I have a very busy life. I have three kids, each of which are in different activities. I have three different community committee responsibilties, which means multiple meetings a month and other activities related to each one. I have writing responsibilities that involve two articles a day for The Simple Dollar, an ongoing effort to write a novel, and multiple other freelance opportunities. I have an ongoing social calendar that involves spending time with quite a few friends and family. I have a home that requires maintenance and upkeep. On top of all that, I try to maintain at least some free time for myself to exercise, read, and enjoy other personally fulfilling activities, and I also try to set aside daily time to meditate and keep my mind clear.
The only way I can keep all of this balanced is through careful organization. I use a series of tools to make this work, most of them electronic (though not all). I keep desktop versions of these applications on every computer I work on and a mobile version of these apps on my phone. In addition to what’s listed below, I keep a pocket journal with me virtually all of the time, along with a pen.
Without these five free computer programs, I would find my day-to-day life very difficult to manage. I find these five tools to be absolutely essential. I’ve mentioned each of these in the past, but I felt it was worthwhile to update how I use each of these in my current day-to-day life.
A quick note: although all of these are free, some exist on a “freemium” model. That means that there are some extra features that are unlocked if you’re willing to pay some small amount. I am a paid supporter of all of the below tools that offer a “premium” version because I’m a big supporter of supporting what you use.
What Is Evernote? Evernote is a tool that lets you take a nearly infinite number of notes, title and label and categorize them, and search them easily from almost anywhere.
Things I Use Evernote For: Jotting down random ideas, organizing those random ideas, hands-free note taking, project brainstorming, journal inventory
I use Evernote almost constantly, perhaps dozens of times a day. I am constantly jotting down random ideas on notes in Evernote, then dealing with them later.
There are so many little uses I find for Evernote.
I’ll be on a walk, have an idea, and just flip open my phone, launch Evernote, create a new note, and voice-to-text the note (where I speak and it turns into text) – I can do all of that without even stopping my pace or the podcast I’m usually listening to.
If I’m driving somewhere and I have an idea I want to work out in my head, I’ll start it, turn on the voice-to-text, and just ramble my ideas while I’m driving to wherever my destination is.
I’ll write down notes and sketches in my pocket notebook, take a picture of the page, and send it to Evernote and it’ll turn my handwriting (I take notes in blocky letters) into text I can search or use elsewhere and embed the drawings. I do the same with recipes I see in magazines and on and on and on.
If I’m brainstorming, I can just list lots of ideas in Evernote virtually wherever I am and then sort through them later. If it’s a mix of drawings and text, I’ll do them on paper and take a picture and deal with it later.
Evernote is the tool I use to dump disorganized information from my head into some place where it can be stored for later. It’s flexible enough that I can dump my ideas in almost any format and I’ll easily be able to get it into Evernote.
But what do I do with that disorganized information?
Remember the Milk
What Is Remember the Milk? Remember the Milk is a list organizing tool. You can create lists of all kinds, set due dates and priorities on the items, and organize those lists in many ways.
Things I Use Remember the Milk For: Task lists, grocery lists, project organization, daily planning
Much of that disorganized information winds up in Remember the Milk in the form of lists. RtM forces me to take a lot of those rather chaotic notes and put them into a structure where I can actually do something useful.
Let’s say I have an idea for a project I want to work on. I rambled on for twenty minutes about it while driving somewhere and all of that was saved in a note – but it’s chaotic. I then sit down with Remember the Milk and start piecing through that rambling, honing the ideas down into a useful project plan with a checklist of things to do with due dates and so on. That list goes into Remember the Milk.
I have a recipe that I want to make. I just add the ingredients to my ongoing grocery list in Remember the Milk and then use that grocery list when I’m actually at the store.
When I’m actually going through all of the stuff I need to do during the day, I’m usually looking at Remember the Milk to see what needs to be done next. I keep my daily to-do list in there and I generate a fresh one each evening.
What Is Pocket? Pocket lets you save long documents you find online and want to read at a later time. It synchronizes in the background very efficiently.
Things I Use Pocket For: Storing things to read later
I’m constantly finding great articles online that I want to read but that I recognize I don’t have time to read at the moment. I’d need to set aside fifteen minutes or thirty minutes of uninterrupted time to really focus on that article to get value out of it.
Well, my web browser has a simple tool on it. I just click that special little Pocket button and the thing I want to read is saved for later. Whenever I’m at another computer or even on my phone, I can instantly retrieve any of those documents I’ve saved. I’ll even save and retrieve emails this way.
Pocket breaks the articles down into text, meaning there’s not much data usage for the program and it’s easy to read them on a little screen.
If I’m sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or waiting for a meeting to start or something like that, I’m often reading an article in Pocket. It’s far more convenient than carrying a newspaper or a magazine around with me.
What Is Google Calendar? Google Calendar is a calendar program that lets you easily save appointments, recurring dates, event reminders, and anything else.
Things I Use Google Calendar For: Scheduling (obviously), irregular event reminders, milestone management
If there’s something I need to remember that has a date assigned to it, it goes into Google Calendar.
I keep track of all of the usual things with it, like birthdays and anniversaries and doctor’s appointments. Where it really stands out for me, though, is when I use it for things like irregular home maintenance tasks (like when to change the air filter) or car maintenance tasks (like when to air up tires or wash the car).
I also find a great deal of value of using it for milestones. Whenever I plan a project, I try to hit dated milestones along the way. For example, if I’m drafting a book, I try to have a first draft done on day X, a revised draft done on day Y, and edits done on day Z. I’ll record those three dates on my calendar so I can see them coming.
This calendar is easy to retrieve everywhere. If I need a printed version, I can easily print off single day calendar pages (for that matter, I can find excellent views to print of all of the things above).
What Is Dropbox? Dropbox is a tool for off-site document storage, retrieval, and sharing
Things I Use Dropbox For: Synchronizing documents wherever I go, off-site backup for family pictures
If I have anything that I want to share between computers and I’m not concerned about privacy (meaning I don’t use things like this for sensitive personal data), I just use Dropbox. In fact, Dropbox integrates so smoothly onto my computers and phone that I scarcely realize I’m using it.
I just save a document of virtually any kind on Dropbox and I can pull it up from anywhere – any other computer and on my mobile device. I keep family photos on there, ongoing writing projects on there, and all kinds of other things.
As I said, the only things I don’t keep on Dropbox are documents that are highly sensitive – I keep my own backups of those documents at home for security reasons.
These five tools play a tremendous role in keeping my life organized. Without them – and my handy pocket journal – I would be very hard pressed to make everything work. The best part? All of these tools are free.