December 11th, 2021

A Minimalistic Approach to Staying Organized and Consistent

In my day-to-day work, I often find my attention being pulled in several different directions. It’s often some combination of meetings, pairing sessions, code review, actual coding, API design, responding to issues, and much more, depending on the day.

I was doing a great job of keeping up with everything I needed to for quite a while, but I eventually noticed I was dropping a few things here and there. Nothing serious, but I knew I could do better. This drove me to look for a better way of organizing my time, attention, and thoughts.

The strategy

I had tried several different to-do apps but found that they didn’t work for me. Scheduled to-do’s felt like they should just be calendar events, tagging felt like a time sink and not very useful, and to-do’s aren’t the right shape for everything I want to write down, like quick thoughts or notes that aren’t actionable.

I eventually landed on using plain ole’ pen and paper. I had picked up the bullet journal method for a while, and I loved a lot about it. After using it for a while I took the parts I liked and made my own system for taking down notes and to-dos.

Here’s a rough example of what my notes look like:

12.15.21 Wed
⨂ Respond to David in Slack
● Investigate memory issues in the caching PR
- Allocations flamegraph could be useful when looking into memory usage
  - Is there a ton of memory being allocated when caching?
  - How much memory is retained?
● Review Vale PR

The symbols I’ve landed on are pretty simple and are far fewer than those found in some bullet journaling methods:

  • is a to-do, I should get this done.
  • - is a note, nothing actionable, but it was worth writing down either to help reinforce my memory of it or to reference later.
  • means I’ve completed the to-do.
  • something I won't do strike-through means I’ve decided to skip that to-do, or it’s no longer valid.

This all looks slightly different written down, but you get the idea. I’ve found there’s a lot of benefits to pen and paper over apps, such as:

  • You can change your organization system at any time, making it simpler or more complex to fit your needs.
  • You can jot down more than just to-do’s, like including notes, thoughts, drawing, or anything inline alongside your to-do’s.
  • Spiking out diagrams and other visualizations is significantly faster than using an app on a computer.
  • There are tons of different bullet journal inspiration you can steal borrow from others on the web.

The tools

I keep it pretty simple, I use field notes notebooks since they use decent paper, and a pen body utilizing fisher space pen refills since they last forever and I like the way they write.

Here’s my current setup:

  • Field Notes pitch black memo book, dot-graph - They have a variety of designs and sizes, but I like the low-key look of the pitch black color and the compactness of the memo size.
  • A Grafton Mini Pen - This is my favorite pen and is a joy to use. I don’t enjoy the refills that came with it though, so I use the fisher space pen refill mentioned below. If this isn’t your style, any pen that uses fisher space pen refills could work.
  • Fisher Space Pen PR4 medium pen refills - I’ve found the medium refills to provide just the right line thickness while also being a pretty smooth write.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend picking up at least the field note notebooks as well as the bullet journaling book to get started. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve gotten into the habit of taking down notes/to-do’s I’m certain you’ll feel much more organized and productive.