How To Use a Whiteboard to Stay Organized

After posting a picture of my newly constructed standing desk on Instagram a few weeks ago somebody asked me about how I use the whiteboard mounted behind the desk. I typed out a response but it was long and I had to skip over a lot of the details as to why I use my whiteboard the way I do. Needless to say, it needed an article-length response -- not a comment. Thus, here is my incredibly in-depth system for using a whiteboard that is mounted directly behind my desk.

The Main Areas

My whiteboard is broken into 6 main areas:

1. 3-4 month goals: These are the things I'm trying to accomplish over the next 3-4 months. Every week I should be making progress on at least 1 or 2 of these goals. They are updated at the end of the 3-4 month cycle.

2. Weekly hard landscape: This is a list of the appointments and meetings I have for the upcoming week along with the times at which they are happening. The only things that go on this list are activities where I'm expected to be somewhere or doing something at a specific time.

3. Weekly flex landscape: This is how I intend to spend the rest of my work week that isn't taken up with hard landscape activities. I estimate how long each task will take and write it next to the activity. I try not to schedule more than 7 hours between hard and flex activities each day because a.) I'd prefer not to work crazy hours if possible and b.) I need to leave flexibility in my schedule to respond to urgent requests.

4. Percolating projects: This is where I put projects I think I might want to start soon but I'm not 100% sure. At the very least I don't want them to disappear from my awareness so I stick them in the corner of the whiteboard and review them weekly.

5. Weekly goals: This is the criteria for whether or not I had a productive week. If I met my weekly goals then the mission was accomplished.

6. Motivational reminder: I like to stick some sort of pithy motivational reminder at the top of the whiteboard so I see it everyday. My current one (work = time spent x intensity) is courtesy of Cal Newport and has been up there for at least 3 or 4 months. It's a good reminder to not get sucked into the "hours worked = productivity" mindset.

How It Evolves Throughout the Week

I reset my whiteboard during my Weekly Review every Sunday afternoon. However, it's not that I only touch the whiteboard on a weekly basis. Instead, it's constantly evolving and changing based on how my week goes. First, I cross out hard landscape and flex items as I accomplish them. This gives me a nice sense of progress as I proceed through the week. If I don't get to a flex item on the day I scheduled it I'll often draw a box around it and put a star next to it. This lets me know that it's a day behind and I should probably get it done ASAP.

I try to avoid scheduling meetings and appointments for the week I'm currently in but sometimes it's inevitable. When that happens I'll write them into the hard landscape or draw arrows if something is being rescheduled within the week.

On the right hand side that is currently wide open I'll add urgent items with imminent deadlines. Sometimes someone will ask me to do something that isn't possible to have seen coming and scheduled into my weekly flex time. For example, sometimes a colleague will email me something to look at on Wednesday and they'd like to have my feedback by Friday. On the right hand side I'll often add a reminder to get that taken care of and will then cross it off once I finish it.

On Friday afternoon I'll take an index card and jot down the chores and activities I want to complete over the weekend. You may think this sounds way too structured when it comes to taking time to relax but I've found that my weekends are much more rejuvenating when I take a few minutes to think ahead and write down what I'd like to do. For example, last Friday I wrote down the titles of a couple magazines I wanted to read, a reminder to check out the video game I bought on sale earlier in the week, and a couple of life chores that I needed to get done (laundry and grocery shopping). I like writing this stuff on an index card because it can be kind of a pain to write that much stuff into the area I allot for Saturday and Sunday on the whiteboard itself. I'll then stick that index card near the bottom of the whiteboard with a magnet where Saturday and Sunday's hard landscape is written.

The Weekly Review

A significant portion of my Weekly Review is taken up a.) reviewing the previous week's completed whiteboard (what didn't get finished? did any hard landscape items get rescheduled to the upcoming week? did I make progress on any summer goals? did I meet my weekly goals? do I want to activate any percolating projects?) and resetting it for the upcoming week. Resetting the whiteboard consists of writing the hard landscape for the upcoming week, seeing how much time I have leftover after accounting for my hard landscape responsibilities (40 hours - time committed to hard landscape) and making a list of the other work I'd like to accomplish this week (the flex landscape). Then I try to slot that work into my available days in a logical way taking into consideration due dates, and amount of available time (i.e. don't schedule a bunch of writing tasks in a day where I have a bunch of hard landscape commitments). I round out prepping my whiteboard for the upcoming week by writing my 3-4 weekly goals in the bottom right corner.

Is this excessive? For me, no. Through months of trial and error I've refined this system to be as useful as possible for the way I work. I like being able to see my week at a glance in terms of meetings/appointments and the work I intend to do. I also like having the higher perspective areas (weekly goals, 3-4 month goals, percolating projects) that allow me to not get buried in the weeds and ensure I'm moving in the right direction.

Do you think something like this will work for you? If you give it a try I'd love to hear how it goes and if you have any questions feel free to drop a comment and I'll go into greater detail about anything I do here (and/or why).