Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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In perhaps what is a perfect example of how writing bring clarity, I started drafting a post listing out the problems with my current notes/todo workflow and ended up coming to a conclusion as to how to make things better for myself.

The main issue is that I have a smattering of todo-lists and notes scattered over several platforms: plain text files (in different places!), evernote, google keep, google docs, standard notes, and recently I also started trying Trello. So everything is everywhere and not consolidated in the same place.

To tackle the problem, first I consider what are my use cases and requirements:

  • Say I think of something that I need to do while I’m away from my computer and want to jot it down quickly before I forget about it. It needs to be quick and easy to note something down. Such things can include:
    • a work todo
    • an idea I want to investigate later
    • a blog post idea
    • something that I need to tell somebody
    • a project that I could work on
    • a game or book that looks interesting
    • something I want to read later
    • and so on
  • I need to note something that I will need for reference at some future point(s). For these pieces of information, I need to be able to pull them up quickly as needed. Examples:
    • a wifi password
    • API keys
    • the url for the production server
    • account numbers
  • I need to record something on a regular basis (for example, blood pressure) and need a place to store that information for future reference

On mobile, the main way I capture information now is via Google Keep since it’s quick and easy. This means my Google Keep is full of many random cards with lists, some of which I can’t even recall the context of later. For longer-term inputs, I will typically use either a text file stored in Dropbox or StandardNotes or Google Docs.

The solution came to me when I realized that I was capturing all these inputs and leaving them in the same place: so all the free-floating ideas I captured stay in Google Keep, unorganized and chaotic. I figured I needed to have two separate phases:

  1. Capture ideas/todo items into an “inbox” (in this case, Google Keep)
  2. Periodically review the “inbox” and move items to the appropriate locations, for example:
    • immediately actionable items can be done immediately
    • todo lists for actionable items
    • reference folders for reference material

I mostly didn’t have step 2 before. This is largely similar to the “Getting Things Done” workflow that became popular for productivity nerds a while back.

An additional step for me to have more well-defined “buckets” or locations, where different types of items need to be sent. Having them be well-defined makes the review step easier. For now my initial schema is:

  • Google Keep
    • inbox for capturing new items, should be reviewed and cleaned regularly
    • short reference notes can be kept here for quick access
  • Trello
    • for lists, such as todo lists, ideas lists, project lists
  • StandardNotes
    • for reference material that can be stored plaintext
  • Google Docs
    • for reference material that requires formatted documents or spreadsheets
    • for document drafts that will later be published elsewhere

Note: I have largely abandoned Evernote because of free account limitations. I also want to reduce Dropbox usage for the same reasons.

Hopefully this scheme lets me be a bit more organized than I have in the past! I would also love to hear about how other people organize their notes and lists!

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roytang.net is a personal site, an E/N site, and kind of a commonplace book; I post about a random assortment of topics that interest me including software development, Magic the Gathering, pop culture, gaming, and tech life. This site is perpetually under renovation.