Pivotlist is an organisation method for mere mortals. People who forget things, activities, phone calls or the milk. It’s super duper simple and easy to learn, the basics are less than a page. But it also grows into a framework, so when you’re extra busy you can stay on top of stuff. Lots of stuff.
- Two Things
- The Basics
- Tips and Tricks
- Example Pivots
- The End
The pivotlist method is designed to specifically target two of the biggest causes of procrastination. Together, these equal stress, lots of it and it ain’t pleasant.
Information Overload. That feeling when there’s just too much to do, and you don’t know where to start. Pivotlists clear your head.
Analysis Paralysis. Endlessly thinking about what to do next resulting in no time or ability to do it. Simple sorted lists allow you to focus on one thing only, and get it done.
By constructing a clean and simple pivotlist workflow you can stop over-thinking what to do, and instead just do it, because with well built lists what to do next is obvious.
You know, the world really doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t fit into neat tidy boxes, the unexpected crops up, things go wrong, and sometimes everything happens backwards. If you build the cleverest system you can imagine it will be infinitely large, and complicated, and fragile, and totally unworkable.
Pivotlist aims to keep things as simple and stupid as possible, because that gives space to respond to situations as appropriate. Thus…
KISS (Keep it simple stupid):
Follow the KISS notes for important points, and stop list building when you’ve got far enough to start working. The whole point of getting organised is to make your life easier, don’t over complicate it. See also tips and tricks for some good list habits, along with ways to extend and customise your lists when things get messy.
Find a pen, some paper and make a quick list of some things you need to do. Write whatever comes to mind, even the stupid stuff, and in no particular order. Things that need doing now, stuff that needs doing later, random things you really should remember. Format the list with bullets or dashes for each item, like so:
|- read pivotlist.com|
|- buy chocolate|
|- TPS report|
|- ring Jeffery|
|- book meeting room|
|- pick up Alice from school|
|- visit Mum in France|
Does your list have fewer than ten (10!) items with nothing left in your head? STOP right here, and start doing them! Cross the items off as you go. Then make another fresh list tomorrow, copying across the unfinished items. That’s it, keep it simple!
What we’ve just built is your unsorted list, the ‘inbox’ of the pivoting world and the place where every idea, to-do, project or reminder that you need to track starts it’s journey to completion. As much as possible should end up on this list, leaving as little as possible in your head.
Let us Pivot
We humans are simple creatures, and despite what modern myth would proclaim we’re not very good at doing a great many things at once. At best you end up with some sort of crappy result, and at worst everything is incomplete or just plain overlooked. Both ways spell stress.
The key to a successful pivotlist is make sure you focus only on what needs doing now, and thus you can ignore anything that isn’t relevant. To achieve this, we’re going to break your unsorted list into pivots.
- the central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates.
A good pivot group is the smallest possible breakdown of your tasks that give one central point of focus. You don’t need to think about work while at home, and shopping generally isn’t relevant to your work day. The group should be exclusive, one task fitting in one and only one pivot.
As an example, we’ll break the rather simple list above into three simple pivots: home, work, and other. You might need something different, there are some suggestions for different pivot groups in the examples near the bottom of this page.
For each of your unsorted items write the most appropriate pivot to the right of the list, like so:
|- read pivotlist.com other|
|- buy chocolate home|
|- TPS report work|
|- ring Jeffery work|
|- book meeting room work|
|- pick up Alice from school home|
|- visit Mum in France other|
Now, find a new piece of paper and create lists for each of your pivots. Sort the pivots into each list, crossing them off the unsorted list as you go.
|- buy chocolate||- TPS report||- visit Mum in France|
|- pick up Alice from school||- ring Jeffery||- read pivotlist.com|
|- book meeting room|
KISS #2: Don’t sweat about choosing the perfect group of pivots. It’s dead easy to add, remove or change them later. The important thing is to keep your lists short and the set manageable. Twenty different lists aren’t going to help anyone, unless maybe you’re the Queen.
And that’s it. Really. Pick the list that reflects where or what you are doing now and start completing the tasks. Cross them off when they’re finished, so you get the satisfaction of a task well done.
The final step is to return to the beginning. Keep adding everything that comes into your head to the unsorted list, and then forget about that item. Each morning, or maybe every evening, review your unsorted list and empty it. Briefly review your pivotlists too, cleaning up if required.
And then do what’s appropriate - if work isn’t until tomorrow, then ignore it until you’re there. If there is shopping to be done but that isn’t until Saturday, ignore that too. If you’re at home and something can be done, do it. Then cross it off. And repeat.
If it seems simple, that’s because it really is. The trick with pivotlists is, with some effort, you will actually use it. You’ve likely tried every app in the store, read heavy tomes about how to get stuff done, and procrastinated building the perfect system. It doesn’t exist.
But there is something about writing stuff down, getting it out of your head, sorting, and then doing, that it is addictive. So, give it a try.
If you have questions, or don’t quite follow a detail, read through the tips and tricks for ways to make pivotlists work well. If there is a question that isn’t answered on this page or you find a mistake, drop us an email and we’ll see what we can do.
Finally, if you’ve got some seriously complicated tasks or need a system for teams, then take a look at workflows for some ideas on how pivotlists can be extended.
Tips and Tricks
The basics are a starting point. Next up is for you to adapt or extend the simple concepts and make a system of your own while keeping it as simple and stupid as possible. Below are a few tips and tricks that might help smooth out the bumps.
Items on a list should be actionable, something like “email Jo re invoice payment”, rather than “Jo’s invoice is overdue”. Of course, the real world being what it is that doesn’t always work. When that happens, leave it as a note for review later, or consider breaking the item out as a project.
When and how often to review your lists is something which becomes obvious with time. For most lists, a once daily review is enough.
Keep the following points in mind:
- Empty the unsorted list completely. If you find you have left-overs, consider adding a random pivot. Things that remain on unsorted get missed and add to the clutter. Don’t do it.
- Don’t review on the go. Add stuff to unsorted when it enters your head, then leave it be. Unless the task needs doing now, then add it directly to whatever list is required. But don’t let this shortcut become a habit or you’ll find yourself with long unwieldily lists.
- Review your pivots also. If a pivotlist is always almost empty, merge it with something related so you have less to keep track of. If there is an item that still isn’t done way back up the list, cross it out and move it down to the present so it doesn’t get forgotten.
Review the review. If your work regularly alters and a daily review isn’t working, then maybe twice daily is better. Or maybe twice weekly. Some people who handle lots of enquires do hourly reviews of their work. Generally, review timing should be long enough that you can forget about unsorted and focus on your active pivot, without anything getting missed.
A Small World
When working with pivotlists keep the active pivot visible and hide the others. Clutter that is not relevant to the present, adding confusion and stress.
- If you’re using a notebook, make one list per page and open only what you’re doing.
- If you’re on a sheet of paper, fold unsorted and the other pivots behind so you can focus on one list only.
Long lists are daunting, leading back to information overload and analysis paralysis. Keep lists short and to the point. long lists should be reviewed and split into different pivots if necessary. Consistently long lists might be better managed as projects.
How long is long? Ten (10) items is a good limit as that is about the maximum you can process at a glance, but as always it depends on your work. If tasks are only a few minutes each, then more is fine.
Don’t worry about priority or order, scan the list and pick a task that jumps out.
The order of items in a list really doesn’t matter. If you are actively keeping your lists short then the list can be scanned and actioned at a glance. Spending time re-ordering lists is most likely procrastination.
If something important arises, consider adding a secondary pivot to an item in the list to bring it to your attention. A pivot like urgent can work well here provided you don’t over do it.
|- TPS report|
|- ring Jeffery urgent|
|- book meeting room|
Sometimes it’s helpful to make a quick sort to pull out urgent’s into their own list; but if pulling out secondary pivots into lists is something you do a lot, consider building a workflow to track and prioritise your sorted tasks.
Some things just aren’t able to be done. ‘I like the colour they’ve painted the door at 10 Downing Street’ is rather difficult to action (and it’s black if you’re wondering). Maybe one day you’ll build a house, and have the same door. In which case you’ll need a Project.
But until then, item’s that are thoughts rather than actions or projects can be filed as notes or random. It’s generally best to keep notes away from tasks (see keeping the world small), so give them their own list.
As with tasks, review the notes regularly (but not obsessively) and thin out the fluff.
Projects are where life gets interesting, and whether that is interesting good or interesting bad depends on how good a handle you’ve got on the project. Pivotlists work well for organising projects and making sure you stay on top.
There are three simple steps to building a pivot project:
- Add some tasks for the project to unsorted (you might just start with ‘write a task list for my project’)
- Make a new pivot for the project itself under an existing pivot.
- Sort or assign the tasks to the parent pivot.
Let’s try an example of a new garden shed. It fit’s in the home pivot, so following the steps above we get:
|- buy kitset shed shed home|
|- clear yard shed home|
|- assemble shed shed home|
|- host a shed party shed home|
A Simple Sort
The simplest way to make the list actionable is just to sort it into home. Keep the shed pivot noted as a secondary pivot so we can track what’s going on:
|- buy chocolate|
|- pick up Alice from School|
|- buy kitset shed shed|
|- clear yard shed|
|- assemble shed shed|
|- host a shed party shed|
However if you’re going to the trouble of creating a project, it probably isn’t that simple. Thus to keep home short, sorting the project into it’s own list and then tracking the pivot will work better. Read on for how that works.
Tracking is a simple trick to make sure stuff doesn’t get missed while keeping lists short. For one simple project, it’s overkill. If you’ve got several on the go, then it’s worth doing. Tracking is simply moving the next item from the project to it’s parent pivot, one task at a time.
This can be done in three steps:
- Sort the project tasks into their own pivotlist.
- Add the project pivot itself to unsorted as an entry.
- At your next review:
- sort the next item from the project pivot onto it’s parent, e.g. ‘buy kitset shed’ form shed to home. You can sort more than one task if you think it’s appropriate, but keep it short!
- cross out the project pivot on unsorted and write it again at the bottom of unsorted ready for the next review.
Repeat step 3 until your project pivotlist is empty and the project is complete. The unsorted list functions as a reminder so items on the project pivot don’t get missed. For example, after two reviews our unsorted, home, and home shed lists might look like this:
|….(previous items)||- buy chocolate||-
||- pick up Alice from School||-
||- host a shed party|
|…(other items)…||- assemble shed shed|
|- home garden shed|
The power of projects shouldn’t be under-estimated, and projects also tie together well with workflows. But as always, don’t get hung up on the details. If something in the method doesn’t quite suit, feel free to try changing it. Pivotlists are a frame work to build off, not necessarily a finished structure.
There is an implicit simple flow to basic lists - every task goes from a state of to-do (when first sorted) into done (as you complete and cross off tasks). Not everything in life is so simple, so pivot based workflows allow you to track a task that has several states. Let’s take ‘TPS report’ from work as an example.
Reports are often complex, requiring review by colleagues and approval by a manager before they are ready to be issued. Thus a workflow might read:
For simple tasks that only occasionally require workflows, add the workflow pivot to the task in the original sorted list as a secondary pivot. As each step in the workflow is completed, cross out the task and write it again with next workflow pivot:
|- ring Jeffery|
|- book meeting room|
|- TPS report review|
This works well for simple workflows and relatively few tasks. If however you have several items in the workflow at once it gets confusing. There is also no quick way to get a status overview of the active tasks in the workflow. The logical extension is then to make each workflow pivot a list, which can double as a status report on where things are at.
Status workflows use multiple lists, but the underlying pivotlist flow remains the same. If for example one was working on several reports with the pivot [TPS] for an electronic company, the workflow might look something like this:
|TPS drafting||TPS review||TPS approval|
|- J233 Radio||- X544 Wifi Chipset|
|- H209 Audio|
New reports are placed into unsorted, then moved to TPS drafting at the next review to start the workflow. Forcing the new report through the review process gives the opportunity to add other relevant notes, such as a secondary pivot detailing the assignee for the report.
At a quick glance it is possible to see that the Z123 Touch Panel report is complete and has been approved for issue. X544 Wifi Chipset is ready to be approved, J233 Radio is awaiting review, and H209 Audio is still being drafted.
This method of creating workflows is also know as Kanban and is used extensively in industry for controlling process. It works just as well for tasks and fits cleanly as a simple extension to pivotlists.
A neat psychological trick to avoid information overload is to construct temporal work flows from right to left. When working with the lists, the first thing your eye will scan is now in the left-most list. The remaining lists can easily be ignored until the next review. In the simple example below today is immediately obvious as the active pivot:
|- ring Jeffery|
|- book meeting room||- TPS report|
Pivotlists work just as well for teams as individuals, provided you find a good medium to communicate on.
A good big whiteboard and a pile of post-it notes is a great starting point. Divide off the right hand side of the board as the unsorted list (1/3-1/4 of the board), and use the remainder to create your pivot lists (why right for unsorted? For the same reason as temporal workflows, it is easily ignored until review as your eye will start on the left).
A quick daily review of unsorted by the team is a great way to communicate to everyone what is going on. Secondary pivots can be used to assign tasks to team members.
The best pivots are those you build yourself to reflect your life, work or leisure. However sometimes an empty page is a hard place to start, so below are a few example groups of pivots to get you going.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s often best to chose a group of pivots that are obviously bad for your use. You’ll be more likely to edit them to suit (that’s good) and if it’s obviously wrong you’ll know why, and that’s a great way to figure out what you actually need (that’s double-plus-good).
Pivots in a group should be exclusive, a task should only fit in one of the pivots. For more complex pivotlists with multiple pivots per task, the same rule applies. A task might be home urgent, but home work is nonsense!
The best place to start because for almost every task it’s obvious where it belongs. You’ve probably already got a shopping list (super market) so make that into a pivot list as well.
|- super market, hardware store, bookshop|
|- office, home, cafe|
|- london, nairobi, auckland|
|- kitchen, bedroom, garage|
Useful for distributing tasks to staff or those responsible.
|- james, mary, george, francis, alex, sophia|
|- accounting, sales, development|
Often works well as a secondary pivot on more complex lists.
|- high, medium, low|
|- urgent, to-do, later|
|- critical, priority, important, remember|
Workflows happen when a task has a state that is more than just done. See workflows above for how to build and use them.
Use for long-lived tasks might take several iterations to complete, or pass through different stages of responsibility.
|- new, assigned, needs review, ready to issue|
|- received, in progress, completed, archived|
Some tasks are time dependent. Temporal pivots can also be used as secondary pivots, but only when you’re getting buried in a long list - it’s better is to review your pivots so things get sorted into shorter lists from the start.
|- now, soon, later|
|- today, tomorrow, this week, next week, this month, next month, this year, future|
See also right, left for a neat trick when working with time.
That’s all folks! Hopefully you’ve now got a good grasp of the pivoting world, happy pivoting!
If you know someone you think might benefit from becoming a pivoteer (haha!), feel free to link to pivotlist.com, or share on social media. The more people to get organised with pivot lists the better!
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Too long; didn’t read? You missed out on all the fun! Here’s the gist:
- Put everything you need to do in an unsorted list to empty your head.
- Break the list out into discrete groupings based on some simple pivots such as: home, work, and other.
- Pick a pivot and do the stuff.
- Rinse and repeat.
Use the time you’ve freed up by being organised to read the tips and tricks for ways to improve and extend your lists.