The Lay Persons’ Guide to Using Post-It Notes to Get Your Stuff in Order

What’sapp screenshot of message from Mummy that reads ‘You note that thing you do with post its… can you teach me please?’
Tell me tell me tell me how you do that trick…

“You know that thing you do with post-its… can you teach me please?”

This was the text message I woke up to from my mother. Over the years, she has seen many photos of my post-it to-do lists, a post it Christmas kanban board, and various other designerly post-it-ing. The last straw was a trashy (her words) Christmas movie where a party organizer used post-its. Hence the text.

It got me thinking — I take this way of working so much for granted, but the ‘how’ is a mystery to many people.

So this one’s for you mum! Or for any other mum or sister or cat or human who might have seen ‘that post it-thing’ somewhere and wanted to try it.

The Basics

Photo of a neon pink post it pad with a black sharpie.
Gateway drug

You’ll need some post-its. Nothing too fancy, the regular 3x3" square post-its are a great place to start.

You’ll need a good marker for writing with, ideally a Sharpie or similar. You want to be able to see what you write, so no tiny script here please. (I like to write in all caps as I find it the most legible.)

Write down one idea or item per post-it.

That’s sort of all there is to it at the most basic level.

What Will I Write?

The world is your oyster here, and it depends on what you are trying to achieve. Any information that you want to get out of your head and organized is a good candidate.

Various tasks on post its beside a calendar. Including go to garlic festival, and women’s self defence class.
Various tasks on post its beside a calendar. Including go to garlic festival, and women’s self defence class.
Here’s to-do list of tasks. (Note the rogue post it that breaks the one item per post it rule. Oops.)

To-do lists are a good starting point. Any kind of information that you want to organize. Steps in a process can be fun (like you could do a recipe — ingredients and the steps).

For a to-do list, write each discrete task on a post-it note. For a gift shopping list, you could start with writing the name of each person you want to get a gift for. Then you could put those up in a column and add gift idea post-its beside their name.

Ok Now What? a.k.a. Basic Sorting

Now you’ve got a bunch of post-its with stuff written on them. Once you’ve got everything written on them you can sort them.

Four columns of yellow post-its with orange headers.
Four columns of yellow post-its with orange headers.
In this Christmas board, the sorting has columns that represent the categories food, activities and vibes, Christmas Day, and New Years Eve. The smaller blue notes call out to-dos or specific dates.

You can sort post-its that go together into a cluster or column (a wall or surface is helpful for this). Then you can create a label for the category or group.

(This is called an open sort — where you start by generating all the information then sort it into groups and create headings).

If you like, you could start with headings or categories, and then use those to help you generate all the items of information in each category.

Slightly Fancier Sorting

You can sort in loads of different ways. For example you could sort your tasks on a 2x2 grid along axes of importance and urgency.

Post its sorted on a grid of urgency and importance.
Post its sorted on a grid of urgency and importance.
Sorting items on a grid of importance and urgency — the Eisenhower matrix. Image source.

You could sort a list of people in your life in concentric circles, going from your close ‘inner circle’ to your acquaintances at the outside ring.

You could sort chronologically, or you could sort by importance.

Using Colour and Shape/Size

You can use different colours and sizes of post-it notes, just because it’s fun.

You can use a different colour or size post-it for making category headings. (Like the orange ones in the photo above.)

Five columns of post-its, each having it’s own colour. Categories are HR, distribution, Marketing, Sales, Operations
Five columns of post-its, each having it’s own colour. Categories are HR, distribution, Marketing, Sales, Operations
Here’s each category having its own dedicated colour. Image from the 3M site.

You can use a different colour post-it for each category. (All my project tasks will be blue, all my personal tasks will be orange.)

Size of post-it note can be used to denote a different type of information.

But Why?

Now the science bit…

The main utility of these post it note approaches are that you create discrete ‘units of information’ that you can then sort and manipulate and move around. You can see relationships between them, you can organize them in different ways.

This is a form of distributed cognition, where we externalize information and can then spread it all out in front of us at once. It allows you to use your brain in different ways. The brain likes making connections between information with spatial relationships.

Have Fun!

Now you know.

Love you Mum. ❤

Independent Service Designer. I ❤ glitter, cats, and deadlifting. Previously @Bridgeable @UsabilityMatters. www.servicedesignpaths.com

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