MSEL: The Jen Hewett guide to managing it all (well, almost all)

Since I’ve started consulting, I’ve found that I’ve become more organized than ever. I’m not a naturally organized person – I have an unusually good memory that I relied on until my late twenties – but I developed a love of simplicity and systems at a pretty young age. This probably (okay, mostly) stems from the fact that I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember. With anxiety, you can do one of two things: ignore what makes you anxious until it’s ballooned out of control, or create a time and a place for all the little things that stress you out so that they look manageable.

I, of course, chose the latter.
The way I see it, there are three reasons that we don’t prioritize, organize and move forward. The first is a fear of whatever it is we’re supposed to do. The second is plain old laziness (which is really related to the first, but that’s a story for another post). And the third is that we’re just overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done.
Assuming that you’re not lazy (and if you’re self-employed or contemplating self-employment, then you’re certainly not), you’re probably dealing with the first and the third issues. I’ll deal with that first issue – fear – another time. Today, I’ll share a really simple tool I use for organizing myself so that I’m not overwhelmed by everything I need to do.
My secret? Post-it notes! 

I love post-its (and no, I’m not being sponsored by 3M, but if 3M would like to send me a truckload of post-its – and preferably the mini size in a variety of bright colors– I wouldn’t refuse that delivery). My organizational method is similar to the old “post-it-on-the-computer-monitor” method, except that I stick them all into a notebook – an organized notebook.
As you may know, in addition to being a working artist, I also work for a number of small food manufacturers as an HR consultant. This means at any given time, I have tasks for at least three clients that need to be managed, as well as tasks for blogging and printing. I tried at first to use the task list feature of Google Calendars – too much work to manage, especially when I was on the bus or in a client meeting and didn’t have my computer in front of me. I’d also toyed with TeuxDeux, which is beautifully simple. It was, however, too simple for my needs and still required a computer. To-do lists were just problematic – I was constantly moving tasks from one page to the next, which took too much time. In a fit of inspiration, I settled on a simple, inexpensive solution that uses a notebook (free swag from a gym I never joined), a pack of mini post-it notes (under $3.00 for a colorful pack), and a pen. Yes, folks, that’s it. For a few bucks and very little setup time, you can become a master of task management.
Here’s what I’ve done:
1.  In one notebook, I set up two facing pages for each of my clients. A spiral notebook is best because it lies flat when open. I have a separate notebook for my art stuff, but could easily incorporate that into one notebook if I wanted to.
2.  Every time I have a new task that needs to be accomplished, I write it on a post-it note. If it’s pressing, I put it on the left page. If it can wait a couple of weeks, I put it on the right side. The beauty of this is that if I’m working with one client and think of something that needs to be done for another, I jot the task on a post-it, flip to that client’s section, and stick it on the appropriate page.
3.  When I sit down to work for one of my clients, I open my notebook to their special section. I can see laid out in front of me everything that needs to be done. As I complete a task, I remove the post-it note and throw it away (ah, closure). The goal is to have an empty page by the end of the day.
4.  After I’ve completed a bunch of tasks, leaving the left page almost clear, I can start moving post-its from the right page to the left page.
5.  On the inside back cover of my notebook, I stick a bunch of blank post-it notes so that I always have them handy. This notebook travels with me from one client site to another.

6.  If I go somewhere without my notebook, I’ll jot things onto post-it notes (I keep a pack in my purse) and then will stick them into my notebook when I’ve returned to it.
There is absolutely nothing fancy about this. I don’t even color code the post-its. One of my beefs with most organizational systems is that they force you to do something that feels like extra work, a chore.  I prefer a system that requires almost no maintenance and no special equipment.
Now, there are other things that help me stay organized: I have scheduled days to work on-site with clients, I use Google calendars (which syncs with my iPhone calendar) to schedule appointments, and  I’m really strict with schedules and work-life boundaries. But that’s information for another post. Get yourself organized first and then we can talk about building a structure around your time. But this is a start – and it’s a pretty good one, no?
If you try this system and have questions, comments, successes, challenges, post in the comments. If you have an especially beautiful notebook, send me photos! Maybe we’ll start a flickr group.

Like this organization tool? Check out how I used post-it notes to keep myself vaguely organized on vacation in this post!

86 thoughts on “MSEL: The Jen Hewett guide to managing it all (well, almost all)”

  1. I am always jotting stuff down on post-its and then transferring it to a daily to-do. That takes time. I found a picture of your blog on which led me here. This is a great idea, I can use it and cut down on my list and schedule time. Thank you!

  2. This is so great and so simple. I can’t remember hw I found myself here but it started with a conversation about lists somewhere on Facebook. I glad I had that conversation!

  3. Love your idea and especially the cute small size :)

    I remember reading something like this in a book once and I tried it for about a week or two. It worked very well but I was using the standard post-its and my pages got too cluttered. I think I should give it another bash, though.

    I’m going to check out the rest of your site now.

    Greetings from South Africa

  4. love this idea! i, too, have many tasks for various clients as well as personal hobbies that manage – this looks like a solution that may work well for me. i did/do have notebooks with sections, but i always eventually run out of paper sooner in one section or other, or it gets to looking messy with lists crossed out after tasks are completed etc.

    i found my way here via pinterest and promptly re-pinned your post to my ‘organizing solutions’ pinterest board for future reference!

    thanks for sharing!



  5. dear jen,
    thanks so much for this post, which i found on pinterest. :) it’s actually not the first time i’ve read about this system, but seeing it being used for real, by you, is really inspiring for me. especially bec i also work freelance and have different clients, like you do.
    i’ve started employing your system, but instead of on paper, on two home pages of my android phone— one page for “NOW!” and another page for “LATER”! working fine so far, if i don’t end up accumulating too many digital post-its …. :P
    thanks again, and also for your great blog :)

  6. This sounds great except I am afraid that one of the Post-It notes would fall off or something if I ever dropped my notebook or got a big gust of wind (in the cases where I am looking over my list during my downtime on the football field where my daughter has cheerleading practice. Ever happened to you?

  7. You had me at “Post it Notes.”

    Love. This. Idea. I keep what I affectionately refer to as my “handy dandy notebook” on my computer desk at all times, for all my obsessive list-making. Then I have a stack of post-it notes for the tasks that I need to have scream out “DO THIS NOW!” This just puts those 2 things together in perfect harmony. Genius. :)

  8. This is brilliant!
    I just finished reading a book Time Management for Unmanagable people by McGee-Cooper and Trammell. The lady suggests this idea and I went online looking for inspiration.
    You rock!
    Thank you, thank you and THANK YOU!

  9. LOVE this idea!!! After so many years, I’ve bought calendar after calendar, but kept going back to just writing what I wanted into a spiral notebook. What a great addition to my existing plain jane system. (and now I don’t feel like an organizing failure ;) )

  10. I just put your Post-Its Notebook idea to work for me 2 days ago and already I am more productive and better organized. I am a Chef/Food Truck Owner and I am constantly juggling 100 things an hour and this is proving to be a miracle for me. Thank you so much!

  11. Just found this on Pinterest and it appeals to my love of lists, order nd post-it’s. I’ve pulled the post-its, pen and notebook out of the drawer ready to organise my holiday tasks and will be transferring this system to my work life too. I’m a visiual processor and can’t have a whiteboard!

  12. Reading this post was like an “aha” moment for me. I used Post-its in grad school as reminders of tasks and projects I had pending, but for some reason left them behind once I joined the work world. Thanks for reintroducing me to Post-its, Jen!

  13. Oh I LOVE this! I have also looked at TeuxDeux and I am currently “using” ColorNote. However, I find that ultimately, I still love pen and paper. And I also have a soft spot for Post-its….especially all the lovely more expensive colours…
    I am going to adopt this idea.
    It will work so well, because I just hate mess, so if I have something on a page, but it’s in the wrong place and I can’t move it tidily…I end up wasting time and procrastinating with new list writing…….fabulous! Thank you for sharing! :)

  14. You are a GENIUS, Jen! I can’t manage a planner, no matter how much I try. Your method appears to be something that I can handle, and will meet my “visual” needs as well. (I hope you don’t mind that I pinned one picture, to link back to your blog. I just think everyone needs to see your brilliance!)

    Thanks for sharing!

  15. This is GENIUS!! Saw it initially on Pinterest prior to coming to your blog to read more about it. I, too, have tried a million different systems, but just as you’ve said, they’ve all ultimately failed because it takes too much time to make them work. And despite having all the latest gadgets, I still prefer putting pen on paper if for no other reason that writing something down helps it stick in my brain. Thank you so much for sharing this – I can’t wait to give it a go!

  16. This sounds like a great system! I love post-its, but they are currently floating around in my purse. Not ideal. I found you through Learn + Explore + Share. Looking forward to reading more of your posts! – Tricia

  17. I was directed to this page from Pinterest. I looove this idea!! I will start this plan tomorrow! I usually right out my to-do lists each day, because I like the gratification of marking things off when I accomplish a task. But the clean page at the end of the day is very gratifying, also! Thanks!

  18. I have been looking for a way to keep organized with my to do list – I am going to do this. THANK YOU SO MUCH! (I found you via A Cultivated Nest’s Pinterest.

  19. this is soooo funny, I started a new job as a case manager with 35 clients last month. I couldn’t begin to figure out how to keep track of all the things I need to do for each of them each day. Plus not only do I need to track issues with 35 clients, I have to track every minute of my day for billing. I started using my spiral notebook and stack of post its, putting each task for the day on one page, then as I finish each, I record the time involved and only when I get the case note/billable time into the computer do I toss the note. Who knew someone else would use the same kind of system.

  20. Thanks so much for the pictures and the article explaining this idea. I’m going to give it a shot. You’re fantastic! :)

  21. thank you. my latest attempt at organizing my to dos is similar to this and your essay I so, so appreciate for i’m on the verge of insanity at my piled-up work right now.

    i’d like to add a 4th reason why we don’t prioritize or move forward is that WE DON’T LIKE WHAT WE DO. It doesn’t align with our real passions (as the case is with me right now). However, I’m stuck with it for financial reasons. that’s terrible, I know. Am trying to find a way out but the “radical sabbatical” can’t just happen overnight.

  22. This is so great. I use post-its; neon indexcards and spiral notebook for EVERYTHING and never thought to put them together *smh* . Thanks for thinking :)

  23. I absolutely LOVE the simplicity of your system! I am a frustrated, anxious person who wants to get on top of my to-do list….can’t wait to try it! Goodbye endless notebooks and scraps of paper.

  24. I am not a freelancer nor am I self employed. However, I love the simplicity of this and the lack of “rules”. I could make this work at my 15+ year job by putting two squares up in my cubicle and sticking the post it notes on the two squares and moving them back and forth. LOVE IT!

  25. This was the solution that I have looking for! Thanks for sharing. I recently started my own business and was struggling with keeping up with so many tasks for different customers. I have doing this for about 2 weeks and it is a keeper. I decided to use Staples Arc system instead of a plain notebook and it gives me room to brainstorm and sketch ideas.

  26. Pingback: 7 Great ways to use Post It Notes | Organise My House

  27. Pingback: Put a Post-It on your Monitor - She's Got Systems - She's Got Systems

  28. THANK YOU!!!! This has changed my life. I found the pin on Pinterest and finally checked out your post a few weeks ago. I’ve been telling absolutely everyone about it ever since and am planning a blog post on it (I’ll link to yours, if that’s okay.) Seriously, this has saved my life. I have gotten so much done, just in the few weeks I’ve been using my notebook and sticky notes. I feel like a whole new person! Thank you, thank you!

  29. Pingback: Time management made simple | Mum Workshop

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  31. I absolutely love this! Def gonna stock up on post its when I get the chance! Another thing that really helps me out is the Wunderlist app for Android/iOS. The free version is enough for me, a housewife/soon to be student. I keep my to-dos on one list, my shopping list on another (I organize by meal, too!), and the best part is that I can add my husband to the lists! So now he can see what he can take care of for brownie points/add things he needs to take care of! My only issue is that I actually have to get into my ipad to update the list…which I forget about far too frequently. The notebook/post it is a perfect complement!

  32. Great idea. I was just rewriting tasks from Friday onto today as I hadn’t got to all of them, and writing the next few days’ tasks and had a sudden thought ‘Post-Its’, so did a search and found this. This looks great. I might adapt it slightly for my purposes, and so I can have a daily list, rather than looking at individual projects, but thank you. :)

  33. I used to do this when i was in school as i needed to be able to move homework around without feeling bad about it, and be able to feel satisfied when things were checked off and i could see the page empty as the week went on.

    I found a weekly planner with days of the week, i got colorful post it’s for each class and i wrote in deadlines right into the planner with pen. Then i used the post it’s as a checklist.

    I love this idea and as a very chaotic/ disorganized/ distracted, yet SUPER OCD mom— i need this!!!

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