Thursday, March 7, 2013

PhD Productivity: Happiness Project Continued

For, my happiness project Month 3*, I have decided to focus on productivity.  As I take on more and more projects, I have been finding that my stress and guilt level has been rising. In an effort to get more control over my work, I've been looking for a good time management system, and finally settled on the one described by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. This book is also highly recommended by the folks who write the Unclutterer blog.

Although Getting Things Done is mainly addressed at business professionals (for example, Allen suggests having your secretary block all interruptions from your office during scheduled "productivity" time - HA, HA! ), I found its main thesis to be really helpful. This main thesis, in a nutshell, is that you need to

  1. Write down all the projects you need to get done 
  2. Figure out the next physical action that you can do in order to finish these projects and
  3. Review and add to your lists regularly.

For example, here is some of the list of projects that I have come up with:

As you can see, each of these projects involves more than one step. Just looking at all these projects makes my brain hurt, but what if I just think of the next step for these projects? Let's take "Find Nominees for GWIS" as an example. I am currently the Chair of the nominating committee for the Graduate Women in Science, which basically means that I'm in charge of making sure that we have nominations for all the national offices that are up for election next year - quite a daunting task! However, when I take a couple of minutes to think about the next action for this goal, it's not so bad. The next thing I need to do on this project is:

Hey, that's easy! I can do that right now!

The beauty of this system is that it keeps track of all the things that I used to keep in my head, so they don't pop up and stress me out when I am trying to get something else done. It also breaks things down into easier segments, which make getting stated on the work much less daunting. "Convert an excel spreadsheet to a google doc" is a helluva lot less daunting than "Find Candidates for all the national positions," but it gets makes progress toward that goal just the same.  Allen suggests keeping a seperate "next actions" list for the very next physical things you need to do to meet all of your goals. Here are some of the things on my next action list:

None of these actions are scary, but all of them move me toward my end goals.

Keeping all of your lists in your head is kind of like storing all of your data in the RAM on your computer - your RAM space is pretty small, and if you try and store too many things in it, your computer gets bogged down and stops working properly. Storing all of your to-do lists on actual lists, instead of in your head, frees up your brain to actually think about the thing you are working on right now.

Now, where are you going to keep all these lists? If you're like me, you want something convenient, that you can have with you all the time and doesn't require you to remember to carry an additional THING around with you all the time. In other words, I wanted an app that would sync between my computer and my phone. After doing a lot of research, the best app for me was Remember the Milk**, which lets you make as many lists as you want, and also lets your categorize the items on those lists by type and location. 

Here are my lists (so far):

Adding categories and locations to those lists is also really helpful. For example, in my "Action Items" list, I have several items that need to be done at a computer, or in a certain location (like at my desk at home, or at my office on Coconut Island). There's no point me worrying about doing these things unless I have a computer or am in those locations. Similarly, on my "Errands" list, I can put in the locations of errands that need to be done. For example, if I look at the map and see that the location for picking up the dry cleaning is right next to grocery shopping, it helps me remember to do both, and saves a lot of later frustration when I realize I will have to make a second trip.

TIme sensitive items go on your calendar, such as meetings and things with a due date. For example, today I my google calendar tells me I am scheduled to talk with Michelle W at 1:00 over Skype, but until then I plan on checking action items off of my list (just as soon as I'm done with this blog). Choosing which action item to do depends on how much time it will take, your level of energy, and where you are (ex: at your office, near a computer). I chose to write this blog piece first thing in the morning because I was feeling very low in energy, and it really has helped.

Thus far, these organization strategies have been pretty useful. Although I've only been trying them out for a week, I already feel a lot more in control about my projects. I also feel much less overwhelmed about them, as a result of breaking them down to the next action. It makes me wonder why there are so few required classes for academics on time management and organization. If I was a graduate advisor, I would definitely ask my students to read some literature on time management and make a time management plan; not just for my own good, but for their sanity.

What sort of time management do you use? Would you have benefited from some guidance early on?

*Month 2 (February) somehow got away from me as a consequence of fellowship applications, family issues, and travel. But it's OK! What's the point of a happiness project if you make yourself unahppy worrying about it?

*The one drawback to RTM is that you have to pay a yearly subscription fee, but I was willing to trade money for this experiment in productivity. Hopefully it will be more than worth the 55¢/week.


  1. I have the GTD book on my bookshelf, but have never managed to actually implement it - although it's been on my list for a while. I have the most inefficient "to-do" method ever: I write a new list every day, in Evernote. I look at yesterday's list for things that weren't done, check my google calendar, and then add anything I can think of for today. Somehow, the five minutes that I spend doing that helps clear my head.

    1. I listened to it as a book on tape - I'm not sure I would be able to read it as a real book (maybe because of a lack of plot?).


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