Thursday, January 20, 2011

Simple, Cheap Pocket Organizer

Just a quick post today to plug my favorite low-tech organizational tool: the PocketMod.

A pocket mod is a single sheet of office paper that you customize with features like blank checklists, calendars in various formats, references, and so on. You can then print it out, do a nifty little cut-and-fold transformation, and voila! It's a 4"x2.5" (ish) disposable organizer.

The original PocketMod, developed by Adams Chad, can be found at; Douglas Johnston reworked the idea and added more features (including some intended for users of David Allen's Getting Things Done methods), which you can get at Either way, it's free to use, cheap to make, and easy to carry around with you.

A pocket mod plus a small pen or a stubby pencil makes it possible to jot down quick reminders to yourself whenever they occur to you, and to check on your to-do list any time. It's a great way to keep a portable daily checklist and to-do list, too. Try it out!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Grown-Up Checklist, Explained

Here's that checklist I promised, with a little explanation of each item:

WORKOUT OF THE DAY Some days, I'll do a small morning workout before breakfast; other days, I'll work out in the evening or take a day off.
SHOWER By popular demand....
GET DRESSED I tried getting dressed and then showering, but my clothes got all wet....
BREAKFAST I cook something for myself and the boys most days.
COMPUTER TIME This is the time to check on Facebook, email, etc. I have to limit myself or I spend too much time here.
CHECK CALENDAR FOR TODAY I find that if I look at the calendar in the morning, I'll remember what's scheduled for the rest of the day. If I don't make myself check it, though, I am likely to forget stuff.
START HOMESCHOOL BY 9:00 My homeschool mornings tend to go one of two ways: either I'm behind all morning and get a really late start, or I start on time and finish everything we need to do by 11:00. The second way is a lot more fun for everyone.

CLEAN KITCHEN The kids are expected to clear and rinse their own breakfast dishes, but this is where I make sure all the breakfast stuff is cleaned up and I'm not leaving a mess for Lorin to deal with when she comes home at lunch time.
CHECK TASK LIST I keep a small notebook in my pocket that I use to write down to-do items as they occur to me. I'm trying to be better about the next step – that is, actually doing them.
READY FOR WORK Do I have all the things I need for work? Clothes still clean? Was I supposed to bring anything to the office, or drop something off on the way there?
LUNCH I don't always make lunch for the boys, but if I don't, I need to make sure they make themselves something healthy. Ideally, when Lorin gets home, the kitchen is clean and the boys are fed, so she can get right to work on her afternoon of homeschooling.

KITCHEN My oldest son & I tag-team the kitchen after dinner. We load the dishwasher, hand-wash the big stuff, and wipe down the counters. Younger brothers sweep and wipe the table.
WORKOUT OF THE DAY Some days, I watch a movie while I ride my bike on the trainer in the evening, or do a quick workout after dinner.
CHECK CALENDAR FOR TOMORROW Is there anything important going on tomorrow that I need to prepare for? Any errands to run, etc.? Looking into this at night helps me remember them the next morning.

I haven't begun to use this yet, though some of the items on it are long-standing habits (and others are old short-comings).

If you were to make yourself a checklist for the hectic parts of your day, what would be the most important items on it?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New (Grownup) Checklist for the New Year

An Apollo 12 astronaut refers to his task list on the surface of the moonBack when we wrote our first page on using checklists for household chores, I threw in a line that said something like "From Jiffy Lube to NASA, checklists are used to clarify expectations and break big jobs into smaller tasks." At right, you'll see proof -- a photo from the Apollo 12 mission of an astronaut's wrist-mounted checklist.

I know a couple professional pilots; my dad used to fly for the US Navy, and I remember seeing his training manuals around the house. Civilian or military, pilot training is checklists, checklists, checklists. It makes sense - with lives on the line, you don't want to miss a step.

And then there are the Boy Scouts. A disproportionate number of US presidents have been Eagle Scouts; a quick survey of the men I know who were Eagle Scouts shows that they all have a propensity for follow-through and dependability. I think it's because the process of becoming an Eagle Scout involves steadily checking off hundreds of badge requirements.

I could go on - packing for a camping trip, baking a cake, assembling IKEA furniture....

All of these things point out some important things about checklists:
  • they augment our human memories with an external list of tasks
  • they help us track where we were in the list so that distractions don't cause missed steps
  • and, if used reliably, they teach us that even when we don't have a checklist to work from, big things can be accomplished by breaking them down into small steps.
Indeed, this simple secret is big business. David Allen has made a mint and helped millions of readers with his "Getting Things Done" books, which boil down to a three step process: 1) break the goal down into discrete tasks; 2) identify the next task that needs to happen (he calls it the "next action"); and 3) do the next task - duh! If you doggedly repeat this process for any given thing, whether it's marathon training, building a house, or earning a Ph.D., you'll eventually achieve the goal.

We've used the system with our kids for a few months now, and we've seen big improvements. Our oldest has memorized his checklist; our middle son gets his and starts working through it without being prompted each morning. And our youngest... well, he still needs to be reminded, but the checklist gives us one reminder that functions for the whole list of tasks.

As I've watched the checklist transform our home life, I've come to realize that people who have internalized this process go on to more productive, enjoyable lives. That's something I want for my kids, so I'm really glad we've discovered it and begun to help them learn it.
But what about me? When I look around the house, there are plenty of unfinished projects. I cringe at the number. I know that I unconsciously break tasks down into mental checklists at work, but I am definitely not in the habit of doing it in all aspects of my life. Maybe I should be, So I'm going to be working on a daily checklist for myself that incorporates some of my New Year's resolutions and other things I'm not always great about doing.

I'll post the checklist here in a couple days when it's ready. In the meantime, let's brainstorm. If you were making a daily checklist for yourself, what would you put on it?