How to organize your workflow for optimal efficiency?
The short answer is get disciplined, get organized, and add structure so you minimize the number of moving parts. That way you can focus on the parts that are inevitably moving. For the long answer, read on.
One of my earliest childhood memories is that I could not go to sleep before I packed my school bag with my textbooks and notepads in the order I was going to need them and all my pencils were sharpened.
This theme seems to have stayed with me throughout my life but I could only recently put it into words. After reading Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and some reflecting and searching things started to make sense. I found that introducing order to chaos seems to be my thing.
That doesn’t mean it comes easy. On the contrary, it takes a lot of work. The path of least resistance is still my worst enemy. And there is no secret sauce. It is all a hundred small things that seem insignificant but add up, save you time, and boost your growth.
This is a list of techniques that I have arrived at after endless refining and I hope others can find useful. I have certainly enjoyed putting these to paper as this has allowed me to take a look at this framework from above and further tweak it. Keep in mind that some things here are fixed and others are changing as responsibilities evolve and projects come and go.
“Impermanence is inescapable.” Buddha
Change is hard so channeling it can remove a lot of the trouble and can help us make our peace with it.
Bottom line is, you can remove most of the stress, disruption, and interruption of flow caused by incoming prompts by creating a framework that channels each item to its proper place.
Here we will introduce one such framework.
Let’s dig in.
Keep a comprehensive ledger
I cannot live without my ledger. Even if I lose access to all online platforms and systems I will still know where I am with work because of it.
I strive to live in the analog world when possible. This helps me take mini zen breaks from staring at screens all day. Keeping a physical ledger gives you a sort of freedom to organize your day before you even turn on your computer. And when you do get online, you can hit the ground running.
My ledger habits have significantly evolved over the years. I started with simple daily checkbox lists. Then I started breaking those into sections based on type or timeline. At some point I realized checkboxes take forever to draw. So I started experimenting. I tried using dashes, underscores, even triangles before I settled on the dot and the circle.
- Dot only – for items I can and have to act on today
- Dot in a circle – for items I cannot or do not have to act on today
- Dot with a semi-circle on top (fermata from sheet music) – for items that I can act on today but I do not have to
Note: A fermata is a symbol of musical notation indicating that the note should be prolonged beyond the normal duration its note value would indicate. Exactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor.
I always use two facing pages of my ledger for each day to prepare my to-do list. I prepare those at the end of the current day for the next. That way I can hit the ground running in the morning when I am the freshest. I date them and break them into the following sections:
- CTEW – I start my day with my only daily item that stands for Calendar, Teams (MS Teams), Email, and Wrike (project management platform)
- TRA – This stand for Tasks Report Audit that I do only each Monday
- CHA – This stands for Campaign Health Audit that I also do each Monday
- MQ – This stands for Monday Quote that post in the team chat each Monday
- Q – This stands for a quiz I create each Monday
- C – This stands for Cases that I go through and follow up on each Wednesday
- Key – This is short for Key Projects and is a category for important projects that are waiting for bandwidth to be freed up. They are listed here and marked with a circled dot signifying I do not have to worry about them until I move them to the next category:
- Current – Here live the tasks at hand unless they are large enough to warrant a separate section under the next category:
- Projects – Here I usually have between one and three larger projects that have substeps listed out. Some of these steps are usually active and are listed in my daily to-do list called Now:
- Now – This is my daily to-do list and it takes the entire second page dedicated to that day. I only have between five and seven items listed that can be as small as responding to an email or as large as completing five redirect audit tasks. Items here can also be fractions of steps of larger projects with allotted time and occur here daily, ex: Create new workflow templates (2 hours).
- Below the line – After the last item here I draw a solid line and any prompts that come out of the morning CTEW and incoming communications get listed here. Most will be marked with a circled dot and get incorporated in the tomorrow’s to-do list. If they are urgent they will be marked with just a dot and resolved the same day. Below this line is, in essence, my intray. It is essential to treat it as such and to try to not let it derail your plan for the day, which is not always possible. Another thing to notice about this section is that it relates to my NEW bookmarks folder, where links associated with new daily prompts go. More about that in the bookmarks section.
This ledger routine helps me stay on track and serves as a historical record. I can go back months or even years in old ledges and tell you what more or less I did that day.
Use notepad and index cards
I use two more layers in my analog-world strategy.
- Notepad – I have a secondary notepad for temporary lists of items I need to communicate in a meeting or initial notes on steps a project will take, or takeaways items from research or meetings that will eventually find their way in a more formal usually digital document
- Index cards – I use blank index cards to note things down on the go, from meetings, calls, or requests. These either get resolved quickly or make their way into my Notepad or Ledger and can turn into Key projects or Current items depending on their nature. The index cards also often make their way to of my wall boards – my mad scientist board or my running projects board
Utilize wall space to visualize workflows and ideas
We are visual creatures and having your key projects on a board with notes and supporting materials can help keep them top of mind. This visual representation also helps you set a clear priority order and timelines. I have two boards:
- Mad scientist – I call it that because it is a little messy by design. Anything can go on it. Mostly it houses current notes to self, meeting notes, things to communicate out, quotes, notes from books, short task-specific to-dos, etc
- Running projects – This is my large board that has my key initiative represented by an index card in the middle. These may have supporting cards with additional notes. I also keep additional notes in the periphery, including my recurring tasks, key contacts, and some wild ideas that I am still turning around in my head. I also use the tiny strip sticky notes to color code some index cards, like to isolate running projects, next up, very important, etc. This adds another dimension and helps me laser focus on what’s important for the day. This board mirrors my Ledger and expands on each initiative with more details
Organize email & other platforms
Most of our action items come through email and some can come through chat or meetings.
Organizing your inbox is fundamental.
This is a simple science but it is tedious and takes some decision making so it is easy to put off. But when you do it the world goes quiet and you get a lot of time back each day.
I use two layers of organization in my inbox Folders and Color Labels.
I have folders for all incoming emails that I only might need to reference and do not hold an action item. These can be platform notifications, blanket distribution list blasts, newsletters, and all the like. I do not completely ignore most of these. I have designated a time slot once a week that I will check key folders. This removes the noise from my inbox and gives me back focus.
The second layer in the email is Color Labels:
- Blue – anything directly addressed to me that I need to respond to or act on
- Green – anything that I have sent out that I might need to reference again or follow up on
- Purple – urgent items that require action the same day
- Red – action required but not same-day urgency
- Orange – no action required but might need to reference
- Yellow – might need to reference
The W in my CTEW acronym stands for Wrike – our project management platform. Wrike has an inbox and although I get email notifications, I have these filtered in a folder and check my Wrike inbox directly each morning. I do that because Wrike pings are of a certain kind – they are quick asks that should be responded to timely and I can usually square away in a few minutes. If I cannot, I star them and add them to my intray (the Below the line section of my daily to-do list in my Ledger).
Embrace browser bookmarks
I take my bookmarks very seriously.
They can save you hours each week from not having to look for links to tools, reports, dashboards, documents, meetings, you name it. My philosophy is that typing is a waste of time. If I can click an icon on my bookmarks bar to get to a place why would I type it. The seconds we invest in typing add up to minutes and to hours.
If you are not using browser bookmarks you should. If you are and would like to improve on them read on. You do not have to follow my template, you can do your own thing based on your workflow and how you tend to navigate with your mouse. But there are some parts of this framework that are universal and can help anyone structure their intray.
Our north star here is that we want easy access to frequently visited pages and want categories for everything incoming. So we can put things away quickly and keep the wheels turning.
On the left of my bookmark bar, I keep links (icons only) to all tools I access daily. Tools like:
- Google Data Studio
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console
- Content King
The more I use them the closest to the right they are because it is more natural for me to navigate to them with the mouse there.
To the right of the daily-tool-icons are my top-level folders. We start right to left:
- Esc – for urgent items
- NEW – anything that is related to a new intray item from Below the line in my Ledger
- Current – current items and projects that may have their own subfolder
- Here I have three permanent subfolders:
- Learn – for links to articles that come my way
- Team – for items I would like to share with my team
- Quiz – for the weekly quizzes I create
- If I have a complex project that has multiple docs and links in play I create a folder for it here – ex: SEO Business Review
- Any other current task links go under this main Current folder – I clean this folder up weekly
- Here I have three permanent subfolders:
- Fixed – here I keep links to permanent folders, docs, or spreadsheets that I often need to reference
- Dashboards – here I include any dashboards from various tools that I use to keep track of things
- Reports – here I keep links to reports with the most frequently used first and have a few subfolders last with reports that I do not use often but might need to reference
- Tools – here I keep links to all tools that I use occasionally. I keep them in priority order and clean them up every once in a while
- Refer – this is the dustiest of all folders as it is an archive of sorts and is mostly used to store projects or docs that are no longer active but I might need to reference. It has a few subfolders:
- Archive – the archive folder has a folder for each month of the year (I create these as I go, ex: Jan 2021) and all items that have been in any of the other folders, and I no longer need, get moved in their respective month folder. At the end of the year, I group those in a year folder
- Resources – here I keep links to key pages in platforms that I rarely need but can be a hassle to find when I do need them
- Large projects that have had a folder with multiple items in the Current folder sometimes get moved here directly under the Refer folder for extended periods as I might need quick access even after the project is completed. Ex: SEO Business Review
Like the icons, the folders also grow in importance as you move to the right. Refer is the left-most folder that I least visit, and Current, NEW, and Esc are the right-most folders that I use the most.
This folder structure works for me but it is far from set in stone. I think it is a good starting point and everyone can bend it to their own workflow and process.
Use reports & dashboards
Visibility and transparency are fundamental.
Reporting is often hard. That is why companies have whole departments dedicated to producing reports. It is important that you establish what metrics give you optimal visibility into your day-to-day work and what allows you to dig deeper when needed.
Once that is settled, create the reports and store the links in your Reports bookmark folder. The same goes for Dashboards and Queues. I keep 3-4 of my key reports open at all times on one of my screens. They give me visibility with varying depth and if I need a different cross-section I can usually pull one of the reports I have bookmarked that takes a closer look at a certain aspect of our workflow.
I have time slots during the week to check certain reports that are slow-moving. And others I check each morning as part of my CTEW kick-off of the day. If anything stands out it becomes an action item to dig deeper and it goes Below the line in my Ledger.
Ultimately this is what reports are for: to generate insights and action items so you can make things better.
Use your energy wisely
One last bit here that relates to how to prioritize your to-do lists.
Be conscious of the fact that we have more energy in the morning and build your daily to-do list with that in mind. Start your day with tasks that require more creative thinking and are new and challenging. And end your day with tasks you are familiar with and come naturally.
For example, if you have to dive into a large sheet of data and create pivot tables to see why a campaign is underpowering, or you have to dive into Google Analytics or Search Console and get your critical thinking going, start your day with this task as your mind will be fresher and I will be more proactive and likely to dig deeper.
If you have to run a few 404-error audits that you have done a thousand times and are likely to just yield a few broken links to replace or redirect, you should leave that for the late afternoon.
This is a great rule of thumb to guide the priority order of your daily to-do list.
The same principle applies to the weekly spectrum. We get a little more tired as the week progresses so if you have a choice of when to do an important presentation, earlier in the week is usually better.
“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” Seneca
We cannot take the teeth out of the world but we can channel the world and mitigate a lot of bad surprises. This way complexity and hidden variables are no longer scary. We have a place to put them and time slots to take a closer look at them.
The more structure you build into your day the more freedom you will have to focus on the task at hand. A framework fitted to your workflow minimizes noise and boosts your productivity.