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I used to ignore anything that looked like responsibility. I didn’t read my mail, I often forgot about appointments, I didn’t plan ahead, and I could never tell where my money was going. Although my strategy surprisingly worked for a couple of years, I eventually reached a tipping point where I was spiraling with guilt and mounting obligations. I’m happy that I’ve gotten to work on my ostrich-like hangups on life admin since then, and I think—for me at least—having the right software tools have helped along the way.
I often see people writing about the tools that they use to get their work done, but it’s rare for me to see much of anything on how people manage their lives outside of work. I’ve been reassessing my setup recently, so I thought I could share the things that have been working well for me and the tools that I’m currently playing around with.
You Need A Budget
In the past, I would budget my money by adding up all my recurring expenses each month and subtracting the total from my income. I’d put down the result as money that I’m allowed to spend. I figured that whatever is left behind after that can turn into my savings. It seemed like a good system: it was simple, and I didn’t have to do it that often.
But reality was very different. It felt like there was always that one “emergency” that would throw a wrench into the whole thing: a doctor’s appointment, going out to dinner with friends, a subscription that I forgot about. So even though I had a great system in place (I didn’t), I still couldn’t manage to put money towards my savings or my credit card debt. So I gave up and figured that I was just bad with money.
I forget how, but I came across an app called You Need A Budget around two years ago. I had a hard time using it at first because I couldn’t wrap my head around the philosophy of only budgeting the money that I currently have. I also struggled because I didn’t understand that I needed to be proactive with budgeting. I didn’t know that I had to:
- Actively look at what’s left of my budget to guide my decisions
- Figure out what categories I needed to prioritize
- Plan and set goals
But after a couple of failed attempts, I eventually joined their workshops and learned how to use the app. I’m not going to go into detail about its features (there’s a bunch), but the gist is that it’s super useful for life admin. Those “emergencies” that I talked about earlier? They’re basically things that YNAB helps me prepare for. If I know that I’ll be getting my wisdom teeth removed soon, I can start putting money towards a category called “Oral Surgery.”
I couldn’t find a single calendar event before 2016, so I don’t really know how I managed to remember things before that year. I think I had this idea that calendars were only for very busy people. Normal people like me, I thought, don’t really have a use for it outside of work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t any good at keeping tabs on my appointments and get-togethers. I realized that computers were a lot better at remembering dates than I am.
I have my calendar hosted on Fastmail, and I started to use it a lot more when I found Fantastical. I think what got me to use it was how ridiculously easy it is to add an event in the calendar. Basically, you just type in “Water plants every other Friday” and it’ll automatically create a recurring event just for that. It suddenly made remembering events easy for me to do.
One other feature that I love about Fantastical is that it lets me bundle calendars into different sets. This means I can switch between different contexts throughout the week:
- A set that just shows my personal calendars. (Perfect for weekends or when on holiday.)
- A set that just shows my work calendars. (This gives me an overview of my work.)
- A set that combines personal & work calendars. (This is usually my view during the week because, naturally, I don’t want to miss any work meetings or personal appointments.)
I don’t have any complex to-do list requirements, so I’ve found popular apps like Things and Todoist to be a bit too much for my personal needs. I didn’t think it was worth paying for features that I wasn’t going to use. Paper, on the other hand, is often inconvenient to carry around and to write in while I’m on the bus or train or at the grocery store.
I was doing some research on to-do lists, and it turns out that most calendars already support simple task management. I thought this would be great at first because the bulk of my tasks are basically events that I want to check off like “Take the trash outside at 9pm every Monday” or “Change out your contact lenses every two weeks.” The downside is that it the more tasks I made, the more cluttered my calendar looked.
The solution for me was to switch to Apple’s built-in Reminders app. It actually syncs with my calendar on Fastmail which meant that I didn’t have to migrate my tasks over to another system.
To-do lists are at the heart of my life admin because I would forget a lot of things if I didn’t have it. It has a lot of those recurring items that I used to forget like paying off my credit card every month or taking the compost bin out. Since it’s also on my phone, it’s also really useful for remembering those responsibilities that bubble up when I’m commuting. “Oh yeah I need to get some onions for dinner later.”
In the past, Facebook was my contact list. I could message friends easily, I could hop on a video call with them, I knew what people were up to, and I knew if their birthdays were coming up. It worked pretty well up until I stopped using Facebook. And at that point, I didn’t realize just how much I relied on it for keeping in touch with friends.
Fortunately, a friend told me about this website called Monica. It’s basically a CRM but without all the business-y language around it. I managed to use it for a couple of months, but my motivation died out soon after.
I tried Airtable for a little bit, but that ended up being even more work. I just wanted something that didn’t require me to build the scaffolding so that I could get on with the actual work. So recently, I started using Monica again, but now I also have a reminder to update it every other day so that I don’t forget about it. I also made it into a “desktop app” using Fluid, so that I’m reminded of it whenever I’m on my computer.
It’s too early for me to say if it’s working for me, but I’m glad that there’s a way for me to keep track of when I last hung out with someone, the names of their pets, and the things that we talked about. It’s almost a complement to my journal. I also appreciate that I get reminders from Monica that basically says, “Hey, you should really keep in touch with this person.”
You made it! The invisible work of life admin isn’t glamorous, but thanks for letting me geek out and reading all the way to the bottom. If you have tools that you use to manage your daily life, I’d be happy to hear about it.