Self-Management Practices, Part 2: Information Intake

[Note: Following is the second part of a series on personal productivity. The first post is Email Control.]

Now that you know how to control your email, how to you deal with everything else? Throughout the course of your day, you gain ideas, discover tasks and learn of pressing needs that you absolutely can’t forget to do. How can you keep track of it all?


The key for me is streamlining my information-intake process. I used to be like my colleague who cobbles together a combination of post-it notes, scraps of paper, notecards and whiteboard scribblings, not to mention email in her inbox — all a recipe for an excessive cognitive burden! For me, the way to relieve stress — and get things done — is to limit the intake methods and funnel them into one master.

Intake Methods


fieldnotes-coverIn my typical day, I’m not behind a computer screen 100% of the time. I’m walking around, sometimes by myself, sometimes having chats with people, sometimes in meetings. So I need a way to capture ideas and to-do items while being respectful of other people and being able to be in the moment (and not distracted). Therefore, in most of my human interactions, I unplug. No laptop (unless I’m pairing), no phone. I find that a screen between someone else and me creates a barrier, however slight, to our interactions, and of course, increases the risk of being interrupted or distracted (“Oh, hold on, just got an IM that I need to reply to…”). So I use an old-fashioned tool: the paper notebook. My notebook of choice is the pocket-size Field Notes notebook. It fits in my pocket, so I can come to a meeting carrying nothing but my coffee cup. I can go for a walk, hands-free. I can have an ad-hoc conversation by the water cooler and jot down an idea or task (starting from the back of the notebook) without having the awkward moment of pulling out my phone, which unintentionally brings a whole external world to intercede between my fellow human and me, when all I need is something to record a few words with that I’ll know where to find later. And that last part is the key: Rather than a random assortment of post-it notes, notecards and scraps of paper, I can relax knowing that all of the ideas and tasks that I’ve accumulated during the day are in one handy place.


[On a side note, I once lost one of my notebooks while walking in San Francisco. A kind-hearted person took the time to mail it to me, realizing how important it was — and perhaps appreciating what a humanizing tool it is! Thank you again, Sue Ann!]


Evernote-Logo-1200Of course, sometimes it’s easier to record stuff digitally. (I’m not a caveman, after all!) Just as I limit myself to one analog tool, I allow myself only one digital intake method: Evernote. If I’m using my computer, it’s natural  and fast to CMD-Tab over to Evernote, where I keep one (and only one!) to-do list. If I’m reading/researching something online and either my brain’s focused mode thinks of something or its diffuse mode presents something I wasn’t thinking of, I quickly jot it down in that Evernote note and continue. Particularly during my daily inbox-zero quest, I offload those discovered tasks into the to-do list, which is essentially what allows me to not use email as my to-do list. (Though it seems like I’m adding an unnecessary step here, I have a reason — keep reading.)

Funneling to One Work-Management System

Limiting the intake methods and recording info is only half the battle, though. At the end of the day, I have two sources of information that I need to reconcile: my Field Notes to-do list and Evernote to-do list. It won’t surprise return readers of this blog to find out that my preferred solution for managing work at the personal level is the same as my preferred solution for team and organizational work: kanban.
My personal kaban in Kanbanize. (Yes, I know that I’ve exceeded my WIP limit!)
I’ll go a bit deeper into personal kanban in my next post in this series. But for now, I’ll explain the basics. Essentially, I keep the columns (a.k.a. work stages) fairly simple:
  • Options (not usually displayed)
  • To Do: Stuff I’m wanting to work on next
  • Doing: Stuff I’m working on now
  • Done: Stuff I’ve recently completed
My Field Notes to-do list after discharging everything into my personal kanban.
The really effective bit is the rows (a.k.a. swim lanes). I use cost-of-delay profiles (more on those later, too) for the lanes:
  • Expedite: Stuff that needs to be done immediately
  • Fixed Date (and Intangible Fixed Date): Stuff that truly has to be done by a certain date
  • Standard Urgency: Stuff that needs to be done
Each morning, I spend a few minutes moving my to-do items from my two intake methods into my personal kanban. I use the cost of delay profiles to sort those tasks according to both “value” (or importance) and time. This is why using a simple tool like an email box or checklist is insufficient: It can’t distinguish between the time consideration of each item. Once I have created a card for each entry in my Field Notes to-do list or Evernote to-do list, I mark them as complete (Field Notes) or delete them (Evernote).
My Evernote to-do list each morning.
Knowing that I have captured and properly discharged every to-do item, I can relax, because:
    • I don’t have to worry about anything slipping through the cracks.
    • I don’t have to carry any of these things “in memory.”
    • I have one place (my personal kanban) where my tasks live (and I don’t have to keep track of various disparate papers, post-its, etc.), which is perfectly fit for the purpose of managing work.
    • I have decoupled the capture from the prioritization, so I don’t have to worry about when to do things.


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