Getting Control of My Out of Control Life

New Year’s Resolutions are a joke typically. Even so I am resolving to do something very different this year — no I’m not joining a gym, losing weight (I’ve done that to the tune of more than 30 pounds in the last year already), quitting drinking (right), or anything like that. I am going to take a huge step towards finally doing something I’ve needed to do for years — get my organization of information in real working order. Since becoming senior director two years ago I have been swimming upstream just to stay afloat. That’s not to say I haven’t made real progress in lots of ways, it just means that I am on the verge of drowning in content that comes at me in so many direction and at a pace that I am still unable to manage with my own brain. I need help and admitting that is the first step to moving forward.

I read a piece at The Verge by and about how their Features Editor, Thomas Houston uses Evernote to manage everything — total outboard brain style. It got me really intrigued so I’ve spent several hours over the course of the last few days thinking critically about the workflow I think could really make a difference for me and I thought I’d share it here to get reactions and provide an opening framework for others to consider. At the heart of the whole thing is Evernote Premium and while I know the free version should be sufficient at $40.00 it gave me two things I needed; the ability to have more monthly upload space (premium gives you a GB to use up each month) and read/write access to notebooks for my administrative assistant (and presumably others as I evolve this strategy). I’ve been an Evernote user since 2008 and have bounced around various applications to manage note taking since. Now that I spend more time on my iPad Mini than my laptop I need something available across all platforms and I am not interested in storing tons of content locally so I had already returned to Evernote for general note taking. Now I am getting serious.

A common issue for me is this — I go to a ton of meetings and am a member of tons of working groups, project teams, committees, councils, and task forces. The ones I lead are sufficiently digital, storing agendas, notes, and the like on websites like the eEducation Council site powered by WordPress or the Student Technology Advisory Committee supported mostly by Yammer and WordPress. The problem is that I am not in charge of the vast majority of the groups and they are still doing things with lots and lots of paper. The paper comes in the form of attachments that get sent to all members and their assistants days before the meeting that we are (I presume) to print and put into folders to take the meetings. I don’t do that … I rarely even have time to look at the agenda for more than a scan to make sure I am not actually being asked to lead any part of the meeting. I can’t abide the idea of having manila folders stuffed with agendas and handouts anymore, so I need something different. I then end up taking disconnected notes in various forms that end up scattered and highly disorganized. This is a big part of my job and I am failing at being prepared and organized around any of it. This is a perfect use case for Evernote. Here’s how I envision it working.

I have several folders in Evernote that are made up of more context specific single notebooks. The screenshot below indicates what I mean … in each of those stacks are notebooks for each group I am member of, the projects I need to track, and other various things going on around me at any given moment. Easy enough. The new idea here is to have a shared notebook with my assistant where things can be pre and post processed to make things much more organized.


With the above scenario in mind, let me share how I envision this working. A an example, I attend a monthly committee meeting named, The Penn State Online Steering Committee where we spend time addressing the forward strategy driving the growth of our World Campus, setting policy recommendations, and discussing anything that has to do with online delivery. It is a meeting filled with deans, vice presidents, and vice provosts so things get done. It is an important meeting and one that generates a lot of paper. What I envision is as agenda items and associated documents begin to flow in for the meeting that my administrative assistant would construct a single note in our shared folder with all attachments uploaded and included on that note. I would then move it to the appropriate notebook where I could act upon it during the meeting — taking notes, snapping photos of presentation slides, or even recording audio of portions of the meeting. All of it in one place and not taking up space on my desk in the form of disconnected pieces of content. Below is an example of how it might look with a combination of notes and attachments — in this case the pre-planning notes and the slides used in a recent meeting with Blackboard.

Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 4.19.17 PM

The other subtle parts to this experience include a few other tweaks to my digital life. The first is using Pocket across all devices to grab stuff to read in the moments I have walking to meetings or the evenings. I used to use Instapaper, but stopped when it didn’t work well with my reader of choice on iOS. I am now back into picking things off to read later with Pocket. I am also managing a switch to Chrome with a few very handy extensions to drive it all — obviously both the Evernote Clipping extension and the Pocket extension are there. But I’ve also added another Evernote property in Evernote Clearly. It is like the Reader button in Safari, but it adds the ability to highlight articles and automatically drop them into a specific notebook in Evernote with the highlights in place. It works very well.

All in all, there is nothing earth shattering here. I need to do a better job curating the content that impacts my day to day life and I am openly admitting I need help in getting that done. I can no longer rely on the scatter shot methods I’ve been living with, so I need to resolve to pay closer attention to making it all work better. I’d be interested in hearing what approaches have worked for others and if my described framework seems reasonable.

5 thoughts on “Getting Control of My Out of Control Life

  1. I really like your approach, I too have been anxious to get more organized, as of late. I “attempted” something similar using Google Drive but have had nothing but problems using it on a mobile device, not to mention its reliance on the web. I’d be curious to know how things work out, I may have to give Evernote a second chance.

    • I’ve sort of given up on the google drive/docs scene as it doesn’t, as you note, work real well across all my devices. It is also a relatively poor interface and UX to me. I am going to try and see how this goes, but I can already see positive aspects to it. Sticking with it will be the key … I’ll make sure to provide updates.

  2. Thanks — especially for the Pocket reference. Hadn’t tried that.

    One thing I do with Evernote is bring large index cards to meetings. I take notes on the index cards, then snap a picture of the notes at the end of the meeting and upload to Evernote after labeling them. I find that this does a couple things — it allows me to doodle and do a bit of low-level mind mapping and it keeps me off of my device, and more attentive to listening to people, which I’ve found really crucial. Doodling on index cards I can maintain intermittent eye contact in a way that difficult while using a device, and people do appreciate the attention (attention is now so rare in meetings that people see it a luxurious gift).

    The other thing I have done that I really like is I’ve started to use TTS to read me research articles and non-fiction books while I walk. They can be a bit hard to follow that way, but you get through them without going off into a link cul-de-sac. TTS is one of the most underrated productivity tools there is, I think. You can get your ear trained so that you listen at accelerated speeds that approaches reading speeds, and it’s great for keeping linear reading tasks linear.

    I also am now thinking that Pocket in combo with some anti-surfing software might be interesting. Install one of these plugins that limits browsing time on your work computer, but put Pocket on there. Drop the readings in there and bundle it up and read it all at once on a non-restricted computer at the end of the day. Or TTS it for the ride home.

    • Speaking of TTS, I am also using a product from evernote called Clearly that has built in TTS … it also lets you highlight and automatically move the page with your highlights into your evernote account. Very handy.

      I used to take all my notes by hand in a moleskin, but gave up when things got to the point where I actually needed to act on those notes. I may try to get back to this now that I have an evernote premium account with powerful image search capabilities.

  3. Thanks for this extremely useful piece. I have really been struggling to coherify my info stream.

    My approach to organizing information has been very trial and error, using Evernote, Astrid for tasks and sending myself emails to remind me to do fairly high priority things. I need to explore some kind of an Evernote-integrated task manager. My difficulty with task managers is that if I set them to remind me, the reminders become too annoying and I dismiss them without doing the task. If I don’t set them to remind me, I forget to do things.

    I also need to figure out how to adjust my internal detail setting for taking notes and writing tasks. I get too hyper-detailed most of the time. Your tip about pocket will come in really useful – I have been sticking PDFs of things to read later in dropbox, but that doesn’t scale.

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