Get organised online

  • Time Stopper - Kenichi Okada (Design Interactions 2008)

Zoe Sutherland, a writer and lecturer in philosophy at Brighton University, on the best online organisational tools to help you cope with deadlines and stay in control of your work

The figure of the disorganised and ineffectual artist, academic or inventor is a well-known cultural cliché, one which emerges, at least in part, from the unique character of their work. The task of conceptualising and constructing an artwork, product or piece of writing can often seem a rather chaotic process, which is not particularly suited to the techniques of ‘organisation’ and ‘time management’ familiar to the business world. It is not always clear, for example, if and how artistic or academic projects can be broken down into smaller tasks or arranged into a methodical order, and it is often difficult to impose the same kind of deadlines upon them: you cannot always simply ‘produce’ thoughts and ideas on demand. 

Indeed, imposing such organisational frameworks on art or design work can often feel inappropriate and can stifle the very process that creates it. However, this does not mean that organisational techniques are completely irrelevant. After all, the reality is that there are still strict external deadlines that have to be met, which requires a certain degree of self-organisation and internal deadline setting. Whilst some people may be able to work without imposing any structure or using any timetables, this is definitely not the norm. Playing the role of the romantic chaotic genius is just not conducive to finishing a large-scale project, even though the performance might yield small bursts of inspiration. 

Over the past few years an abundance of online organisational tools have appeared on the web to help both individuals and groups to structure their projects and meet their deadlines. The basic convenience of having a centralised online system is that you no longer have to work with loose scraps of paper, sticky notes and to-do lists written on napkins and the advantage they have over simple online calendars, such as iCal, is that they are mostly designed to let you break down your project into distinct parts or stages. This is good because quite often, what is overwhelming about big tasks is that in their entirety they just seem insurmountable. Once you begin breaking them down into small steps that will lead to the completion of the final task it becomes easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

However, the more significant benefit is that such systems encourage you to make your task lists more public by sharing them with a wider network of people, such as colleagues, supervisors, parents or friends. In the absence of real imposed structure, some of these tools and applications can definitely help in making you feel a little more in control of what might otherwise be overwhelming workloads and can also prevent feelings of isolation. This applies as much to work in an art and design context as it does to anything else.  

The free service is quite a basic example of an online organisational tool. It allows you to add projects and to break them down into separate tasks, each with their own deadline attached. Todoist seems like it would be most helpful in the case of there being one single task to complete which has clear and definite stages, such as an essay. However, the only thing that really distinguishes it from writing a list of things to do on a piece of paper is the fact that, much like iCal or the Yahoo calendar, it sends a ‘daily digest’ to your email account reminding you of those deadlines. If you are willing to upgrade to the premium service for $29 a year, various other features become available, such as the ability to attach reports, to track your progress, to add sticky labels according to theme and to access your information through ical.  

This provides a similarly quite basic free service. It allows you to add and organise a variety of tasks depending upon whether they are due today, this week or just ‘sometime’, giving you the option to add exact dates and times for each deadline. You can highlight different tasks with different colours, allowing you to organise them according to what specific kind of task it is and you can also add notes, reports and tags, which help you to keep track of your own progress. It also gives you the option of linking it up to iCal.   

Remember the Milk
Considerably more sophisticated, combining the formats of both an interactive diary and a social media forum. It allows you to compartmentalise the different aspects of your tasks, depending on whether they are for ‘work’ or ‘study’, your social obligations or simply remembering to buy the milk.The social media dimension encourages you to invite people to join and to set up contact lists and groups for the sake of sharing your to do lists. This is very helpful because it offers an external and social dimension, which can lend either the pressure or the support required to finish tasks, and can thus prevent procrastination and feelings of isolation.You can share or publish your lists, updating people with your progress or alerting the group that you have finished your section of the project. It advertises itself as helpful to teachers and parents in tracking student assignments. However, it would equally be useful in the case of university students, who can share their schedules with their supervisor. Constructing such a network of shared and public responsibility may just help to prevent the feeling of isolation that often results from such work. However, the ever-present looming threat of the ‘postpone’ option on each task might be too tempting for some. 

Tom's Planner
As well as being a sophisticated schedule planner, Tom’s Planner is essentially an entire website dedicated to various issues and techniques relevant to organisation, offering a range of articles and blogs on this topic. Recognising that distinct kinds of tools might be needed for different tasks, the site offers a variety of specialised templates that have been custom made by experts, depending upon what kind of thing needs organising—a wedding, a work project, a conference, a house rental, or web design. Tom’s Planner uses Gantt charts, a kind of colourful bar chart that arranges both terminal and summary moments of a planned project. The schedules are extensive, allowing you to micro-manage each day of the project—down to each five minutes—and to share information with collaborators or import and export between different applications.The interface is very user friendly and allows for easy interactivity, operating with a ‘drag and drop’ function that allows you to very easily add, modify and extend tasks. Though this particular schedule definitely has an aesthetic you might expect to find in business, it offers the complexity necessary to manage large-scale tasks with many overlapping and connecting elements.     

Solo is an online management tool specifically for freelance designers. It offers a 10 day free trial but then costs £5 a month to use. It is specially designed to allow you to zoom between either a broad view of the whole project or a wider time frame, to individual aspects or tasks or to specific weeks or days. This is useful for large intellectual or artistic projects, where it can often be difficult to hold the short term and long term deadlines together. The website is still in its early stages of development, thus it tells us that certain features such as document uploads, client log-ins, blogs and messaging are ‘coming soon’, but it has the potential to be a useful site that is simultaneously attractive and easy to navigate.   

Zoe Sutherland is a writer and academic. She teaches philosophy at Brighton University.