Capturing is half the battle. The rest of the fight takes place in the way you organize your tasks. Writing down the things that you need to remember on index cards will only get you so far, I’m sorry to say. If we all stopped there, we would simply have piles of index cards all over our desks and kitchen counters. If the goal of capturing things is to act on them so that we can make our clients happy and grow our freelance business, then we need to do something with all of them.
I have an antique in my office. I have a feeling many of you do as well. It’s called an inbox. Not the one inside my computer’s email application; this is the granddaddy of inboxes, the source of the metaphor and namesake to what we all use today. Mine is a plastic tray with three high walls, and its purpose would be familiar to all of you.
Long ago, in a decade far, far away, there were no computers in offices. When business owners received an invoice in the mail (the kind with envelopes and stamps), they would open the invoice, read it, and then set it in their inbox. And that little box became the collection point for all of the items that needed to be done. When they were completed, the person would file them away (again, literally, in physical folders) for long- term storage.
It’s crazy, I know. This is how things were done years ago. While the tools might have changed over the past two decades, the underlying concepts have not. Stop focusing your attention on tools and gimmicks, and master the basic organizational principles instead. Tools will change over time. They always do. Fundamentals are ageless.
So, you’re capturing everything. Awesome. Once you’ve gathered a bunch of tasks, you need to put them somewhere. That’s where your “master collection” comes into play.
It’s an inbox, metaphorically speaking, and it has a few characteristics that you must buy into or else you risk squandering the time and effort you poured into collecting everything. Let’s break these qualities down and explain them one by one.
There Can Be Only One
I know freelancers who have multiple collections of to-do items. Some of these people draw a line between personal and professional tasks, and so each category has its own master collection. It is common for people to even use a completely different application for each collection of tasks in order to make the division as clear as possible. I have problems with this kind of tactic. I’d much rather keep everything in one collection.
When we create division, we increase the need for constant management. We add steps and complexity. Complex systems break down easier than simple systems, and the last thing we need in our productivity system is the opportunity to fail. The better choice, and the choice with the least amount of friction, is to keep everything on one big list.
I get it. In many ways it seems more logical to chunk things up and sort them. However, I think of everything in terms of the number of steps it takes to complete. When we split our productivity systems into multiple compartments, each moment of capture needs to begin with deciding which master list the task should be filed in. Even if we only have two categories, like my friends who separate work and personal items, that will still introduce complexity and an extra decision.
Instead, keep everything in one place. This way, all you need to concern yourself with is the text of the task and the date it needs to be done. If organizing your tasks by project or area of life is that important to you, use my trick of beginning the text of each task with a reference term that reflects where it belongs (that was the “SMITH” part in my example in the previous chapter). We’ll discuss that more in a bit.
One line of text, containing everything I need, helps me make sense of each item in one massive list of tasks. Don’t break your to-do lists into fragments. If you want to keep your system for capturing and organizing each item as frictionless as possible, there can be only one.
A Date to Remember
Every task that you capture needs to have a due date. It’s like having a baby: every baby needs a name, and though I actually know a couple who didn’t decide on a name for their baby before they left the hospital, they did eventually name her. A task without a due date is like a baby without a name.
Some people like to assign due dates in the sense that it’s the date that the task needs to be completed. If you’re doing one small task that is part of a larger client project, though, I recommend you assign a “do date” that is well before the full project’s due date. It’s the date you plan to “do” the task (the “do date”, get it?). Some projects are one-taskers, but others are a series of dozens of things to do. Each task needs a date that you plan to tackle it, in sequence, all leading up to the date that the whole project needs to be completed.
I give my tasks due dates as I add them to my master collection. As I mentioned before, I use an app called OmniFocus, but you can find your own preferred solution. Some people I know like to toss their tasks into a general pile, and then come back once a week to add due dates and organize them better. I just feel that the best moment for me to assign a due date is at the birth of the task when it’s freshest in my mind, and so I think for a moment and give it a date.
I make this decision by looking ahead at the next few days to see how empty or packed they might be. This is where the time estimate in the task name comes into play for the first time. If tomorrow’s list has six 1- hour tasks on it, it’s full and I would be dumb to add more to it. So I would then check the next day. And the next. I keep looking forward until I find a day that has room for a 1-hour task. Unless the actual “due date” (when the client is expecting the deliverables from me) is later than that date, I’m in the clear. Set it and forget it until that day.
These dates can change, though. If I sit down at night to draw up my schedule for the next day (something we will talk about in more detail later in this chapter), I recalculate the math and assess whether everything on the list can actually fit into that day. If items need to be cut, I take the lowest priority items and move them farther out. Be strict about assigning dates (the act), but not strict with when that date actually is (the specifics).
If at all possible, use a method of collecting your tasks that can be accessed from many places. You might need to access your master list while you’re on the road or in a meeting with a client. Having access to your master list at any moment from any location is a huge boon to freelancers, though it’s a quality that few realize they need to pursue.
Beside the many features that make it a great stand-alone tool, I prefer OmniFocus because it has counterparts available for the iPhone and iPad, and a wonderful syncing system that keeps the database updated across all my devices. Add to this the fact that all three versions of the app make it incredibly easy to capture tasks and process your list and OmniFocus becomes a textbook example of what every freelancer should look for in a collection system.
Evernote could work the same way for you, with the added benefit of a web version you could even access from a public computer. And Evernote is great for capturing notes (duh) in client meetings and while on the phone, so all your project notes would be in the same system as your tasks.
You can even keep your master list in a notebook, as long as you swear an oath that it will go everywhere with you. And try not to leave the notebook in your jeans when you do the laundry. That would be very, very bad for your business (and your jeans).
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that your collection of captured tasks is the lifeblood of your freelance business. If you fail to make them easy to find, simple to organize and instantly accessible, then you’re tying a lead weight to your ankle. To succeed, you need to run swift and free.
Organizing your to-do list is the key to allowing you to do that.