Episode 56: November 11, 2008
by Stever Robbins, author of Get-It Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More
Today's topic is keeping track of your chaotic life. The quick and dirty tip is to use mind mapping software as a flexible, extensible dashboard.
I do not follow my own advice. I admit it: despite having my to-do lists, my post-it pads, and my Getting Things Done system, I sometimes commit myself to a teensy bit more than I can handle. Like when my friend came over needing some help with his new faster-than-light teleportation system. How could I say no? (Listen to my episode 15, “An Honest ‘No’” for the answer to this rhetorical question.)
Overcommitting isn’t a big problem. I’m used to no sleep, dropping important projects halfway through, and disappointing those who love me. The problem is keeping track of it all. There are always a thousand details, and they change all the time.
A Dashboard Can Help
My solution is to create a dashboard that I look at every day. When I start a new project or think of something I need to track and don’t know where else to track it, it goes on my dashboard. Just like a car dashboard keeps all the important information right there, my dashboard is in front of me daily with all the things that are top-of-mind. Then I delve into the details in the areas that are a priority for today.
For my dashboard, I use mind-mapping software. It lets me easily and quickly create a set of broad categories, for example, “Initiatives I’m in charge of” or “Ideas for book topics” or “Items of interest to my corporate overlords.” Then under each category, I just type details of each item.
Then I get a phone call. It’s Carol, reminding me that we’re traveling to New York next Thursday. I have to start collecting the material we’ll be presenting. There’s nowhere on my mind map that this would fit. So I create an “Upcoming events” branch, and add New York under that branch. Over the next few weeks, “Upcoming events” proves to be a useful category. I’ve already added parties, meetings, and, of course, December 21, 2012. According to the ancient Mayan calendar, that’s going to be Armageddon, and you bet I’m going to be prepared.
Flexibility is Key
What makes the dashboard so useful is that I can quickly add and delete items. I can also rearrange and recategorize them. Furthermore, it’s free-form. That means I can add any kind of item with any kind of information.
In this episode’s transcript, I include links to several mind mapping tools. My favorite is the commercial product, Mind Manager Pro, which has done a great job of integrating mind mapping with project management tools and writing tools.
Your Dashboard can Become … a Book? A Project Plan? More!
When I first started working on the Get-it-Done Guy book, it began as a section of my daily dashboard mind map. Each sub-branch became a chapter. I could drag and drop and reorder the topics until I found the organization that made the most sense. (That only took me eight months, by the way.) After typing the prose into the notes associated with each branch, a single “Export to Microsoft Word” created the final file, formatted with proper header styles, with all the text in place. It was a semi-religious experience.
Mind maps are great for brainstorming projects, too. Notes about a project in my daily mind map gradually became a task list, and then a task list with dates. From there, it was quick work to turn it into a spreadsheet or link it to a Microsoft Project project to manage the project.
Any Flexible Tool Will Work
I like mind maps because they’re visual, super-easy to reorder and change, and can let you expand and collapse whole branches of your thinking so you can get different detail levels. But they’re not the only tool you can use for a dashboard.
You can also use outliners with collapsible groups. Or try a spreadsheet, where you list your major topics in column A, and the subtopics in column B, and so on. Then, you can simply scan down the appropriate column to see the level of detail you want. If you’re feeling really tech-savvy, some spreadsheets let you collapse rows using a little plus/minus sign, so you can also get the expandability feature.
Whatever tool you use, the ability to create hyperlinks can be ultra-useful. One of my favorite dashboard tricks is to create hyperlinks to a file, folder, or website that has the materials related to a current initiative. Then, a single click on the dashboard takes me right where I need to be, to begin working on the relevant item.
Today’s transcript has links to several free and commercial mind map packages. It also has PDF screen shots of my dashboard, so you can get a sense of how I actually use it.
Furthermore, the fine folks at MindJet, the makers of my personal favorite, Mind Manager, have donated 3 copies of their latest version, which will be going to three listeners who have written or called with questions over the last two months: Manpreet, Vin, and Eren, congratulations.
This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!