As developers, we tend to be very detailed and organized when it comes to our professional requirements. We take detailed notes in meetings, are very strict about following our team’s Scrum processes, and do our best to provide good documentation and worthy commit messages as we make changes.
These are all important in their own regard, but as your career progresses you’ll find that there are little things that start to get in the way. Things like a jumble of important screenshots or documents piled up on your desktop or in your downloads folder, years and years of notes with no folder/tag structure, or an email inbox of thousands of unnecessary emails can make simple actions in your day very daunting.
In this article, I will share what I’ve done to solve this.
Why does any of this really matter, you might be wondering.
In my experience, the major difference between any tech lead and the senior developer has been the tech lead’s ability to retrieve information about platforms, tech, or the company quickly and efficiently.
For most of my career, I assumed that these individuals were just a special breed of genius that I could never hope to aspire to, however as my career progressed I found myself in situations where I could feasibly answer complicated questions of that nature. I couldn’t answer these purely out of memory every time, but I knew how to quickly and efficiently find the answer. Whether it was recalling a decision made in a meeting 6 months ago, or reminding someone why we chose a specific technology for a project; knowing where that decision was recorded and how to search for it quickly became the key. My answers in meetings changed from “let me look that up and get back to you” to just providing the answer on the fly.
If you’re on the cusp of trying to advance your career, this kind of practice could easily make or break that promotion for you.
First, make a list of everything in your work-life that can become hectic or cluttered. Many of these cluttered moments or processes will seem insignificant and it might not seem valuable to correct them, but you’ll notice as the list of clutter gets longer and longer that it can become a much larger problem if left unattended.
I recently started a new job and took the opportunity for a clean slate to instill some very strict organizational guidelines on areas that were cluttered in my previous job such as:
These are areas that I interacted with daily and it was really easy for them to quickly become cluttered. What’s worse, even though they were still completely usable, once cluttered they caused stress to interact with. Sometimes this stress wasn’t apparent. I didn’t have a panic attack every time I opened my email, but having a clean inbox does “hit differently.” I realized that the clutter in these various spaces was causing more stress than I knew.
Some time ago I took a course on making meetings more worthwhile. I was sick of the constant “meetings that could have been an email” and wanted to find ways to optimize my workflow so that my meetings were more impactful and meaningful for all participants.
One of the key takeaways for me was that a meeting should have a single, clearly defined purpose. In my daily life as a developer, or just a human with devices, I find that I end up with lots of important stuff jumbled into a massive pile. This pile is unreadable, it’s stressful, and it’s not purposeful. If you want to be able to easily find anything and everything in your digital world, everything should be stored in a folder structure that has a singular, clearly defined purpose.
Let’s start with the most obvious, and common, issue: email clutter.
I’ve been committed to inbox-zero in my personal account for so many years, that I can’t even remember a time when it wasn’t a “thing” for me. However, at work, I’ve always let my email build.
Inbox-zero is exactly how it sounds: getting to a point where you have 0 emails in your inbox. This doesn’t mean you delete all of your emails, it means you take the time to act on each and every email you receive as it comes in.
Emails that need to be saved can be added to a folder (or “tag” in Gmail) and then archived out of the inbox. Emails that are unnecessary can be deleted. Emails that you absolutely do need to act on but cannot at this time stay in your inbox and are dealt with as soon as you can.
I almost never have more than 5 emails in my inbox, and can usually get back down to 0 by the end of the day, every day.
Until recently, I’ve always felt that I want my work email to be a complete, searchable, documented picture of my time as an employee at [x] company. If a customer asks about a decision that was made in a random meeting two years later, I want to be able to search my email for the notes and provide an answer.
When I started my latest job in March of 2022 I thought long and hard about this desire and came up with two major points that made me chuckle:
When it came down to it, the issue that was preventing me from inbox-zeroing at work was almost nonexistent. It was something I had completely made up and convinced myself was a real issue. After realizing this, I decided that it was MORE important, not less, to inbox-zero my work account.
As with many things, I find the best way to do this is to start broad and get more defined as your needs evolve. Don’t try to overthink the problem and come up with every possible scenario out of the gate, deal with what is in front of you.
Open an email, define its purpose, then create a tag or folder for that purpose. I started with tags and folders for the very obvious buckets: receipts, warranties, bills…etc. Start by going through your mail and filter out all of these messages into your tags by either reading the subject line or scanning each email and defining its purpose. I usually do this manually because I want to review everything before it leaves my inbox, but you can also set up Gmail rules to do this for you as well.
As you walk through this process and your inbox gets smaller, you’ll start to find new buckets that you might need. Internal Comms Emails, Tech Updates, GitHub logs, Jenkins Build Notifications, etc. You’ll also be able to start making some smart decisions on which of these could be automated by some clever email rules, and which ones you want to keep manual so that you can ensure you view the emails before archiving them.
My rule of thumb is that if I push things into a folder without reading them more than once, I can probably set up a rule for it and just review that folder weekly. If I take the time to read the email, I don’t set up a rule lest I forget that the rule exists and end up missing the message.
I think the key here is to take things one step at a time. If you’re looking at an inbox of 2 million emails, it’s going to be incredibly daunting to try to separate all of those into buckets. Start with just a few items that you know you have. move them over, and watch that inbox count start to drop. Before you know it you’ll have a good rhythm and will be on your way to a cleaner inbox.
Some side-effects I’ve noticed from committing to this process over the years that might be of interest are as follows:
I receive far fewer marketing emails: Emails that I instantly delete without even reading more than twice, I unsubscribe from. This has limited the number of marketing emails that I receive just by not ignoring them anymore.
Less stress: When I open my inbox I see only a few actionable emails. If I’m in the process of house-shopping, I might only have notifications of new houses that hit the market that day and can view them that evening. If I had to shop for someone’s birthday, I might only have a few receipts in my email that I need to filter away. Or, on the best nights, I might only have an email from a friend or colleague, or from a subscription that I value that I can read once the day has slowed down. Emails have become [almost] enjoyable.
I don’t fall behind: Every email I receive that requires action is very obvious. They're the only things in my inbox! There are no more missed messages or forgotten processes. Everything is dealt with cleanly, effectively, and in a timely manner.
There when you need it: Lastly, because you have dedicated some time to defining clearly-defined purposes for any email that you need to keep, they’re easy to find. If you need to find that critical business decision made last minute a year ago, you’ll know exactly where to look.
Taking notes is a part of your professional daily life. Or, if it’s not it should be. I use Apple Notes for most of my note-taking, which can be a decent app…but it can also get really cluttered and annoying. It’s easy to use and it syncs to all of my devices so for all non-confidential notes it’s very convenient.
Obviously, when confidentiality is a concern, pick an app approved by your organization. But whatever app you use, you’re going to run into similar problems: a pile of notes is worthless.
Think about actual, physical paper. How useful would your notes be if you took all of your notes down in a single notebook, you never add any type of bookmark or tag system to note where notes are or where they’re from, they’re simply a stack of notes?
Now compare that to taking notes on post-its and organizing them by categories.
Which one will be easier to use when you have to find a quick answer to someone’s question?
Take the same approach with your digital notes. Don’t just write notes and let them stack up in some “general” category, be pointed and intentional about where you put them so that they’re easy to find, read, search, and action on.
As mentioned before, I use Apple Notes for most of my note-taking, although I also use Google Suite and Evernote and all three have the exact same process, though the options are in different locations. So I’m going to explain my process as generally as possible, hoping that it can be applied to whatever note-taking system is your favorite.
So here is what I do. I create a list of folders (similar to the process I defined in the email) that are very clearly defined purpose-driven blocks. For example, if I’m meeting about a specific ticket that I’ve been assigned to work on, I’ll create a folder for that ticket, and all meeting notes for that ticket will be together in that folder. If I have a conversation with my manager about my career progress or a meeting with IT about a technical issue I’m having, these all go into their own respective folders.
The notes themselves contain pertinent info for the conversations at hand, but the folders are where the magic really happens.
Once I have a long (and always growing) list of purpose-driven folders, I start to create hierarchies out of them.
For example, after a few weeks of work, I might have 3-4 folders for tickets that I’ve worked on. These get filed away into a folder named “dev”. My conversations with my manager about career development might be placed into a “personal development” folder. Notes taken from instructional courses go into a “learning folder”.
As the lists grow, I make sure to file things away in a place that makes the most sense. This keeps notes easy to parse and search, as well as makes them easy to act on if the information is needed.
At this point, you have a stress-free ecosystem for reviewing notes, and just to be clear: that was the point. Note-taking should not be stressful. The review process after, where you are trying to find that valuable information that you desperately need to finish a project or conduct your yearly review: that’s stressful.
This organizational structure will remove the stress from the reading process which means one thing: you can have MORE notes. In a more chaotic environment, you might be inclined to take fewer notes so that things don’t get confusing or out of hand, but with a strict organizational scheme you are free to take more notes, and you should.
I take notes about just about everything I do during the day. Every ticket I work on has some notes applied to it. Every meeting I attend has notes. At the beginning and end of every day, I take “standup notes” where I document what I’ve done the day before and what I intend to do that day (useful for morning standups, too). I have notes on my e-learning courses, notes from my 1:1s with my up-line managers, notes for interesting things I’ve learned inadvertently and notes for systems and processes that I think should be improved. And they’re all easy to search, find, and read.
When I have a question, a thought, or a concern I can either search my notes for the answer or make a new note to account for it. And life has never made more sense.
This is a simple one, but one that becomes so beneficial further down the road. In my previous job I had dozens of bookmarks saved for various required documentation sets or internal sites, I needed to remember. Some of them I had bookmarked more than once because I would forget I had already bookmarked them. Searching for bookmarks took forever to the point where I just wouldn’t do it. I would search our internal sites for what I was looking for and create a new, duplicate bookmark instead of just finding the bookmark that I had already created. This is not only inefficient but mind-bogglingly silly.
I don’t want to become a broken record so I’ll skip over most of the details, but I think the point to really drive home is “purpose-driven.” Everything you store for your own benefit you stored for a purpose. Make sure you’re fully aware of that purpose and life gets easier.
Are you bookmarking a slew of HR sites because you know that information might come in handy when you decide to grow your family? Then file those away in a clearly marked “HR” folder.
Are you bookmarking your payroll site for easy access? Add it to your bookmarks bar for one click or add it to a “Money” folder so that you always know where to find it.
Are you bookmarking your dev team’s stats-tracking dashboard (s)? File that away in the team folder so that you know exactly where to find it later. And if that folder starts to get crowded with resources, create subfolders for “stats” and “repos” etc.
Be diligent and purposeful about what you store and it will always be easy to find.
Last, let’s talk about our actual hard drives. I almost never see my desktop but when I do, if it’s crowded with icons it’s an immediate annoyance. And while annoyance and stress seem different, they’re really similar emotions wearing different faces.
I’m not going to go into great detail about how to optimize your storage and retrieval options for your hard drive because, well, I doubt anything you do really matters there. So let’s focus on the basics. I follow a simple policy: major sections of your computer should either be organized or empty:
I like to keep my desktop free of clutter by only storing important information there. This usually means screenshots I need for upcoming work/presentations will stay there (because that is where they go by default on macOS) and then if I have to pull or collect any personal documents for non-work events (pay-stubs for a new mortgage, proof-of-birth for new-parent-leave, etc).
Then, when I’m done with these documents they’re destroyed, leaving my desktop clean and empty.
Downloads and Trash are cleared every week. Files placed in these locations need to be dealt with swiftly. If I need to keep a downloaded file, it should be organized in my documents, otherwise, it’s probably just an installer and can be removed. Trash is just that, it’s trash. Get rid of it.
That leaves us with documents. Everything else ends up in your documents section. These are the things you need to keep. (I know most of us are using some sort of cloud-based storage solution for work files, and follow similar steps, but for now, I’m just going to assume we’re all storing things in our basic Windows/Mac documents folder).
Once again, the ol’ rinse and repeat. Find the purpose of each document and file it away so it’s easy to find, retrieve, review, and action on when you need it most.
I’m sure by now you’ve noticed a pattern here. I’m taking things that usually end up in massive piles, and moving them into smaller piles. These piles get repeatedly smaller until they’re grouped together with a purpose that’s so singular in the definition that it’s a no-brainer to find it and parse it.
The goal here is to create organizational structures that take absolutely no critical thought to navigate. You should think “Oh, what did Jim in Accounting say on May 8th, 2021 in that meeting about Ticket #123151?” And within minutes you should be able to retrieve your notes from that meeting, have your answer, and not even realize what a ridiculous question you just answered.
Enjoy your super organized and stress-free work life.