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Discussion Forum > Tracking digital materials with paper and pen?

I think I have some blind spots here, so asking for help from the group mind. My question applies to my day job.

I like using the pen and paper method for capture and tracking. I also use Evernote to record a daily log of tasks performed. The daily log is an individual note and includes a list of meetings attended, tasks done, time in and out, scratchpad, etc. Basically a diary page for that day. I use it to help me create my weekly/monthly reports to management on my accomplishments. It's a great workflow.

We use the Msft Office Suite, so we use Outlook email. (We also have Onenote but I have never used it in preference to using Evernote.)

My question: how do people track details trapped in myriad emails? I am monitoring two large projects and there are details and decisions spread scattershot through them. Some details relate to tasks I need to take action on, others are decisions and tasks others have to do and I need to be aware of. As an email thread goes on, some decisions are reversed or task details change. I feel the need to stay on top of them.

I am kind of stymied trying to figure out a solution to how best to track these details so that 1) I can do the task to everyone's expectations 2) I can lay my fingers on the info-bit I need when I need it.

Track them on a page in Evernote? my notebook? I usually dedicate a page in the back to a project and enter the date of the email linked to the task. Not really sure if that's efficient but it's all I know to do at the moment.

March 9, 2018 at 16:37 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown

Evernote is very flexible and it's easy to make a system using the following features:

1) You can forward emails to Evernote and each email makes one note. You can organise these using the usual Evernote folders and keywords, plus to-do boxes. If you don't know your Evernote email address you can find it in your Account details on-line.

2) Any Evernote note can be linked to another note using the Link feature.

3) You can create a table or tables in which the salient points in your emails are summarized. You can include links to the actual emails as in 2). Different projects can be colour-coded or have separate tables, either in the same note or in different ones.

4) You can use the Evernote reminder feature to bring forward specific emails for review.

5) If you want to work with an entire conversation rather than individual emails, you can do this by using the Merge feature. You can keep the emails separate at the same time by duplicating
March 9, 2018 at 18:28 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'd copy the exact title of the email-thread over to the notetaking app where I would have one "Notebook" (or whatever that thing is called in your particular app) per email thread.

I would then copy or re-write in my own words (because this brings my reflections on the subject matter forward) the ideas and info-bits from the corresponding email-thread.

The trick would then be to have a notetaking app that has the capabilities to highlight and tag the material; which should be easy to accomplish.

For instance, one could use #tags in your notes and then do a search for a specific #tag. That way you'd had cross-reference between single lines of the different notes.
March 9, 2018 at 20:01 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
I've tried to think of a solution to this problem for a lot of years. In the end, I found it was a waste of time to constantly move emails around.

Currently I do this in Outlook. It may or may not work for you.

If an email has a "I have to do something about this" reaction, I flag the email with a follow up flag in Outlook but only if I can't do it right away. . I then write what that something is in my current list "long list" of things to do. At this point is essentially in two places.

Ultimately I usually work the task off of my long list first but as you say, sometimes the information changes quickly on that particular email chain so the email chain is usually the best place to know the current status. So I have to review emails often.

When reviewing emails, I sort by subject. If a new related email with the same subject line comes in I can see whether I have more to do or less to do regarding it. I then mark any of the now resolved emails in the chain as done.

In a particular email subject grouping I might see 10 emails. 9 are checked complete noting that I don't have any action due of me and 1 will be flagged as to do. I keep them in all my inbox until the whole chain is complete. Once the subject is fully complete and has aged sufficiently I either delete or archive the whole thread as reference.

Collapsing the groups sorted by subject in Outlook presents everything as a long list and I usually review it like I would any long list on paper or in a digital list.

Whether I'm reviewing the list in the email inbox as above or reviewing my long list elsewhere, I cross things off that are done or do them. I'm not too worried about syncing the emails with no email lists because I know as I dismiss or do from either place they will eventually clear themselves out.

I know that keeping things in my inbox goes against what many inbox zero folks proclaim, but I only considered an email without a flag as a true "inbox item". I have a daily task of "Get email to flags" where I delete or mark any email that hasn't been flagged as either to-do or complete. That is my version of "inbox zero" Functionally, flagging an email is the same as moving to a different folder.

March 9, 2018 at 23:52 | Unregistered CommenterBrent
A very simple solution that works well for me is to blind copy myself in on any sent emails that need follow up action. Then drop the email into a folder headed 1week for urgent things, or another one headed 3 weeks.
I then review those folders every day based on the age and clear if a response is in or chase the person as appropriate timescale.
It takes a little while to get into the habit of bcc, but I do it automatically now.
The advantage is that this reminder system is in the same place so no need to switch applications. I use outlook for this.
It is a powerful system for me as absolutely nothing ever falls through the cracks! No one escapes my chasers.
March 10, 2018 at 11:02 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
>I know that keeping things in my inbox goes against what many inbox zero folks proclaim, but I only considered an email without a flag as a true "inbox item".

Good idea!
My policy is simply to have everything in inbox "read". No need to move stuff elsewhere. Myself I put all do's in a separate list. (Send to OneNote is handy for that purpose.) But Flagging is certainly a simpler process, then you'd only need a "Review Flags" task, and if you want to make a new Do, it's easy to find the email as it would be one of the handful of flagged tasks.

To restate the proposal: Read all emails (even just skim titles if you choose), and mark them read. Flag any tasks that need further action. In your to-do list, "Review Flags" will trigger going through the flags in detail. If you satisfied the obligation of that email, unflag it. If the email calls for more processing, only then add a reference to the to-do list.
March 11, 2018 at 22:05 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Thanks to everyone for your replies. After reading them, I will experiment more with using Outlook-centric functions like flags and grouping. I think creating a project note in Evernote that summarizes what is happening, with copied snippets, may be useful when tracking how decisions were reached. And as Alan notes, a task in my book of "Review flags" would ensure I keep those items refreshed in my memory and reviewed for doing/completion.

March 12, 2018 at 15:50 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
When emailing to EverNote, you can add tags and notebooks by using symbols in the subject line. You can also edit the email before sending it -- cut out the useless bits. You can also change the title. "Mary 2018-03-10 many changes" and "Martin 2018-03-10 vacation plans" are more useful than "Project A". Also, add words in the text for more detailed searches.

My projects usually work well enough in email. If it's a short project, I label star emails that need action. I triage on the tablet, and stars are much easier to add than labels. If it's a complex project label them "ProjectA-Active" label for that project, despite the pain of labeling on the tablet. A few times a week, I use the computer to add project labels to everything.

I don't try to keep up with all the changes in real time. When an email comes in, I ask "Can it wait until I work on the project again?" Usually it's Yes, so I label it ProjectA-Active and continue triaging my inbox. Eventually, I'll work on ProjectA, and deal with all the ProjectA-Active labels in a batch, and update the notes then. This method risks having to deal with the entire batch immediately, but that rarely happens without warning.

There is one complex project that I track in a Word document. It starts with a summary chart, so I can quickly see needs doing, then a diary with short entries for quick reference. Full details are in my email archives. My goal is copy just enough information in quick reference that I don't have to go to the archives. Updating that document is part of doing the project, not part of email triage. The project has many similar small parts, so I update the notes as I do it.

I have a few archives for other projects that are spread between EverNote, email and paper. Info comes in through all three methods. I rarely have to look up anything for them, so it's not worth copying into a single system.
March 13, 2018 at 18:37 | Registered CommenterCricket

I love the detail you post about your process on this an other topics. It seems you have done a good job and keeping your process defined for yourself and you are able to follow your own rules.

I'm envious.

I'm always breaking my own rules and then re-adopting and then breaking them again. It seems that of all the tips and tricks I've read about and even posted about are maddeningly fluid for me.

My only solace is that I usually don't wander too far away from my main rule and as I zig zag back and forth over the path of perfect productivity, I get a few things done :)

To keep with the topic at hand, sometimes I use pen and paper and sometimes I use digital but my main rule is get it all somewhere as often as I can so that evaluate it all then delete it or do it.

March 20, 2018 at 16:06 | Unregistered CommenterBrent
>I'm envious.

>I'm always breaking my own rules and then re-adopting and then breaking them again. It seems that of all the tips and tricks I've read about and even posted about are maddeningly fluid for me.

I'm not clear this needs to be considered a problem. As long as things are flowing (fluid) you can do lots, even if the rules are not rigid. Ate you doing lots, or is there a little more rigidity necessary (second main rule) to ensure things move along better?
March 20, 2018 at 18:07 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Brent, Thanks!

It only looks well-defined and consistent because I write it that way. (I used to audit QA systems, and my own plant was audited several times a year. I learned to document what people actually do rather than what they think they should do, and to stay focused on the key question: How do we make sure we will make what we agreed to? Details that are unnecessary, complicated, or are hard to follow, usually fail the audit.)

I always assume my ADHD will be at its worst. I will not remember anything in a few hours, no matter how urgent or important. I will put things where it's easiest, not where they should go. I will miss the Often part of Little and Often, and also resist starting long sessions. My prediction of how long things will take is incredibly optimistic (or over-corrected and incredibly pessimistic). I will do what's interesting, even if it's unimportant and not urgent. I will drop a system when I get bored or overwhelmed or have any other excuse. My system has to survive being put dropped, being partly picked up, then being dropped again.

Everything else is a response to that. Like you, my main rule is to get it all down. That step has to be easy. Secondary rules are: weekly-ish review and plan; do what I can to make the weekly-ish plan quick (so I actually do it); documenting as I go; separate triaging from doing; batching rather than reacting; making it easy to put things in the right place (often redefining the right place to be where I usually put them); making things easy to find when I need them (eg email labels); leaving each project stable at the end of a session (since I might not get back to it for months); and knowing the next step and timing of a project (and often scheduling it) before closing the folder for the day.

All the rest, though, is fluid. If something is awkward or gets boring, I change it, often without noticing. I often leave things beside the cabinet rather than putting them away. I fear long works sessions and burning out, but can't keep the Often in Little and Often. I know that updating my plans every morning greatly increases my productivity for the day, but usually start my day by reading the internet. If a project spans several months, such as collecting ideas for a project, I'll collect in one place for a weeks, then forget and start collecting in another place. That's not my intent, but it's what happens.
March 22, 2018 at 18:11 | Unregistered CommenterCricket

Logically, more rigidity would move things along more smoothly. Think of a queue of people where every one lines up in an orderly fashion, I could serve them all appropriately one at a time

However we all know that when each person wants something very different, multiple lines form and it can get quite chaotic.

I'm learning that as with people my tasks aren't all the same and there isn't an algorithm that fits every scenario nicely.

I have to stay fluid because the work I do is so varied and I deal with so many people.

I guess the "envious" comment stems from the feeling of either I have to find a better algorithm that works for more scenarios and is also perforrmant (yes I'm trying to do too much) or I have to accept that my situation doesn't allow for it at the moment and I need to get by with a "fluid" approach.

I think the truth is somewhere in between.

@Cricket, Keep sharing as it always spawns a thought. I'm mulling over what you just said about <<leaving each project stable at the end of a session (since I might not get back to it for months);>> I'm definitely not doing that. I leave a project when something comes up and I need to get better at "putting it away" before I start something new. This goes back to my desire to have a single threaded approach.

Can't everybody just stand in an orderly line!!!

March 22, 2018 at 23:48 | Unregistered CommenterBrent
Brent, I like your idea about handling email in Outlook. It works well with the way I have been using Outlook (for 18 years... yikes) except that the way I do it has not been working, and I can see how yours would be much better. I'm going to give it a shot.

Forwarding emails to an outside party like Evernote would be against company security policy at my company. (Although... we also have OneNote. Anyway.) We are encouraged to track project work in a kanban system called agile central (formerly known as Rally). To me, that is not a trusted system because anyone else who has access can delete, reassign, modify, and reprioritize tasks (I mean "stories") in it, or assign me stories that are vague and nonsensical.
March 23, 2018 at 13:08 | Unregistered CommenterDon R
Brent, Do as I say, not as I do. On Monday, I worked on taxes, and left the folder open. I was going to work on it Tuesday, honest! It's now Friday. My desk inbasket has a few large items, so I dumped things on top of the open tax folder. (Emptying my meeting bag / paying bills / discussing the budget / clearing my night table / general tidying.) If I had put the folder back in the cabinet, or not put the large things in my inbasket, it would be much easier to restart my taxes! I would also have more clear area on my desk, so it would have been easier to pay bills.

Don, it sounds like your bosses read a few books on Agile, but are focusing on the system instead of the results. I saw a lot of that in QA systems. If people don't trust a system, or it's difficult to use, they won't use it, or they'll fake it.

Systems should be measured by results, nothing else. If people don't use it, then it isn't getting good results. Also, most of the time the system they actually use works reasonably well. It's better to start with that, then tighten up the loose ends and improve communication. Do not dismantle what's working and parachute in a system that work in theory.

My husband's boss is slowly bringing in parts of Agile, without dismantling the existing system. Thanks to the standup meetings, his coworkers are solving each others problems, rather than always coming to him. I don't think they have a formal kanban board, but the programmers and QA know what's coming, so QA doesn't get a dozen urgent projects at the same time. Shorter sprints are moving things through the departments more smoothly, and he's more able to say, "This sprint, I'm working on this complex project, next sprint I'll tackle the file of quick requests." Since the value and status of each story is public knowledge, Sales knows why the developers are working on overall improvements rather than customizations.

However, any Agile procedures that don't make things better (after a reasonable trial) are modified and retested, or tossed. (Yes, we know how lucky he is to work there.)

Several of my procedures included "We don't do it the way auditors assume because..." (more formally phrased, of course) Auditors should stick with the procedures as written (which they should have read and approved before the audit), but often they'd assume we did it the usual way, and that paragraph gave my coworkers the confidence they needed to say, "No, we do it this way."

I also had a "permission to not follow the procedure" procedure. It was a single page. "I can't (don't want to) follow procedure X because Y. I want to do Z instead." It had to be approved by someone who knew the system, or would ask everyone affected. Most of the time, I changed the official procedure to Z. Often, asking others if Z would work led to even more changes. "Since you're already changing the form, can you add this? And take out that?"

The goal is a system that works, not something that looks impressive.
March 23, 2018 at 14:23 | Registered CommenterCricket