How I Work: Cork Board Organizer

I’m no stranger to organizing systems. I’ve attempted to GTD and various other flavors of other people telling me how to sort my stuff. I think at the root of it I don’t think in terms of categories (or contexts in GTD-speak). I like to have all my stuff spread out in front of so I can scan over everything at once. This is how a cork board saved me from being losing control of my life.

The system can be summed up by saying it’s index cards pinned to cork board, with free-floating cards holding daily tasks.

The cork board

I have a cheap cork board I bought at IKEA a few years back. It hung mostly unused by my bedroom door. I’d stick the occasional receipt to it. But for the most part, it was ignored. Recently I found my self with several projects going at once and I needed a way to get an overview of everything.

The cork board hanging next to my desk with one project card missing.
The cork board hanging next to my desk with one project card missing.

I started out with index cards. Mainly because I like to write things out by hand if they’re still in the idea stage. Typing them into a app doesn’t give enough flexibility to cross things off, draw pictures, or scribble related notes. It was also a way to sort out the various lists I had been making in notebooks.

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A project card detailing an idea that I had for a photo essay that went nowhere.

Each card became a project. I put a name at the top and then plans and tasks below. I didn’t bother with creating a layout on purpose to keep ideas loose. What constituted a project was wasn’t nailed down either. My working definition was of either a goal or any group of tasks greater than two. (I know this is fairly close to how GTD defines a project, and I’m ok with that. It’s a good way to think about projects.)

Once I had several cards filled up I needed a place to put them. Leaving them in a stack on my desk would be a literal graveyard of ideas. Not being where I could see them would quickly turn into “out of sight, out of mind.” Then the cork board caught my eye.

I cleaned it off and rehung it near my desk. I was able to use the wall to my left to keep it with arm’s reach. Each project card went up on the cork board. One unexpected benefit was finding that over the course of several moves my collection of push pins had dwindled down to eleven. This became a feature, not a bug.

I decided that I wouldn’t beg, borrow, or steal any more push pins and live with this limitation. This meant I would only be able to pin up eleven cards at once. Now I had a hard limit as to how many projects I could have showing.

Daily cards

I was able to hang up a few projects to start, but what really made the system work for me was the daily cards.

A daily card with some obviously true information written on it.
A daily card with some obviously true information written on it.

These are just another index card, but I’m a bit stricter about formatting. Across the top is the day of the week and date. The left side is my task list for the day. On the right is scheduling, which I define as anything that has a time attached to it.

When I complete a task I line through the task name and put a symbol in front of it to show the result.

  • “✓”: task completed
  • “x”: task cancelled
  • “→”: task forwarded to next day

I’ve found I don’t need to make this too complicated. It’s just a quick way for me to note a result: done, cancelled, or kicked. There’s not that much more to know. The same three symbols work for the scheduled items too.

  • “✓”: I went to it
  • “x”: I didn’t go to it
  • “→”: It was rescheduled

One specific thing I added to the daily card was a goal for tracking how much water I drink. At the top right I write in three Ws. Then as I finish a quart of water, I mark one out. This is an easy way to have a running tally during the day.

I also use the daily cards for notes for anything that comes up during the day. It’s my go-to for those “need to write something down” moments. Any notes that are project related gets transferred to the project cards. That way each project card has the latest information.

The way the cork board and the daily cards work to together is simple. Each night I look over the cork board to see what needs to be done next. I write those things on the daily card and I have my task list for the next day. I’ll also check my phone for any appointments coming up.

Calendar usage

My calendar tends to live on my phone as it syncs with my desktop computer. I’ve also found entering appointments into my phone works better when I’m out and about. But I like to have them on my daily card too. This way I don’t have to keep looking at my phone to see what coming up. Also the computer calendars (phone and desktop) don’t have a way to mark the outcome (for lack of a better term) of an appointment. If an item is a ball game on TV, I might note the score and cross it off my daily card when it’s over. Computer calendars don’t let me do this easily. (If there’s an app that does, I’m not really interested. It’s more data entry than I care to do. I’ll take a few quick scribbles any day.)

The most important reason for using my phone for keeping track of appointments is that I can enter things into future date. The daily cards are just for a day. They’re not a calendar of upcoming events. Plus I haven’t found a way to subscribe to an iCal feed on an index card! Blending the computer calendar with a index card-based project and task list system has worked out well so far.

Miscellaneous

Along the bottom edge of the cork board was three cup hooks I had installed to hang my keys on when it was by the door. Now I find they worked just as well as binder clip hangers.

I use one binder clip to hold the old daily cards and completed project cards. When it gets full I’ll scan them before shredding. That way I’ll have a record of what’s I’ve finished.

I use another binder clip as my “someday” file. With only eleven slots on the cork board, not everything fits. Low priority projects land in this clip, and as room frees up they get promoted. I realized early on that I’d have more than eleven project cards. But keeping eleven showing is my way of not getting overwhelmed.

In the space where the twelfth card would go, I keep a card tucked into the cork board frame. This where I keep track of things that aren’t really projects but have a lifespan greater than a day. Mostly I use it for library book due dates and shopping list items. These are on the board so I can keep an eye on it with having to add them to each daily card.

If something comes up and I have to ditch my plans for the day, I’m not stuck with reorgaizing a calendar or full to-do list. I can simply line through the day’s card and start planning for the next day.

Conclusion

I’ve been using this system since the middle of April, about five weeks now, and it’s been the only one that I’ve stuck with for this long. I think this is because it’s mostly invisible. I also like the planning time when I’m filling out the next day’s daily card. I have a chance go think about how the day might go and can plan tasks that fit with scheduled items. It’s also a chance to clear my head of free-floating ideas that might keep me awake.

Overall, I’m happy and it’s nice to see the old cork board get some use.

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