My Life Was a Disaster and Then I Got Organized

Jonathan SlainProductivityLeave a Comment

Life Hacks to Master Your To Do List, Find More Time & Simplify Your Life

I am sitting on a flight home right now, writing this article, and I can’t help but wonder at what my fellow passengers are doing. Some are sleeping, others are watching TV and a very few are typing away on their computers like me. I just noticed that the guy working on his laptop across the aisle from me has about 32,000 emails in his inbox. At least he’s working on the flight, I’ll give him credit for that, but I could really help him get control of his overflowing inbox.
In this article, I’ll talk about ways to keep yourself organized, so you can find more hours in the day and leave more time in your life for what truly matters most to you. I’ll show you how I use Outlook to master my to do list, how I have created daily routines that open up more “found time” in my busy days, and finally ways I keep things simple in a complicated world.
I consider travel time to be found time and airplanes are about the last bastion of peace on our planet. On flights, my phone doesn’t work, so I’m not constantly getting pinged. I like to put on my headphones and do my “thinking work.” It’s a few uninterrupted hours where I can really focus. During the week, I’m hopelessly trying to multi-task, return phone calls, and running between meetings. Planes are my only time for writing articles and crafting thoughtful responses to complex emails.
Travel time is found time because it allows me to complete tasks so that I can enjoy other times in my week. I’m not a unique snowflake and my life is busy just like everyone else. I own two businesses, travel at least twice a month, my wife is a full time professional, and we have two young girls (Caroline and Anne Penney, six and four years old). If I get my work done while I’m flying then when I get home I can be present for my kids. If you ever happen to see me on a flight, you’ll know exactly what I’m doing because I’m about to tell you. Let’s talk about my To Do list first.

Become One With Your Email

I use Outlook as my To Do list and I have spent years perfecting my systems, some people use handwritten lists, or day-planners, or other email programs, but Outlook works well for me.  I am self-diagnosed as having a condition known as E.A.D. (email anxiety disorder).  This disease is marked by the relentless pursuit of “inbox zero”; the highly sought after condition where one’s email inbox is completely clear. 

Let’s turn our attention to some real world apps that I use to amplify Outlook’s natural abilities:

  1. is a web based service (works with any email program) and it filters your email before it arrives in your inbox.  It uses artificial intelligence to move your receipts and newsletters into a separate folder called “SaneLater” which gathers all your unimportant emails so you can focus on the most important emails.  Once a week, you can open up your SaneLater folder and review the emails, which almost never need follow-up.  Sanebox prevents me from being pinged constantly by unimportant emails and thusly returns sanity to my inbox.
  1. is a great email plug-in because with one click in Outlook, I can defer an email until a later date.  ClearContext removes deferred email from my inbox and then returns them on the chosen date.  There are several reasons this is helpful:
    1. Remembering important stuff – if I need to remember to get something done this weekend, I defer the email to Saturday.  I know I could use reminders and to do’s but nothing gets my attention more than a fresh email at the top of my inbox.
    2. Holding people accountable – if you email me and promise you’ll get something done by August 22nd, I simply take your email and defer it until August 22 and it automatically reminds me to check in on the project.  People I work with always wonder how I seem to remember everything…  Hopefully none of those people ever read this article and learn my secret!
  1. MailMyself is an app that I keep on the home screen of my phone.  When I touch it, it opens up a blank text field, and whatever I type becomes the subject line of an email to me.  Whenever I have a thought or an item to get done that I don’t want to forget, it makes it very easy for me to quickly create a “to do.”
  1. YouMail is another app that I love because it listens to all of my voicemails, transcribes the audio (humans do the transcribing, which is why I prefer YouMail to using the iPhone’s built in voicemail transcriber, it’s more accurate), and the text is emailed to me.  I no longer have to waste time listening to voicemails and I never forget to call people back because there is an email reminder in my inbox.      

As long as I run thru my inbox at the beginning and end of each day, I know that all of the really important to do’s in my life will get done.  I have one place that I store all of my tasks, calls, and notes, which means nothing falls thru the cracks.

Play Hide And Go Seek with Time and Win

Let’s discuss practical tips that I’ve implemented to simplify my life and find more time every day.  These ideas may not work for you, but I am hoping you can try and adapt some of them to your own life.

  1. Create Routines – When I get home each day, I have a routine.  There is a specific place for my keys and wallet (hook and bowl by the door).  Then, I always open up the mail and packages, take the papers out of my bag (notes I’ve reviewed, bills I’ve paid) and I file them away. 
  2. Go Paperless – I mercilessly throw away any paper that I don’t need.  The goal is to keep as little paper as possible.  Often I will scan it (buy a Fujitsu Scansnap and it will change your scanning life, I know it’s $400 for something that your multifunction printer probably does, but it does it so much better it’s worth the investment). 
  3. Get Organized at Night – Each evening, I spend a few minutes making sure that my bag has everything in it that I need for the next day so I can “shut it down” for the night, enjoy my family, and wake up the next morning ready to work without spending time in the morning getting organized.  For more on creating your own routine and getting organized, I highly recommend reading: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo.
  4. Get up an Hour Earlier – I wake up at 5 AM as often as I can during the week and get my day started early.  I use that precious extra hour in the morning for thinking work because research shows that the peak time for our brains is shortly after we wake up.
  5. Shopping Ninjas – The only stores that my wife and I enjoy going to in person are home improvement stores (Home Depot just smells so good), clothing stores (it’s too hard to buy clothes that fit well online, and toy stores (it’s worth it to see the looks on our kid’s faces when they get a new toy in person).  For everything else, we use to automate our purchasing.  Amazon makes it possible to set up all the recurring items we need (i.e., paper towels and coffee) for automatic monthly delivery.
  6. Grocery Shopping – Growing up, we went to the grocery store once (sometimes twice) a day.  I’ve now gotten it down to once every two weeks!  I know this shopping behavior is unusual because we always get comments at the register about the large size of our orders.  (Note that I tried stretching it to one grocery visit a month, but we ran out of fresh fruits, vegetables and milk by mid-month and got tired of eating dry cereal and frozen vegetables!)   
  7. Simplify Your Wardrobe – In the mornings, I used to spend a lot of time picking out my clothes for the day.  Then I discovered pants by Bonobos called “Weekday Warriors.”  With the days of the week stitched into the waistband, I no longer have to spend time deciding which pants to put on in the mornings! 

Plan Your Life or Life Will Be Planned For You

My wife and I decided a long time ago that it was important to us to enjoy our downtime so we’ve worked hard to craft our lives accordingly.  The decisions we’ve made in planning our life together are really enough to fill another entire article (foreshadowing?), but I want to share one of the most impactful ideas in our Life Plan with you while we’re on the subject of creating more hours every day. 

  1. Live Smaller – We’re not sold on the tiny house movement, but my wife and I have chosen to live in a moderately sized house (2500 square feet) so we can afford luxuries like a housekeeper and a lawn service once a week.  We used to spend at least two to four hours a week cutting the grass and cleaning the house (neither are favorite chores of ours) and now we spend those hours exercising (can’t hire somebody to do workout for you…), getting to know our kids better, and drinking good wine. 

Hopefully you’ve picked up an idea that will allow you to enjoy more time with your family or to spend more time perfecting your preferred hobby.  Send me an email with your best life hacks and maybe I can share them in a future article or speaking engagement.  I’m always looking for ways to improve my skills and find more time in my days.  After all, the more efficient that I can be with work by leveraging technology and better organizational habits, the more time I can spend enjoying the fruits of my labor and isn’t that what this article is really all about!

Jonathan Slain is the founder of Disaster Ventures Unlimited.  He works with best-in-class specialty construction companies to help entrepreneurs and their executive teams get control of their lives and businesses.  For a FREE 90 minute meeting to discuss your business, he can be reached at [email protected] or 216-870-4219.  And, you can be sure that if you leave him a voicemail or send him an email, he’s not going to lose it!