How to Create One Master System to Organize Your Life

How to funnel all your information into online and offline productivity systems.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #171

With so many smartphone apps, desktop apps, and sticky pads, our organization systems have become a source of chaos! Andrew wrote in saying, “I'm at a loss when taking notes or remembering dates. If I have an idea at night, I add it to Notes App on my iPod Touch. In daytime, it may go into a small notepad, a Sticky Note, or a text document. How do I keep it all straight?”

Are You Too Productive?

It sounds like you have a case of too much productivity. Or at least, too much technology. Oooh!! Look!! A shiny new gadget! Using it will surely make me more productive!

And what do we like even better than gadgets? We like choice and variety! So we duplicate functionality everywhere.

Heck, if a smartphone with a to-do list helps us get organized, then having a to-do list on our smartphone, and our desktop, and our notepad, and our email program, and our social media platform, and our widgets bar, and tattooed on our inner thigh must be even better!!!! We can even put a calendar in all those places, too. Except your inner thigh, of course. That would be tacky. Now that you have seven to-do lists and six calendars, life is perfect!

How Technology Creates More Work

No. Life isn't perfect. Life sucks. Because now, life is spent scouring all those devices and systems in a futile attempt to figure out where you wrote the phone number for the item "call IRS back to renegotiate audit details." You better hope it's not the to-do list on your inner thigh. The IRS will not be amused.

How to Create One Master System to Organize Your Life

Having multiple systems for a productivity area can be worse than having none. Remember all that choice that we like so much? There’s no point to having choices unless we actually choose one. Keeping options open keeps us paralyzed. You have to choose.

You need one master system for each of your major productivity areas. You need one master calendar, one master to-do list, one master address book, and one master place to put reference notes. All your information for an area goes into your one master system, and you go to your master system to get your latest info.

Bernice uses her smartphone calendar as her master calendar, her one to-do list in her desktop productivity suite, the notes application on her desktop for reference information, and a paper address book with a black leather cover where she neatly writes the names of her loved ones, alphabetized by first name. "Like the little black dress," she explains, "the little black book never goes out of style."  She even lists her “aspirational contacts,” from Antonio Banderas to Zac Efron. Zac has five little hearts next to his name. It’s so sweet I get an insulin rush just from being in the same room.

Keep Your Master System Updated

Keep your master system updated with the latest information. Bernice is at a neo-Pagan Goddess-worship festival when she hears a great idea. Using a stick of charcoal from the bonfire, she jots down the to-do item "convert Thanksgiving turkey oil into biodiesel" on her forearm, just like she did in junior high. But when she gets to her computer, she types it right into her desktop to-do list, because that is her master list. Next time she's wondering what to do with that spare can of grease, a glance at her computer will tell her the answer (which doesn't involve Zac Efron).

How to Capture Your Information

Choose one time each day when you transcribe your new items into your master systems.

Having a master list streamlines where you put information and where you go to get it back. When you find a date scribbled in lipstick on the back of a napkin (and I'm not saying I wear lipstick, but I'm also not saying I don't), you know exactly what to do: type it into your master calendar.

You've solved the where-to-put-everything problem, but you still need to organize the thousand notes you had before you reached your single system. It’s time to revisit on our old friend, the single capture device. I learned this from David Allen's book, Getting Things Done and covered it in my article on handling your to-do list.

Why Paper Is Better Than a Smartphone

Get a single 3x5 pad that fits in your pocket, and carry it everywhere. Jot your to-dos, calendar dates, phone numbers, or notes on this pad only. Also add whatever information you'll need to make sense of it later. Believe me, it sucks finding two phone numbers without names, and trying to remember which you wanted to marry, and which you wanted to give a one-way ticket to a desert island far, far away. Also, a 3x5 pad works all day, and keeps on working at night by your bed.

[[AdMiddle]Can you use your smartphone as your capture device? No. Paper is 10 times faster. You think you type fast on your phone. Maybe you do, but the rest of us don't want to wait. Besides, at night, your smartphone light can wake up other people. If this hasn’t been a problem for you so far, wish hard, and maybe you’ll get lucky.

Create a Ritual of Transference

Choose one time each day when you transcribe your new items into your master systems. The extra step of transcribing lets you reconsider the items that seemed important in the heat of the moment. You may find that at 11 p.m. after a long day, turkey grease doesn't hold the urgency that it did eight hours before.

If you choose systems that sync electronically, it might make life more convenient. Monitor the time and effort it takes to set up, use, and fix when it breaks. Then go lo-tech if it makes sense. My Blackberry takes 90 minutes to sync my 3,000-contact address book with my Mac. So I don't sync. I type addresses into the Mac and once a month, overwrite the Blackberry with my latest Mac address book.

Consider Paper

The truly hip may try an old-fashioned paper Day-Timer system. These small notebooks include your address book, calendar, and task list. When inspiration strikes, grab the planner and jot the idea down directly on your one master system. One system, easy capture, easy reference. Complete with handwriting recognition!

It's harder to share a paper system with an assistant, and there's no backup—if you lose your planner, you have to recreate it from scratch. But in the long run, that may be less work and disruption than the guaranteed hassle of coordinating offline and online systems on a daily basis. (Never mind the six hours of deleting duplicate calendar entries when your sync messes up.)

Organize your life: choose a master system for your calendar, to-do list, address book, and reference notes. Have a single capture device that can be used day or night, and establish a ritual of entering what you’ve captured daily into your master system. And if you choose a leather bound little black book, just remember to keep the leather supple and cared for. Perhaps with a little dollop of turkey grease.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Files image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.