How To Keep Track of Everything

A friend of mine once told me that I suffered from hypergraphia – the need to write down everything.

Guilty as charged, m’lud. Some people think through problems by talking about them, and that sometimes helps me, but I think most clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers.

I have a system for tracking what’s going on. It’s based on text files in well-defined locations and with specific purposes. It may seem arcane, not as frictionless as something like Evernote for example, but frictionlessness is a bad thing for organisational systems in my experience – if I don’t mindfully copy things from one place to another, I end up forgetting that either place exists and then I am doomed.

But, here is my system as it stands today, evolved over many years (a decade and a half? Crikey!) into something that at least allows me to keep my head above water most of the time both in my home projects and my day job. I would not expect anyone to want to replicate this system exactly, but maybe it will give you some ideas.

Always Open

I have mentioned in passing that I use vim as my text editor. One of the things I do with it is to have a set of specific windows open at all times. These windows are:

  1. a weekly log file
  2. project files
  3. next actions

These windows are opened with a command script that cleans up old files and then edits the files themselves. These windows are always open and are always available for me to put notes into*.

Log It

The weekly log file gets created by a Perl program I wrote called weeklog. It takes events from a file and a template to generate a new text file with slots for each day, a summary of known appointments, and so on. This is the file I write in first, and for short tasks and one day projects this may be all that ever gets recorded.

Tasks get tick boxes, and those tick boxes are hierarchical to allow for sub-tasks.

Here’s a day layout for Monday just gone:

07-Jan-2013 (Monday)

    + complete plot cards
    + 1930 Brave on the Page reading @ Powell's

Day Plan

    [ ] complete plot cards

        < > figure out nemesis

        < > how does it end?

    [ ] Brave on the Page reading

        < > bring blog business cards

        < > bring my copy of book


As each thing gets worked on, I make notes (with timestamps – I have vim key mappings setup to insert date and time) and then when a task is done I put an ‘x’ in the box.

And thus progress is made.

Well Projected

Once upon a time, the weekly log file was the only tracking file I maintained, but it tended to get rather large and cumbersome to navigate. I took a hint from Getting Things Done (GTD) and created files for each project I was working on. These files are opened in a different window from the log file.

For example, here are some of my project files for home:

  • p-blog – notes for this blog
  • p-clojure – I like programming in Clojure
  • p-finance – oh dear, tax time again
  • p-kissiltur-bluehammer – book one of The Trilogy
  • p-song – A Turquoise Song

I use the same hierarchical todo item structure as I do in the week log, and then periodically archive finished tasks to a “completed” folder so the active project file stays manageable.

What’s Next?

The last file is called “next” and it contains a list of next actions. Each line has context and action, nothing more. If I was following a strict GTD methodology I would have just one action per project, but I like to get some small amount of lookahead in the interests of efficiency, so I often have two for the project I am working on most actively. This is fed into from figuring out what I should work on next, of course.

For example, in my home next file the first two lines at the moment are:

@p-song figure out plot
@p-song write outline

I will add lines for reading Bluehammer and developing an edit plan once its six weeks are up.

As each action is completed, it gets deleted from here and marked done in the log file where it is being tracked.

This next file shares a window with the weekly log, a little letter box strip at the top, so they are always visible.


So, that’s what I do. Do you have any particular approaches to task tracking that you like to use?

[*] in previous iterations of this process, particularly on Windows XP or Linux, I have these windows on a particular desktop space, but that is harder to manage in OS X and Windows 7 so I don’t do that any more.

2 Replies to “How To Keep Track of Everything”

  1. Valerie says:

    One day I aspire to be as organized as you are. Today is not that day. But I do like the idea of checking off tasks–at the moment I use a whiteboard, but if I kept a task window open it might be more in-my-face… unfortunately I don’t have the technical know-how to replicate your system!

    1. Dunx says:

      I should probably write a follow-up post about setting this up in different environments, but it’s always going to be a command line thing. GUIs are a pain in the neck.

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