Organized Desk

In this article:

Getting and staying organized are critical elements of any project manager’s success.

Let important notes, reminders and tasks slip through the cracks and you’ll have a hard time managing your project and your team and, ultimately, completing your project deliverables as required on time and within budget.

We’ve already taken a look at my go-to Project Management software solutions. Now let’s run through some organization solutions for project managers that have helped me and might be useful to you, as well.

In addition, I’m always looking for new ideas and tips on getting better-organized, so please share any thoughts or tips in the comments below.

In the meantime, here are some methods I use to stay on top of all the information and requests that flow in throughout the course of any project.

Handwriting vs. Digital Writing for Note-Taking

Some folks fall squarely and firmly on one side or the other of the “handwriting or digital writing” question, similar to the “print books vs. digital books” debate.

I reside happily in the middle. I find value in both options, just like I will never give up my physical library of books, even though I absolutely love carrying around hundreds of digital books on a tablet and using it to read at night without having to turn on a lamp or book light.

When it comes to writing, for me it’s really about specific need. I type pretty fast, so if I’m taking notes during a call or meeting, I’ve got a text file open and I’m keying away. I can hand-write in those instances, but then I wind up with illegible short-hand scrawl that I need to decipher, and I don’t want to have to decode important stakeholder requests or waste the stakeholder’s time by seeking clarification after the fact, simply because I did a poor job of recording their input the first time.

Hand-writing certain things does give me a bit more of a connection to it, though. I hand-write my weekly priority notes, high-level items and quick notes on stickies and scrap paper.

I also like hand-written lists, because for some reason the contents of them seem to stick better in my head, and I can place them anywhere in my office to make them as visible as I need to as I work. I also get a strange satisfaction from checking off boxes with a marker and then seeing that completed To Do list on paper. It might be weird, but I won’t apologize; it works for me.

Dry Erase Notecards for High-Priority Notes

The abundance of loose paper from hand-written notes got to be a bit much, and going full-digital has never really been an option when it comes to note-taking, for the reasons I outlined above. So I was pretty thrilled when I found these dry-erase notecards. I hang them on a small chalk board with magnetic clips and have the board hanging on the wall opposite my desk.

These cards are most useful for important tasks that aren’t necessarily short-term. Some of the items on my board are for next week and some are for next month. Some are very specific tasks and some are just high-level. But having the board at eye level while I’m working keeps me from losing track of whatever I deem important enough to put up there.

Bullet Journal for High-Level Weekly Task Outlines

I keep a bullet journal at my desk and fill out a page in it at the start of every work week.

This has become a Monday ritual for me, a way to organize my thoughts about the big-picture priorities that I need to keep in mind throughout the week. I refer to it at the start of each day to determine which items I need to tackle next and to ensure I’m making progress in general on the list as a whole. Checkboxes next to each item let me mark off what’s done so I can see, at a glance, what’s left to do.

This has been a helpful reporting tool for me at times, as well — if I need to give a client a short list of high-priority items that were accomplished in a given week, this journal page is where I typically look first.

Simple To Do Notes for Short-Term Reminders

For quick To Do items that I might pick up from a phone call, email or chat, I still use a small sticky note or piece of scrap paper. These are strictly for things I’m going to do very soon but just can’t do right now for whatever reason. In the “Getting Things Done” terminology, these are items that would normally fall under the 2-Minute Rule — namely, if it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it now! — but that I’m unable to do immediately. (By the way, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is an absolute must-read if you’re trying to get better at being organized. Actually, I consider it a must-read even if you think you’re already an organization expert. We’ll have to do a separate article about that soon.)

Text files, Spreadsheets and Online Docs are a PM’s Friend

I use simple text files to take notes during calls and meetings, then I review them after to set up action items in whichever of the above options is appropriate.

Google Sheets are nice for complicated lists with multiple fields or columns, especially if I want the option to share with collaborators or access from multiple devices.

Ditto on Google Docs for text-heavy collaborative works or items I want to be able to access from any device.

Pens and Markers: It’s All Personal Preference

Writing instruments are nearly as important to my organization as the media on which I’m writing.

Obviously for the dry erase notecards, I use dry erase pens. I got a four-color set of fine-point Expo pens on Amazon that I use for these, alternating colors so that I don’t lose my messages in a sea of same-color blandness. I don’t have a specific color for a specific priority or anything — although come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea — but in looking at my board now, I’m realizing I tend to go with red for anything that is of high importance.

I also have multiple colors of fine-point Sharpie markers that I use in my bullet journal and on scrap paper notes (pro tip: don’t accidentally write on your dry erase cards with a Sharpie; the two look similar enough that I’ve done it … more than once … ). Like with the Expo markers, I alternate colors for different things, just to make sure each action item pops out on its own.

Lastly, I absolutely love these Pentel Rolling Writer pens. I’ve been using these since high school, after borrowing one from my favorite teacher and becoming hooked. I keep a box of every color in my desk and use them for all my regular day-to-day note-taking.