If you manage multiple projects and activities at one time, you’re probably using a variety of tools on your computer to keep organized: to-do lists; folders; files; calendars; and apps, such as Evernote, electronic Post-Its, mind maps, etc. But at some point using multiple tools just adds to the confusion; you now need to figure out which tool to use for what activity, adding even more challenges.
If you use files and folders, you’ll experience one of the limitations of the computer’s file structure: It’s a linear system, and it's difficult to associate the same file with different activities.
I’ve tried many of the options listed above, trying to track different activities with one application, going way back to Lotus Agenda. What I’ve found works best is TheBrain, originally called Personal Brain.
I’ve been trying out the latest version of TheBrain 7.0, a software program that helps you manage everything in one place from one screen. TheBrain provides a visual representation of all of your activities, much like a mind map, making it much easier to visualize all of your projects, yet allowing you to focus in on any one of them, much in the way we think. Compared to a mind map, TheBrain has more flexibility for viewing and managing activities, and overall is much more powerful. I’ve used TheBrain to manage clients, organize files, track projects and create to-do lists.
One of the major benefits of TheBrain is that you can combine all sorts of disparate activities, as unrelated as they may be, onto one page, yet focus in on one specific area at one time. You feel in control of all of your activities because they are all there on a single page.
For example, let's suppose you want to keep track of the activities associated with your clients, as well as personal activities and planning an event.
You’ll create three items — Clients, Personal and Event, called thoughts, using TheBrain’s parlance — below the main title, such as "PhilsActivities." When you click on Clients, it becomes the dominant main thought, just as it would be in real life. Personal and Event fade into the background, allowing you to move them out of your mind and to focus on just Clients.
You next add all of your clients’ names below the Client thought with just a few keystrokes. These “daughter” thoughts are each connected to “Client” with a line to show the relationship. If you have 10 clients, their names will each be below the Clients thought.
You can now add items below each client, such as contact information, activities, follow-ups, etc. You can also link additional information to any of these thoughts, such as Web addresses, spreadsheets, email or documents of any kind. This feature allows you to click on a client to see a list of important documents, rather than searching for them in your file folders.
When you’re working on a single client, that becomes the dominant thought, and everything else on the page fades to the background. You can choose to make everything disappear or just shrink.
I use this feature to “park” an item of importance in the right place so that I can easily find it and use it later on, in the context of everything around it.
David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done,” a terrific book on personal productivity, refers this activity as clearing your mind and getting it out of your head: “First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come regularly back and sort through.” Allen’s central premise is the relief we experience by moving our tasks outside of our mind to be able to focus on what’s at hand.
TheBrain is in use by half of the Fortune 100 organizations and has been downloaded more than a million times, according to the company. It said that one user has built a brain with more than 160,000 thoughts.
When I met with Harlan Hugh, the inventor of TheBrain, a few years ago, he told me that he wanted to make a product that works the way we work, rather than requiring us to work the way our computer does. He’s succeeded. If you feel you need to do a better job of managing all of your tasks, I’d recommend trying it out. Watch the online videos and try it out for a week or two. There’s a free sample version at its site. ($219, thebrain.com)
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.