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ask-tom-pictureI did not receive a question this month so I thought I would ask a question to our readers,

“How do you manage paper and set priorities on your farm?”

Below I describe a system that I use. Please respond with suggestions or systems that work for you. I am always looking for good ideas on how to minimize the paperwork time and improve productivity.

Like most farmers I suspect, Spring is a time when the pace starts to pick up and the “what shall I do today” of winter changes gradually to “how am I ever going to get everything done today.” The long list from last year of “I’ll save that project until winter” seems just as long as it was last fall. All the seed catalogs and winter conferences just make it worse “What a great idea – I could do that!” and that, and that …

A few years ago I picked up a book by David Allen titled Getting Things Done – the Art of Stress Free Productivity (Penguin Books, 2001). I saw it mentioned in an article saying how much folks with computer-based time management systems liked his approach, because it does not depend on paper as many systems do. One of his catch phrases that caught my attention was “How to feel fine about what you are doing and what you are not doing.” Since my to-do list is virtually endless, I found myself wondering if what I (and my farm crew) was doing right now is the most important task for the success of our farm this season. I adapted his system to our farm and it seems to help.

Here is the basic approach:

  • Have one inbox. No scraps of paper behind the pick-up truck visor. No stack next to the comfortable chair by the woodstove. No post-its on the bathroom mirror. Put them all in one place. Allen calls it an inbox but for me it is a folder in a portable file labeled … Inbox. A related rule is that the inbox is always empty at the end of the day. That’s a hard one for me but I see the value in doing it.
  • Divide all your areas of activity into “projects.” A project might be shiitake mushrooms or firewood gathering. Don’t forget family and personal projects – learn to play the banjo or travel, for example.
  • For each project create a plan of action. The plan is the list of steps that are needed to complete the project in the order that they need to be performed – cut the logs before ordering the spawn, etc.
  • Create a folder for each project. This folder can be a physical file or an electronic folder.
  • Identify for each project a “next action” to move the project forward. All the next actions go into a folder called “Next Actions.” I review the next actions folder daily and mark the ones that I hope to accomplish today and mark through the ones that were done yesterday. When I mark through one from the shiitake project folder I bring up the next one from that folder into “Next Actions.” I can usually scan the next actions in a minute or two and assemble the weekly to-do list.
  • Create a “Someday Maybe” folder. When a next action stays on the next actions list for a while and never seems as important as other items on the list I demoted to the “Someday Maybe” folder. That’s also where my really wild schemes go that I know are half baked when I write them down – like replacing the walk-in cooler with an ice house that freezes in the winter and cools all summer. I doubt I will work on that one in the next few months, but I don’t want the idea to get away completely.
  • This system also needs a calendar which can be a Personal Digital Assistant or just a paper calendar like mine. Allen recommends having a folder for each day of the month with all the things that you need for that day in the folder (agendas, directions, airline tickets …). He also suggests a folder for each month after the current one. The contents of that monthly folder are divided into daily folders as time passes.
  • One of the most important folders is the one with vision, mission and life purpose. I should have mentioned that one first to be in the proper order but I didn’t want to scare you off right away. Of course it is important to know where you are headed in life and it is important that your “next actions” will eventually take you there. Once every week or two I look at mission and purpose folder to see how I am doing and sometimes create a new project or drop an old one to get back on course. That is also a good time to weed out the urgent but not important actions and to focus on those projects and actions that are truly important, not just on the farm but to your life purpose.

David Allen would probably drop his PDA if he saw what I have done to his system but it works for me. He also has great advice on setting priorities and mucking out the piles of paper in the first place. Your library probably has his book but it’s also fairly affordable in paperback. If you want to go to the source, check out his site, Getting Things Done.

Don’t forget this is just a prompt for my question to you: “How do you manage paper and set priorities on your farm?” If you care to respond please sent it to Thanks.

Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School

Farmers: Got a question for Tom? Email it to us at

Tom Elmore

Author: Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.

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