Organization Tools (early 2018)

It’s a new year and people are often motivated to organize their lives. At work too, we’ve been digging into the planning of what kind of work we are going to do this year. At this point, I feel comfortable saying there are a few tools that stand out to me, as being very good at organizing “stuff”. Organizing everything from basic information, to details, to work that needs to be done. Here’s what I’ll cover:

  • XMind for mind mapping
  • OneNote for storing notes
  • Trello for tracking work

Below is detail on each of these.

XMind and Mind Mapping Software:

I’ve been using XMind for several months now and I really like it. See:


Mind Mapping software is basically just a tool where you create a hierarchy of “nodes” that store information at each node. It’s a free-form tool so you can structure your data however you want. Below is a random sample – just to show the structure of what a mind map looks like:

Snacks & Creativity

See this page for thousands of examples of the kinds of things you could map out, using a tool like this: – you can do everything from brainstorming, to a business plan, to a resume, to timelines and beyond.

It’s very good at a few things:

  • Brainstorming ideas, especially when you have a group of people. You can easily capture single sentences of ideas and lay them out (with keyboard or with click-and-drag) anywhere in the mind map.
  • Writing down notes about something. For example, for a project, I might have nodes for: Principles (people involved), environments (URLs to the dev, qa, and prod environments), Credentials (if there are service accounts involved), Notes, and Work (things I need to work on, for this app).
  • After brainstorming, organizing ideas, resources, and actual tasks that need to be completed.

In other words, it’s a great tool for just capturing ideas, and organizing them into actionable tasks. I have several mind map files. Another example is I started researching all possible sources for multiple streams of income several years back. So I started to organize those findings into a mind map. Here are the high level nodes, and there is a bunch of detail captured within each level:


Finally, another example of how you might actually organize your life – perhaps start with something like this:


Just go into each node and start adding content. You’ll find that you can “empty our your brain” into a format like this. Then, when it’s all written down, you can click and drag and move things around, however it makes sense.

So – if you are looking for a way to simply capture the ideas you have in your head, mind mapping is the way to go – and XMind seems to be one of the best ones out there.

Microsoft OneNote:

To know me is to know that I kind of live out of OneNote. It really is my external brain. As David Allen, author of Getting Things Done says, our brains are made for coming up with ideas but they are terrible at storing information. So, I get things out of my brain and into OneNote. See:


OneNote used to be part of Microsoft Office, as a pay-product. Now, it’s a free product that runs on Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. What OneNote is, like XMind, is just a free-form tool for you to use however you see fit.


Along the top you have “Sections” and you can have nested “Section Groups” which hold sub-sections. Along the right you have pages within the current Section. You can have pages nested up to 3 levels deep and the top-level page and “roll up” the sub-pages too.

To use a practical example – imagine if you started from the XMind mind map we discussed, above. I typically will create a OneNote section for all of the top-level nodes in the mind map, like this:


So Xmind is the visual representation of how things relate, and OneNote stores all of the details. One of the many, many cool things about OneNote is that you can link to other sections within that OneNote:


and also, from Xmind, you can link to a OneNote page too.

So when do you create a new: notebook, section, section group, or page? Well, it’s up to you! Here is how I generally approach it:

  • New OneNote notebook for a big topic, which stands on it’s own. For example, at work I have: my personal OneNote, one department OneNote notebook, and a couple other project-specific OneNote notebooks. In your personal life, generally one notebook per human is good.
  • For sections, I usually start with one Section per general topic and use pages and nest pages to capture the details. When I have more than maybe 15-20 pages or if I have a lot of page nesting, it’s time for a dedicated Section Group. Then, I create a new Section within for each main page that I had before.
  • For section groups, I usually try to avoid section groups until I need them because once you start having section groups and nested section group – the OneNote notebook can start getting unwieldy.

Two other quick things about OneNote. First, I recommend storing your notebooks on OneDrive. This is because they specifically know how to sync OneNote, internally. You can literally have two people work on the same page at the same time. If you store a notebook on Dropbox or Google Drive, it syncs things at the file level. So, if you added something on your phone, and then made a change your PC before it has synced, you will lose some of your changes!

Second is the idea that if you are storing anything sensitive, you can (and should) password-protect sections. Just right-click on a section:



I really like two things about this. First, is that both in the OneNote desktop apps and on mobile, it auto-locks the section after a set period of time. So, if you don’t add content after some period of time, it self-locks that section automatically. Second, on my Android device at least, you can set up your fingerprint to unlock a section which makes it very convenient.

So – the main idea here is that OneNote is EXTREMELY good for storing the details of your life or your project. I think that OneNote pairs well with XMind because XMind can capture the big ideas and the relationships between things, and OneNote can store the details.


The last piece of software I’ve dabbled with before and used it some, but just recently started digging into the details. This ends up being a very well-written tool! Trello is a free service (with some minor limitations) for managing a Kanban board. It has full-featured, companion mobile apps (iOS and Android) too that are well-done. See:

The whole idea here is your have a “backlog” of stuff you need to do. This can be work things, like “stories” from your Agile project, or they can be personal things like “rake the leaves” and “clean the garage”. You have this backlog of work you need to do, you pick some of it to work on, assign it to people (if you are working in a team), and over time you will see the backlog (on the left) getting smaller, and the done (on the right) getting bigger. You literally move the tasks from columns on the left, to columns to the right:


This approach to managing work is very effective for all involved. For a manager, project manager, or scrum master, you can see visually:

  • What hasn’t been touched (on the left)
  • What is being worked on (in the middle)
  • What is done (on the right)

For the people working on this project, it too is satisfying and gives you a sense of satisfaction to see things transitioning from the left and going to the right. Kanban is not terribly strict, and Trello too, like the other tools is meant to be a free-form tool that you can use it however you want. What vertical “lists” do you want? You can make as many or as few as you want. You could do: List, Doing, Done if you want. Or if in a software development project, you might have several more columns like: “In Dev – Ready for testing”, “In Dev – Testing complete”, etc. You can do whatever makes sense for your team and for your project

It’s not obvious from the screenshot above, but one of the cool things about Trello is is mimics a Kanban board in real life. That is often a big White Board and your stories are little Post-It notes. So you can click-and-drag (touch-and-drag on mobile) your stories/tasks from column to column. So, it’s a really effective way to manage and show the current state of all of the work items for a project.

There are a LOT of other really great features of Trello too – like assigning tasks, applying labels, due dates, etc. it’s quite an involved product if you want to do more with it. They also have a pay tier if you want to leverage even more functionality.

Bottom Line:

So to me, these 3 tools make for the best organization tools that I’ve run across (as of this writing in early 2018). This is true both for work, and for organizing your personal life.

XMind is great at capturing all of the major things you need to care about. You can brainstorm all of the main topics in your life (or in a project) and capture them. You now have an effective way to now physically organize those thoughts or to share them (visually) with people.

OneNote then, is great at capturing the details of all of the things you brainstormed with XMind. Or again, you can use OneNote just to empty out your brain of anything, whether it’s project-related or not!

Trello then, is how you can plan the work you need to do. You captured ideas with XMind, wrote down details in OneNote, and now with Trello you can start creating a backlog of items you need to do. Now, it’s just a matter of doing them and updating the Trello board!

If you were looking for some organization tools, hopefully this helps. I you have some good tools that you like, leave a comment below!

Posted in General, Organization will set you free, Professional Development

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