliverable. You must also set a due date for each deliverable, after reviewing the other deliverables that you have committed to. Barring any catastrophic events, the due date set should never be delayed.
If the thing that you are trying to do is more complicated, or if it involves a multi-step process, for example “Birthday Party for Father Hosted”, then you will simply put in the deliverable “Birthday-Party-for-Father Project Planned”, so you can defer the planning process later, instead of doing it during the organisation meeting. (In future articles, I will go over how I plan projects effectively.)
But if it is not urgent, then store the idea into Evernote, so you can review later.
With the organisation meeting, all the useful information from my braindump and my unarchived chats have either been converted into notes or deliverables.
Managing your routine
Having a set routine is very important, because it allows us to temporarily neglect and forget about random things while we focus on the work at hand.
The perfect example here is the daily organization meeting. Because we know that we will organize the braindump in the right way every morning at 10am, we are free to put our thoughts in there whenever with minimum barrier.
Routines are therefore extremely important for productivity. I have categorized routines in 3 ways:
- Functional Routine
- Organizational Routine
- Reflection Routine
Functional routines are designed to simply get work done.
- <Weekly> Payment Session (Paying Bills)
Having a set time per week when I would pay my bills allow me to not have to worry about them during the week. I only have to put the payment instruction in my “Bill” box.
Organizational routines are designed to organize information chaos.
- <Daily> Organizational Meeting
- <Bi-Weekly> Note Organization Meeting
During this meeting, I organize and categorize the notes that I have stored while examining ideas, and potentially turning them into deliverables.
- <Monthly> Contact Review Meeting
During this meeting, I organize, label, and delete contacts.
- <Weekly> Routine Management Meeting
During this meeting, I examine all of the routines, and make sure that they are on Asana.
Reflection Routines are designed to for me to reflect on my life on a higher level, which is independent to the organization system.
<Monthly> Finance/Subscription Meeting
During this meeting, I take a look at my personal finances, spending habits, investment portfolio, and determine the most appropriate next steps.
<Monthly> Life and Happiness Review Meeting
During this meeting, I review my work life, relationships, personal growth, health, leisure time, spirituality, and determine the most appropriate next steps.
<Monthly> Notification & Email Review Meeting
During this meeting, I review my notification setting on all my devices and ensure that I turn off all unnecessary notifications. I also use a software like Unroll.Me to manage my email subscriptions, so I can keep my email inbox clean.
These routine is liberating, because the promise of doing, organizing and managing my life later, gives me the freedom to create chaos, come up with crazy ideas, and most importantly focus on my work.
Blocking the Schedule
Now that all the routines and deliverables are clearly defined, it’s time to do “Time Blocking”.
I think time blocking can be an effective tool for doing more of the things that we want to do, and ultimately for living a better, happier, fitter, more fun life.
Time blocking is a time management method that schedules your day into set, controlled units. Finite portions of time are pre-planned for specific tasks, so that you can go about your work day without interruptions or distractions. It’s most notably used by Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Instead of simply making to-do lists and ploughing through them, time blocking maps out dedicated controlled spaces for your work, reducing the number of choices you’d have to make in any given moment — boosting your willpower for peak productivity.
Here’s how I do it:
- Open the Asana (My Tasks) Dashboard to see all my deliverables.
- First, block out all of the routines.
- Then, block out all of the meetings.
- Then, block out all the lunch time for the next 3 days.
- Pick the most important deliverable: Draw a simple work plan, estimate time / effort for the deliverable.
- If the deliverable takes less than 30 minutes to complete, or if you are waiting for someone else in order to be able to complete it, add it to Todoist instead of your calendar. If it takes more than 30 minutes, see step 7.
- Block out work for your deliverable for the following three working days. If your deliverable can be completed with the scheduled time slots, then mark the deliverable on Asana, as ‘blocked’; If your deliverable will not be completed even after the scheduled time slots for the next three working days, mark the deliverable on Asana, as ‘blocking’.
- Once you are done blocking out the time for your most important deliverable then do the same for the next most important unblocked, or blocking deliverable, until your next three days are completely full.
Now that you have a clear work schedule, and a Todoist that you can follow, it’s time to get to work!
When you are working, it is important to remember your priority.
If you have something on the calendar, do it, and turn on “Do Not Disturb”.
The most important principle here is to: respect your calendar, and do not be late for anything.
If you have nothing on your calendar, you can either relax, take a break, or engage in passive work, in the following priority.
Passive Work Priority:
- Complete Items on Todoist
- Dealing with Chaos on your phone
- Complete Habits on Habit Tracker (*Will talk more about that later)
- Read & Learn
- Active Braindump-ing
Before I officially conclude, let me make a controversial statement: “A busy life is a wasted life.” — Francis Crick
A few years ago, I would emphatically disagree with that statement, the same way that many of you are doing right now. But slowly I learned that busy simply doesn’t equal productive.
Now I realize that I have to take accountability for me feeling overwhelmed. I used to think that feeling overwhelmed is good, and it’s not something that I can control or manage if I were to pursue the path of greatness. But now I understand that with the right system, a system that can handle all the variables, I can achieve true work-life balance and make better decisions in life and business. I can be a better human being now that I have time to reflect and am not constantly overwhelmed by the expectation that I put on myself to succeed.
After using this system for an extended period of time, I can honestly tell you that I’ve never been more focused, more productive, and happier in my entire life. I’m never busy, and never overwhelmed, and I handle each notification, each question, each message, each idea, with the same methodical approach and even keeled mindset. By no means do I believe that this system is perfect, but I do believe that if you build a well-thought out system to deal with your life’s chaos, and you do not stop optimizing it based on experience, your life will be changed forever.
About the Author
Pak H. Chau is a serial young entrepreneur, a successful founder with five businesses already under his belt. He was only in his teens when he sold his first business, Breakthrough Advertisement Limited, which supported small businesses with their advertising. Pak’s mission is to change the world through his companies and to empower others especially the youth.