how i work - february 2016

Alli Grant Est. 7 minutes (1308 words)
Quick overview of the tools I use to Get Stuff Done as of February 2016.

I sometimes get questions about how I keep things in my life organized. I’ve tried various tools and apps, and the main lesson I’ve gotten from trying to use a single tool for everything is that life is complicated. What may be a flawless tool for one use case is an endless source of frustration for another, making me want to avoid using it for anything. Any source of friction makes it that much harder to keep momentum when you’re dealing with executive dysfunction issues, meaning that some of these might not see daily use even though they’re incredibly valuable for the roles they do serve.

All of the tools below have at the very least a functional web version and typically additional Android and Windows apps, since the best way to make a habit out of them in my life is to make sure that they’re ready to use whenever I may need them. Integrations are a plus–the fewer places I have to check for things, the better, so they tend to work together and with my other services well.

To-do Lists


Wunderlist is where I track all of my simple tasks, repeated reminders, deadlines, and groceries. If it’s something actionable I need to keep an eye on, it’s in Wunderlist. It’s available everywhere and syncs nicely, with an incredibly friendly API.

Bills and medication refills make great use of monthly repeated tasks, but they’re not the only things that benefit. Laundry? Litter box cleaning? It sounds a bit silly, but reminders to do chores like those help fight off the mental fatigue from having too much to remember. The additional benefit for Wunderlist here is that a task will continually display until it gets checked off, unlike a normal calendar event. Groceries (and home supplies) get added into a list as they run out, making it easy to add to my shopping list and be sure to have it with me.

Actionable is the key to everything that goes in Wunderlist. When I open it, I’m either dealing with my immediate agenda or adding something to it for later. Wunderlist has some simple natural language processing for picking out due dates on most platforms, keeping it out of the way when adding tasks. If I can’t come up with discrete steps for something that I need to do, it’s not quite ready for Wunderlist yet in my workflow. Subtasks, attachments, and notes all exist in the world of Wunderlist, but they’re a bit clunky.

Short Notes

Google Keep,

I was hesitant to start using Keep since every Google service I use other than Gmail seems to come to an abrupt end, but I’m happy that I’ve brought it in. Keep’s UI is a wall of sticky notes, and that’s exactly how I use it. You can re-arrange them, stick different colors on them, and archive them when you’re done. Wunderlist may get all of my actionable reminders, but Keep gets the random daily thoughts. Band recommendation? Movie to check out? Restaurant? Quick checklist for a take out order? I probably entered it in Keep to remind myself later.

This is the tool I’m the least happy with, for a simple reason: integration. Like Wunderlist, Keep has reminders and due dates but no ability to really use them outside of Google’s ecosystem. Getting a reminder on my phone is useful, but outside of Keep or Google Now, that’s the only place I get it.

Long Notes / Drafts

Microsoft OneNote,

OneNote is the longest used tool on this list for me–It was my default program for notes in high school and college, and honestly, my use of it hasn’t changed much. Meeting notes work great in OneNote, and unlike a text editor, it’s actually usable on my phone or tablet. It’s not necessarily part of OneNote, but Microsoft’s Office Lens for Android simplifies “scanning” whiteboards and has the option to save directly into a new page. Getting actual readable copies of a whiteboard alongside the notes for the meeting it came from? It’s a feature that’s saved me from having to dig through and rename whiteboard thumbnails countless times.

I also use it to draft posts and outlines–I hate opening Word for those, and unfortunately plain text just isn’t the easiest to work with on Android. OneNote’s tabs and pages are a plus here, along with its quick tables.

The quick notes functionality is nice in a pinch (especially with Windows 10’s integration) but they’re still less accessible than similar quick notes in Keep. Any quick note that ends up in OneNote is probably lost forever, like any other old notebook that collects random snippets.

Project Management


For my workflow, Trello might as well be called the Wunderlist Incubator. Trello gets the actionable items that are too big or without a definitive end date–such as purchase planning, figuring out a move, or coding projects.

I have a catch-all “To Do” board for things too minor to warrant their own, filled with not-fleshed-out things I want to investigate further. These get covered in attachments, comments, and labels as the idea gets more fleshed out, sometimes resulting in a checklist of action items. If the project gets big enough, it might get moved to its own board–tiny code projects all share a single board for feature tracking and only get distinguished by their labels.

Purchases are similar. I’ve got a “Needs” board to research purchases where there are more options than I can handle. Trello gives me an easy way to keep quick comments organized on what sort of laptop or mattress I might want to end up with and organize the needs based on room and urgency.

While I hate using Wunderlist’s attachments and sublists, I absolutely love Trello for them. Multiple checklists are easy to add, copy, delete, and most importantly, actually check items off. Of everything on this list, Trello comes the closest to being a one stop tool–It has a good visual metaphor with its cards similar to Keep’s sticky notes and supports checklists and due dates like I would want in a to-do program. Unfortunately, trying to use it exclusively makes the edges of both of those use cases stick out.


Sunrise Calendar,

This is the glue that makes this all doable. Sunrise integrates with absolutely everything you could imagine–Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar, Facebook, Wunderlist, Trello, Meetup, LinkedIn, Twitter, TripIt, you name it–as long as you don’t name it Google Keep.

Sunrise is a great calendar aggregator with lots of small polish that makes it an absolute delight to use. Based on the name or location of an entry, it picks a related icon to add a bit of flair to your agenda views. Clicking on an entry in either the site or the app gives an easy way to get directions, days get quick snippets about the weather, and scrolling through the agenda gives a rough indicator of how far you are away from the current day. These are all small but wonderful things that make this probably my favorite calendar app I’ve ever used. It always feels like an odd thing to have a strong opinion about, but at the same time, most people I show it to quickly feel like switching.

And they also make me incredibly sad that the individual apps are no longer being updated. Sunrise was acquired by Microsoft (as was Wunderlist!) in 2015 and announced that the mobile apps are being folded into the respective Outlook apps for both Android and iOS. All of the integrations that exist in Sunrise aren’t quite in Outlook for Mobile yet, though everything that has been added is the same as it is in Sunrise itself. Assuming that these features get ported, I’ll probably switch eventually–until then, for now Sunrise still works great.