Secrets of an organised person (who doesn’t use to-do lists)

Most people have a Christmas shopping list, but I have a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. This doesn’t paint me in a particularly carefree, spontaneous light, I know (although it does keep me within budget) – but when I recently confessed this on Twitter, I wasn’t met with much surprise, especially from those who’ve worked with me.

A manager once wrote on my performance appraisal form something along the lines of: ‘It may not be the most glamorous of attributes, but your organisational skills are formidable.’

She was right – for many people, ‘organised’ is synonymous with ‘boring’ (and I’m sure there is also some link between my organisational abilities and my slight OCD tendencies). But, glamorous or not, being organised can make life easier – and not just when it comes to Christmas shopping.

I don’t have any formal project management qualifications, and yet many of my clients have fed back that my project management skills and approach really worked for them and contributed to the success of their projects. Over the years, I’ve looked at how I work and tried to identify some of the things I do that help keep me organised and on track. Some things are very personal and wouldn’t work for everyone, but there is one thing that I’ve shared with others to great effect and I thought it might be worth sharing more widely.

So, what is my organisational secret weapon? It’s none other than the humble Microsoft Outlook calendar.

A to-do list is all well and good, but it only tells you what you need to do and when you need to have done it by. I’ve never really used the tasks list within Outlook, but I think this serves a similar purpose. What these don’t tell you is how long each of your tasks is likely to take and when you can fit it in. I can barely remember a time before I used the Outlook calendar to organise my working life, but I have vague memories of realising too late that I had three deadlines in the same week as a training course and seven meetings, or of assigning four tasks to one day without looking closely enough to realise that one of those tasks was a day’s work on its own. Some people can probably handle this kind of vicarious life, but just thinking about it makes me feel anxious.

My solution was to turn the Outlook calendar into a far more useful to-do list. Here’s what I do when I have a new task to add to my list:

  1. First, I determine how long it will take. Sometimes this is based on experience, sometimes it’s prescribed (if it’s a training course, for example), and sometimes it’s just a best guess.
  2. I then find an appropriate slot in my calendar. Ideally, this will not be immediately before the deadline and it will allow me to get the task done in one go.
  3. If I can’t fit it in before the deadline, I reprioritise. I consider whether any other tasks are less time-sensitive and can be pushed back, or whether I’ve been overly generous with the time allotted for any other tasks.
  4. If I can’t reprioritise, I escalate it immediately. In my experience, you’ll get a much better response if you ask for support or help in advance rather than raising a distress call the day before three immoveable deadlines hit.

There’s some flexibility required. For example, at the start of a project spanning several months, I plot everything from the project plan into my Outlook calendar. For example, I might block out:

  • Time to produce any deliverables (whether that’s a project brief, a storyboard or a meeting agenda).
  • A few hours for each review meeting, even if I can’t be sure at this point exactly what time they’ll be.
  • Travel time either side of any meetings away from the office.
  • Half an hour after each weekly progress call to write up meeting notes or carry out immediate actions.
  • Time to select voiceover artists and arrange audio recording (again, even if the date isn’t yet pinned down).

This allows me to plan very effectively even several months ahead. For example, if I plan a holiday for eight weeks down the line, when plotting it in my calendar I can immediately see what this clashes with and take action (rescheduling these tasks for earlier or later, or making arrangements for them to be handled in my absence with plenty of notice). This is far preferable to getting to the week before, realising there are several important things that need to be done while you’re away or before you go, and leaving for your holiday in a stressed-out panic.

I have two final tips for really maximising the benefit of the Outlook calendar:

  1. Always adjust the calendar to reflect reality. If a meeting overruns, I extend it in my calendar and then find new slots for any activities that were affected by the overrun. Likewise, if a storyboard review task takes two hours instead of the four I’d allowed, I reduce the entry in my calendar and consider how best to use the time I’ve gained back. This means my calendar is always a clear signpost of what I’ve done (always useful when filling in timesheets retrospectively!) and what I still need to do, and also over time helps me develop a better sense of how long different tasks take to do.
  2. Use colour-coding sparingly. At first it was tempting to use the different colour labels Outlook provides. But these didn’t particularly help me and they didn’t help my colleagues. They could see that my next three weeks were mapped out in detail, but they couldn’t see when I was free for a meeting. So I now ignore all of Outlook’s default colour codes. Instead, I use one colour and I’ve labelled it ‘Must Attend’. I use this for all calls, meetings, conferences, events, travelling or holidays – things that can’t move. My colleagues quickly get to know that if something in my calendar is orange, I’m not available at that time; if it’s not orange, I am. It also means I can see at a glance how much ‘free’ time I have each week and how much I’m committed to meetings.

This approach to managing my time and planning my activity has, more than any other technique or tool, kept me on top of things, kept my projects on track (even when working on multiple projects at once), and helped keep me sane. If you try it out, let me know if it helps you too – and please share any gems of your own as I’m always looking for organisational tools to add to my arsenal!

Image: photostock /

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