Friday, June 20, 2014

The Tools of an Anal Retentive Organization Freak

It's been a while, admittedly, since someone has asked me, "How do you do it all?", but I think that's probably because I haven't entered any new circles recently, and the people in my life have just gotten used to me.  I am also not quite so go-go-go right now, because I actually like where I work so I'm not quite as driven to get away from it (what a difference!!).  Regardless, I still have some obsessive organizational qualities about me that I need to manage, and I was inspired to catalog a number of them for you today in hopes of helping others who either need such tools to balance their anal retentive style, or who need such tools because they lack motivation to stay organized.  I will qualify this post with the fact that this is not nearly an exhaustive list of all awesome tools, nor do these tools reflect the best or only tool in their category.  There may be other ways of achieving these functions, and perhaps even better ways of doing so; in short, these are simply the tools that I have experience with and like. 

I am a convert from previously using Microsoft's OneNote, but both are very solid tools for writing, keeping and organizing notes.  I think where these tools lose people is that they associate note-taking with school, and if they're not in school, they assume they don't take notes.  So what is a note?  A note can be a to-do list, a journal entry or blog draft, a means of tracking performance qualitatively, a visual that you need to refer to only once every so often, and so much more.  But before I dive into all the many kinds of notes, I want to talk briefly about why I like EverNote.  EverNote (as does OneNote) allows me to group my notes into "Notebooks", so I know where to look for a specific note that I'm looking for later on.  It also magically Syncs between computers and even my SmartPhone.  The syncing was the initial differentiator for me; at the time of my conversion to Evernote, OneNote didn't sync with everything else just yet, although I believe that has changed now.  So this means that I can write a note at work, and without emailing or saving to a flash drive or anything like that, my note is magically on my phone and on my laptop at home.  This seems simple and straightforward enough, but its a very powerful thing to not have to think or worry about saving or sending this kind of data.  For example, I keep a checklist in Evernote of work tasks, and sometimes I'll remember something I need to do at 3 am.  Rather than getting up and going to my computer to send an email to myself, or taking the risk of forgetting it, I can open up my list on my phone next to me in bed, add that item to my list, and go back to sleep. 

So, what is a note?  I will differentiate lists with visual elements to them and lists with more textual information here, and put forth that To Do Lists, Shopping Lists (especially for something broad like Christmas shopping), and Favorite Quotes lists are all ideal candidates to be put into a note.  I have a dedicated Notebook called Lists, and each note is a separate list.  OneNote and Evernote have a checkbox capability, which is especially nice for those of who like to feel the victory of checking a box after accomplishing something (hey, it's the little things that count)!  I also have lists of goals, notes for house guests (on numerous occassions I have offered up my home to visitors and this list helps me make them feel welcome and ensures they understand the nuances of my poor old house), interview questions and good examples to use in response (great for job seekers to review right before an interview) and a Watch/Read/Listen to list. 

Another kind of note is a reference.  Perhaps the best way to explain this is with some examples.  When I first moved into my (fixer-upper, old, ugly, broken) house, I spent a good deal of time mapping out the electrical network: for each circuit, what light switches, which fixtures, which outlets are on each circuit.  I used some generic architecture software to draw a floorplan of my house and label each fixture and outlet so that I could visually see where each circuit goes.  Now, I certainly don't need this every day, so if it had been a simple file (which I suppose it was at some point), I probably would have lost it with a new computer or just in the shuffle of moving files around.  But because its in a note under my Home Notebook, I can quickly pull it up on my phone or computer whenever I need to shut off the electricity to a certain appliance or outlet.  Another example of a reference I used a lot during my job search was job descriptions.  I was applying to about 5 jobs per week, which doesn't sound like too much to keep track of, except when you consider that it might take four to eight weeks to get a call back.  Suddenly, I would get a call from a recruiter wanting to ask me more about my experience as it relates to job x, and I would have to either make something up, admit that I don't know which job they were referring to, or fumble about trying to find what the hell job I applied to.  And it's such an easy fix!  I simply created a new dedicated Notebook called Job Descriptions (duh), and everytime I applied to a job, I would just copy the entire job description and paste it into the note.  Usually, the title of the job is the first thing on the page, and Evernote adopts the first line of a note as the title unless you specify a title, so I literally didn't have to type in anything!  Just copy, paste. 

I like to write my blog posts in my Evernote, rather than drafting them in the blog site itself.  I'm wary of writing inside websites because there are 100 things that could go wrong and cause you to lose all your work.  With a note application like Evernote, the work is saved automatically from time to time, and not just to the machine I'm on, but to my very own little cloud.  That's a nice feature when you are constantly at risk of a phone dying or computer crashing.  Plus, it does a better job of spell checking than most websites.  An added benefit to the always-on-the-go person is the fact that you can dictate into your smartphone, so that if you have a brilliant idea but you're an hour away from home, you don't have to wait until you get home to get your idea down on (virtual) paper.  Also, by keeping journal entries and blog posts in my notebook, I can easily search them if I'm looking for a specific reference. 

Brilliant Ideas and Gift Ideas are two other notebooks I maintain.  I am terrible at buying gifts for people as Christmas and birthdays approach, but throughout the year I tend to think of great ideas for gifts (usually when I least need ideas).  So keeping a record of gift ideas helps me when I actually need them.  Likewise, I have dozens of (what I consider) brilliant ideas to make the world a better place, but I don't have the means, position or resources to pursue all of them.  So I feel better having at least documented them for reference later, if I happen to be in a position or have the means of accomplishing them.  I also come back to them when I need inspiration; they help recharge my mojo so to speak. 

For anyone who is employed in a rigorous professional job, I have a recommendation for you that I've only recently implemented myself in the last couple years: Performance and Potential notes, sometimes called Praise Piles.  I keep track of every email that gives me an earnest recognition of a job well done at work.  In addition, I keep notes on activities that demonstrate the skills and attributes set forth in the goals and performance evaluations of my company.  So when it comes time to for my performance evaluation, I can back my ratings up, or make a case for my manager to increase my ratings, with concrete examples from the previous year.  I cannot say this actually won me anything in my last job, but there's a reason I left that job that may or may not be related to that.  I am optimistic it will help in my new job. 

Alright, I think this blog is already getting a bit long, so I'll wrap this section up with a list of other "notes" I keep, and by saying that pretty much anything wordy that you'd want to track may qualify as a "note" that you'd want to enter and store in a notebook program like Evernote for future reference. 

Other notes:

  • Shared notebooks for start-ups or teams to load research, draft copy, updates, etc.
  • My favorite massage therapists (and my least favorite ones) so I hopefully know what I'm getting into when I book a massage
  • Packing checklist for upcoming trips (i.e. bring sand castle mold to Hawaii)
  • Places to go / activities to do for upcoming or unscheduled (dream) trips
  • Taxes - to document mileage to/from doctors, charitable donations (non-monetary), etc.
  • Measurements of windows and other physical attributes of my house for shopping purposes
  • Reimbursable expenses (with pictures of receipts)
  • Drug prescriptions (with pictures)
  • Restaurant orders for my honey (in case I'm surprising him with something like donuts or Chipotle)


If you don't know what Pinterest is, they describe themselves as a virtual pinboard.  It's a very broad, loose definition and I don't think the world has grasped its novelty and usefulness just yet.  In fact, I wrote a whole post about the various uses (and sins) of Pinterest (and thus, do not feel the need to exhaust every opportunity I see again here).  I mention it after Evernote because they can be used for some of the same things.  For example, before I started using Pinterest, I maintained a Watch/Read/Listen to list in Evernote.  But most such items can be graphically represented, and thus, look a lot more exciting as virtual pins on a Pinterest board.  So the differentiation is whether the "list" you are starting or keeping is more textual or more graphical - that should determine whether Pinterest is better or Evernote.  Also, if most items on your list can be associated with links, Pinterest is a better option, because they will preserve the links for you as well as the graphical imagery and your specific text.  Other boards I recommend people create / maintain in Pinterest include:
local places to try (i.e. restaurants, museums, etc.)
Things to do in ______ (i.e. Vegas, so that you have it ready for your next Vegas trip)
Wish List (this is the best way to keep a public wish list that I've found)
Gift Ideas (keep this board secret so nobody knows what you're getting them)


I've probably raved about Hootsuite in half a dozen posts all over the web, but I think its worthwhile to reiterate here.  Hootsuite is a great way to manage your social media presence, whether we're talking a company, volunteer organization, part of a softball league, or just you (and even better when you're dealing with a combination or all of the above)! 

For example, I might be traveling or business on Father's Day, having celebrated with my father on an earlier occasion, but still want to post something to thank my father and all fathers.  So I can use Hootsuite to load up my message (and associated photo), schedule it for Father's Day morning, and have it post without having to remember to log in or try to find internet service while I'm on the go.  This ability to schedule posts is awesome when I have something I think is hilarious to share at 3 am, because I can jot it down in Hootsuite, schedule it, and rake in all the likes and favorites and retweets once it gets posted at a time when more people are awake.  "Autoschedule" allows me to space out my posts if I am browsing and finding lots of interesting articles, videos, and tidbits, rather than bombarding my followers with a bunch of posts in rapid succession.  Last spring I converted a lot of my old VHS tapes of various high school performances to digital video clips, and rather than throwing them all up on the web at the same time, I spaced them out to weekly intervals.  So all summer my followers would be surprised and delighted (as was I) when some random old video popped up.  I scheduled my favorite to post on my birthday.  Slightly more sinister, if you're at work and you don't want your co-worker friends to know you were browsing the internet at work, you can schedule your post for whatever time you should be getting home so that it looks like you just saw it and shared it at that time. 

Besides the scheduling feature, Hootsuite has a very functional (albeit not as pretty) dashboard type of feel that allows you to view multiple "streams" of your choosing, which can be searches on specific topics or events going on as well as certain users' posts, etc.  Thus, in one screen, I can see who is talking about #NASA, what is going on at #PhxCC (Phoenix ComiCon), and what the tweeters I follow are posting.  Unlike in Twitter and facebook themselves, Hootsuite stores these searches so everytime I log in I can see them without having to recreate the searches every time. 

Microsoft Excel

Yes, I am considered an Excel guru, so this should be no surprise to some of you.  Most people will not use Excel nearly as much as I do, but there are a few reasons why most people should use it.  Banks and credit card companies as well as financial software claim to have good budget tools, but I prefer to do it myself in Excel.  I maintain a Cash Flow worksheet that is actually very simply but is the most effective tool I've found to help me identify where I have cash flow issues as well as to budget how much I can pay off student loans and car loan, as well as how much I have that could be invested and how much extra fun money I have.  It starts with the current amount in my bank account and lists all of the upcoming expenditures impacting my bank account for roughly the next 18 months.  I go in there every other week or so and delete the line items that have been taken out of my bank account, and update the current balance and any new expenditures I've learned of.  Then I tweak the payments on loans and credit cards until I'm happy with my cash flow status, and then I go into each of those websites and schedule the payments accordingly.  I also have clever notes about interest rate and how long it will take me to pay down each debt based on the payments, which motivates me to pay down the highest interest rate items more instead of giving myself more fun money.  If you stay on top of this, you should never have a late fee, overdraft issue, trouble making minimum payments, and yet you need to keep a very minimal balance in your bank account.  I  run a very tight ship this way, making the most of my income to get to a debt-free situation asap. 

Excel is inherently good at anything calculation based.  Thus, another application any person might use it for would be planning a vacation.  I recently used Excel to minimize costs for a trip to Cedar Point in Ohio.  I had about five airports we could have flown into, so I listed each of those as an option, and then wrote next to them the cost of each flight.  Then I looked up rental car prices from each airport and listed those, then added in estimated fuel usage and associated cost.  Another option was staying right at the park, flying into the nearest airport and then taking a taxi, so I enumerated and calculated that option.  That helped me determine the best way to get there.  Then there was the matter of deciding upon which hotel to stay at and whether or not to buy the 2-day passes from the hotel.  I listed out all the options with and without the ticket packages, with and without breakfast and added in the tickets to the options with no tickets, and added the estimated cost of breakfast to the deals without breakfast included.  I couldn't imagine doing all this manipulating and calculating in any other tool or by hand.  Excel is it for me! 


I love technology, and when I got my fancy new Chevrolet Volt a few years ago, it came with five years of onStar.  I didn't think I would use it much, and its true that I haven't called them more than three or four times in the past several years.  But what I didn't realize until I had it was that with the onStar app I can send destinations to my car's navigation system from my phone.  So before I leave for a new place, I send it to my car and then my car picks it up shortly after I turn it on.  This is cool, and also a big time saver.  Likewise, if I'm at a computer, I can use Mapquest to send the destination to my car (although the retrieval takes a few additional steps).  onStar also gives me a somewhat detailed report every month, which the data analyst part of me enjoys dissecting from time to time. 


I stumbled upon Waze while stuck in a traffic jam and using Google Maps to figure out what was going on.  Waze is primarily a commuting app that gives you traffic conditions, warns you of police and obstacles in the road, and provides a live ETA to you and whomever you wish to share it with.  The data primarily comes from users sharing their information, tagging where accidents, police or broken down cars are, etc., and automatically transmitting their speed through the app.  Since I am now driving in the carpool lane, I don't usually turn it on because I don't want my data to give an overly optimistic picture of what traffic conditions are like for the poor saps in the regular traffic. But it is incredibly useful for my honey to transmit his ETA to me when we're meeting somewhere or running tight on a schedule.  Once he sends me the link to his data, I can track his progress and see how far he is, which helps the psycho anal retentive person in me to make decisions, and calms the tightly-wound worst-case-scenario beliefs.  I wish I had had this app for previous relationships, it actually might have solved some problems and made life just a little better.  An added perk is that if you are meeting someone at a place that is new/different to you or to them, you can transmit your current location.  So, I parked on the south side of a large complex, and transmitted my location so that my honey could park in the same area as me.  Clever, right?  It's a pretty neat little app, not something I use all the time but helpful when I do use it. 

Retractable charge cord

What would this list be with only virtual tools?  One of the most useful things I carry in my purse is a little USB charger that retracts into a small cylndrical shape and never gets tangled as a result.  Paired with a USB to electrical outlet plug, it allows me to charge with a computer (or other device with USB) or with an electrical outlet anywhere I go.  And its compact enough that its really not a bother to carry with me at all times. 


I don't know of an app that is so simple and so helpful as this one.  Of course, it's used for a very specific purpose, so it's not something I'm in all the time, but when I need it, it's awesome.  I first heard about TripIt from LinkedIn a long time ago, before smartphones, and it was basically a website you could create an account with and link with your LinkedIn I guess just to brag about your previous and future trips, and also to see when/where you will be in the same vicinity as someone else.  Both a little cool in their own respects, but TripIt didn't mean much until I had a smartphone with the TripIt app.  Suddenly, I was able to carry my itinerary in a clean, simple form, with me on my phone all time.  Populating the itinerary is super easy, too, because you simply take your confirmation emails from your airline, hotel, rental car, or restaurant reservation and forward them to a generic TripIt email address from your email address that you used to sign up.  Within seconds, your itinerary is populated with dates, times, addresses, confirmation numbers, costs, and any other pertinent information TripIt identifies from the email.  Sharing trips is just as easy, you add a traveler, and that person also gets the itinerary on their phone.  So while we're traveling, I can open my TripIt app to get directions or check the time of our reservation at a specific venue.  Never again will I miss my flight while hanging out on the beach of Cancun because I got the departure time mixed up with the arrival time - (and yes that did happen once) - never again! 

Designated places

Organizing things virtually is one of my favorite things to do, but sometimes we get physical things, like tickets to a game or show, and they are so easy to lose track of!  So there are certain things that I have designated places for, and it requires so habit-forming to remember each of those places.  As an example, I have a board in my hallway where I put "spent" ticket stubs up with tape just for fun, and there's a little clip on the left side, so I slide in any tickets for upcoming events into that clip, thus I always know where to look for them when it's time to go.  Admittedly, I could probably use more of these "designated places" because things like my purse, incoming mail, and my boyfriend's backpack are always landing somewhere different every day. 

Google Alerts

I don't spend a lot of time browsing the internet or looking up the same things over and over again.  So when there is a topic I want to keep track of, or an eminent event that hasn't been scheduled, I will set up a Google Alert about it, so that I am emailed with information about that topic based on the frequency and relevancy that I choose.  For example, I was anticipating the Harmon Hotel in Las Vegas to be imploded, so I started having articles with the words "implode", "Harmon" and "Vegas" sent to me.  My hope was that as soon as a date was set, I would book a room at a nearby hotel overlooking the Harmon so that I could have a great view of the show!  Unfortunately, it looks like the Harmon is going to be peacefully disassembled over a very long period of time.  A more successful example is following the news of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf when they first came out; I knew before anyone else when there was controversy, potential recalls, and how sales were doing.  I also got to see a lot of information about other electric cars because they articles would reference the Volt or the Leaf. 

I think it's especially important to have Google Alerts about yourself; that is, I have an alert for "Laura Winger" and "Laura Lee Winger" so that I can see what comes up about me on the interwebs.  You might be surprised what comes up about you.  Some of the top hits for me in the past have been my Japanese e-portfolio I did while studying in Hiroshima, the articles I wrote while working for ASU's school newspaper, The State Press, and fabric designs I've created that are really popular.  There is another woman who comes up from time to time by the same name, and she also went to engineering school, so I could see a potential employer getting us confused.  But as long as she doesn't become a drug dealer or open a porn website, I'm okay with her name intertwining with mine. 

Ceiling Studies

Okay, I made that term up, but stick with me because this may be helpful for you.  A while back, I signed up for a trip to China with my kenpo dojo.  We were going to Beijing, Shanghai, and Dengfeng, where the Shaolin Temple is.  Not being very good at geography growing up, I thought it would be a good idea to at least understand where those cities were on a map and in relation to one another.  So I google a map of China, and then googled a simple clipart of China.  Using the map as a guide, I marked the major cities in big, bold lettering, and then printed the graphic on a few sheets of paper.  I took the prints and taped them to the ceiling over my bed.  As the sun started coming up in the morning, I wasn't quite awake enough to get up, and didn't even want to play with my phone yet, but I idly eyed the map of China.  Every morning I'd wake up and see that map, and eventually, it got ingrained in my head, without any real effort to learn it.  After coming back from my second trip to China, the one I took with my MBA class, I had learned of up-and-coming cities in China that were of interest to me, so I added those to my graphic and put that above my bed until I knew them as well.  I did the same thing with India when I started meeting a lot of people from India and wanted to be more knowledgeable when they told me what part of India they were from. 

There are a lot of things that can be made into visuals that can aid our learning.  As adults, we may not be taking classes all the time, but there are certainly things that we want to learn, and if those things can be made into a large visual like I've described here, perhaps they can be learned with minimal effort just by staring at the ceiling each morning. 

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