Post-Its and a Folder

April 30, 2006


In my last post I talked about working in an Operations team to help the care and feeding of a large distributed software application. The challenge was making sure every bolt was tightened and nothing fell through the cracks. Lots of firefighting, “remember to check this in 3 hours”, “email so-and-so and wait for a reply”, “update that batch file”, “don’t forget to call Frank”, etc.

The first two days of this had me floundering. I tried using GTD techniques, emailing myself every time a task came up, processing things when I got back to my desk, scheduling reminders on my calendar, etc. None of it worked.

Why? Well:

As a result, I got very frustrated and forgot to do a lot of things.

So I came up with the Manilla Folder method. It started with sticky notes at the bottom of my monitor of things I had to remember to do. Then, to be more mobile (and professional) it moved to the inside of an open manilla folder.

Who needs it?

First, think of everything you should be doing Right Now. If you feel pulled in 5 different directions (like a working mother with triplets) then you need it. (If, on the other hand, you are getting pulled in one direction, and your problem is that you need more speed, then this will not help you.)

For most people, having more than one task that must be done Right Now is frustrating because our brains just weren’t built to juggle so many things at one time. We can handle one or two tasks. Once we hit three or four tasks we panic. We feel suffocated. Things slip out of the mind. Just like humans can remember 7 digit numbers relativey easily, but stumble at 8 or 9, we do well with two tasks that must be done ASAP but stumble at three or four. We get anxious, frustrated, and forgetful.

This is where the manilla folder comes in. The goal is to aid your brain in coping with your high priority tasks so that you can focus on actually doing the work quickly. Just like GTD, it will give you a sense of enormous well-being by freeing up your psychic RAM. Or whatever.

How It Works

First, grab a file folder and open it. Hold it horizontally (wider rather than taller).

Label the left side of the folder “Active”. Here you will stick the tasks you are actively working on.

Label the right side “Waiting”. Here you will stick tasks that someone else needs to finish before you can act on them. Examples: You are waiting for an email from Jones before you go ahead with deployment. You are waiting for the 14 GB database backup file to finish copying to another server. You are waiting for Bob to return from his afternoon meeting to ask him a question.

Note, when I say “stick tasks” above, I mean it literally. Grab a stack of 3” x 3” Post-It notes.

Write one task per note (just 3 to 5 words, and today’s date) and put it on the Active side. When the task becomes something you are waiting for then move it to the Waiting side.

If your manilla folders are the same size as mine, you will quickly notice that you’ve only got room for 6 active tasks and 6 waiting tasks. This is all part of the plan. If you find yourself loading up more than 6 tasks on the Active side, you are deluding yourself. Either you are not working on the task right now, or you are wasting time by switching tasks too frequently. If this is the case, hold a quick prioritization session, put tasks 7, 8, and 9 into your Outlook Tasks list, and work on the six important tasks. Once you clear those out, hold another prioritization session. Forcing yourself to work on a reasonable number of things at one time is half the battle in reducing frustration.

For the technically inclined, you want to picture this manilla folder as the Windows Taskbar of your brain.

Also, when you are done with a task, don’t toss it. Stack up completed notes on your desk and flip through them before your next status meeting. If you are like me, when you are in this mode it feels like you spent all day working furiously with very little tangible results, or at least less tangible results than a day’s worth of coding gives you. Saving a list of your completed tasks will help you with this.

The Laws of the Manilla Folder (Summary):

Finally, remember that this will not work for everything. It is best for situations where your schedule is not your own, but rather dictated by multiple outside forces. If every day feels like a Whack-a-mole game at an arcade, this will be helpful. Otherwise, it probably won’t.

« Back