Staying on top of life’s tasks can be overwhelming. Post-It notes disappear beneath the fridge; long-term goals get punted downfield, bouncing into the weeds. That’s no surprise, given all the activities of a busy life, plus the huge amounts of information we all consume daily. Tracking tasks for work, fun, travel, and hobbies is enough to short out C3PO, and some aspirations inevitably drift away into the mist like an unmoored boat.
As my friend Sean says, there are only seven days in the week, and Someday isn’t one of them. It’s easy to put off mailing that passport renewal app, delay signing up for Spanish or guitar lessons, or procrastinate starting your dream side business.
To help people avoid looking back at a giant pile of Somedays, I always recommend one powerful tool.
It’s called The Secret Weapon (TSW). TSW is a free technique that helps me organize my life, stops things from slipping through the cracks, and empowers me to execute on both annoying to-dos as well as bigger projects. Like most good things in my life, my wonderful wife brought it to my attention. The Secret Weapon is now the cornerstone for organizing all the information and tasks that cross my path, and I use it both professionally and personally. I am sharing my experience in hopes that you will benefit as much as I have.
What Is The Secret Weapon?
Simply put, TSW is a combination of Evernote and the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Evernote is a web, phone and computer app that allows you to easily clip, save, record or otherwise archive information of any type. GTD is a popular technique introduced by productivity consultant David Allen that moves planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and breaking them into actionable work items.
TSW merges technology and work-flow techniques. In the words of its creators, who created the free system as a project within their company (BrainToniq), the Secret Weapon is:
A free organizational methodology for both professional and personal aspects of life that re-organizes emails, ideas, and every to-do big and small into one system that stays synchronized across a person’s computers as well as their smart phones.
Deploying TSW allows me to keep track of personal and business tasks for both near-term and distant timelines without taxing my brain with stuff that clutters the corners and makes my eyes glaze over. TSW organizes my life into discrete chunks to manage tasks, whether it’s getting a spare key copied, negotiating business contracts or organizing information for a big future bucket list trip like cycling the Continental Divide. I also track of quotes and book passages while I’m reading, clipping all my ebook highlights and importing them into Evernote for easy reference. You can use TSW for anything!
What does this look like? Here’s a sample section of my list prior to departing for Utah in late March, sorted for most pressing actions (1-Now, in TSW parlance). This is just part of the list – I’d wager most of you have similar things bumping around in your head that wake you up at night slapping your forehead. “AH, I forgot to drop the bike off for a tune up!” By referencing this list every morning as our trip approached, we whittled down tasks until we were ready to launch for more fun.
It’s Easier Than It Looks!
Not gonna lie: it took me awhile to start using TSW. I used Gmail’s task feature for years and thought it worked great. I’d type in tasks, handle pressing or easy items, and delete the ones that slipped to the bottom of the list. This worked well in some respects, but wasn’t ideal. It was task management by fire fighting: spraying the biggest flames and praying small, untended fires would go out.
The power of TSW became apparent in 2013 when we were prepping our house so we could travel, building out the van, handling business changes, and generally burying ourselves with a stack of tasks taller than Paul Bunyan on growth hormones. With an endless pile of to-dos, my simple Gmail-based task system blew up into a hairy snarl of too much to do and no way to prioritize anything. We needed to crank out a serious volume of work, and our tenants’ arrival grew closer.
Enter TSW. I watched the free video tutorials that walked me through setting up GTD with Evernote , and dialed in The Secret Weapon system, which continues to deliver value to this day. Chelsea herded me along, focusing my efforts with skill a pyramid-building Egyptian foreman would envy. Maybe we were sweeping the front porch as our new tenants rolled up to the house, but we got it done! I’ve used TSW ever since. (I’ll say it again: this may sound complicated, but the video tutorials are short, easy to understand, and walk you through everything step-by-step. You don’t even have to be Type A – TSW can help anyone!)
The key to realizing TSW’s full potential was creating a habit for each morning. After my morning reading, meditation, and writing routine, I cue up Evernote, brain dump tasks on my mind, and then scan for things to accomplish that day. As a rule, I immediately handle anything that takes less than two minutes, unless that item requires some research or coordination of some kind. In a few minutes, I’ve got my day’s road map.
The Secret Weapon – An Example
For a concrete example of how TSW works, let’s use the van buildout that I completed over the course of a few months in late summer 2013. This was an intimidating, time consuming, and complicated task. Put “build out the Sprinter van” on the task list and you’ll get to it later than “sort Tupperware lids.”
Instead, I broke everything down into smaller chunks and actions. Every pending item for the van was tagged with “Sprinter,” and then given a When/Where/Who designation. Once everything was chunked up, it was a simple matter to add tasks based on priority, location (pick up at Home Depot) or who (me, Chelsea, or hiring someone, if needed). Over the course of a few months, hundreds of tasks were researched, parts and components purchased, and the project was methodically completed in time for departure. (To be clear, “methodically” also involves me running about in a frenzy the last week.)
Here’s a shot from the “Sprinter” tag that I just pulled from Evernote, since we still have items we plan on updating or repairing. A metal trip strip on our counter just ripped off, for example, and needs to repaired soon, hence the “1-Now” priority designation. If I decide something should be handled later, I can move it to 2-Next, or kick it way down the line to 5-Someday.
This may seem complicated. It’s not. Once you get in a good workflow, maintaining this system from your computer or phone becomes a routine like brushing your teeth. The morning check-in prioritizes my day, and then I add or update items as needed, plus a late afternoon scan and update. I’ve never felt more on top of things, even with my life pulled in many directions these days between managing investment properties, remotely handling my business and employees, writing this blog, and arranging our travel plans and friend meetups. And sneaking off to mountain bike for hours at a time, of course.
If you’re looking for a straight-forward technique for managing your life, look no further than The Secret Weapon. Not only is it totally free, I guarantee it will increase your productivity, get you to the fabled Inbox Zero, and help “free” time really be free time. No more wasting minutes searching for lost info, or forgetting that small detail that hangs up a business deal at the last minute. You’re going to crank that stuff out and have time to focus on writing that book, starting a side business, or finally organizing all the photos from high school.
Head over to TheSecretWeapon.org now and get rolling! The tutorials are broken into bite-size snippets that are easy to fit in over the course of a week. If you have tips or other systems that you utilize to streamline your life, please shoot me an email or share with others in the comments.