What if I Told You … You Can Be Organized Too

Before starting my doctoral program, I never anticipated how much time I would spend developing learning skills like organization. Graduate school requires organization in many forms. Students must organize calendars, literature (paper or digital), deadlines, multiple e-mail accounts, research and writing projects, computer folders, to-do lists, and personal and professional responsibilities. Luckily, other GradHacker authors have written about some of these areas, including how to organize your computer, email, research, and notes.

A common question I ask other graduate students, as well as professors, is: “How do you organize your work?” Responses to this question have taught me that even professors struggle with organization and their workflow in general. Some folks respond that they are not good examples of how to be organized. Others are willing to share detailed accounts of how they do things, and from these I’ve learned that there is no perfect way to organize. Throughout the years, I’ve aimed to learn about organization and workflow from as many people as possible. In this post, I share details about part of my current system. A special thank you to all the folks who have shared their methods with me and helped me put my system together!

1. Semester plan

I learned about the semester plan from a dissertation bootcamp I did that was led by Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. You can learn more about the semester plan here. When I begin getting organized for a semester, I brainstorm everything that I want to do during the semester without thinking about dates and my calendar. I typically complete this process in an Excel spreadsheet with each major item as a column heading. You want to break each major task down as much as possible. For example, instead of having my entire dissertation as something I need to work on, I specify a major task such as a single chapter I need to work on. Then, I think about tasks that are smaller or more specific that go into that chapter, like the purpose section, the research questions, or the theoretical framework. Each of these smaller tasks form the basis of what I will do each week in my semester plan.

When you’re brainstorming your major tasks and the specific items within them, think about what specifically you have to do.  Which chapters or sections? What manuscripts are you working on and which sections need attention? When are conference proposals due? How do the proposals break down into smaller chunks?

2. Calendar Integration

Once you have identified the major tasks and broken them down into smaller items, start mapping out when you are going to complete the work. I do this in Excel by labeling each row of the spreadsheet as a week of the semester. When you do this step, account for holidays, conferences, or anything else that will take up time. You don’t want to allocate three tasks for a week when you are going to be away at a conference and won’t have time to work on them.

Once I have my spreadsheet set up, I flip over to my calendar application, Fantastical, and start adding all the tasks with deadlines. Fantastical is great because it integrates very well with OmniFocus, but any calendar application will work; you just need to be able to add weekly deadlines for each of the smaller/specific tasks you identified in your semester plan. In my calendar I make all my tasks due on Sunday which is what I consider the end of the week.

Now, it’s Week 1 of the semester, you have your semester plan done, and all your deadlines in your calendar. The next step is figuring out your weekly schedule for when you are going to work on these tasks. The first time I did a semester plan I broke down the term so that I had three things I wanted to get done, and each week I tackled each of these tasks in some way. The tasks were: 1) the analysis for my dissertation; 2) a book chapter; 3) a report for my job. I followed an approach I eventually called the 3 x 3, where each day I had three tasks I wanted to work on and I spent three hours on each. I put these work blocks right on my calendar so that I knew what I should be working on each day. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega shares two different approaches to working in a post called “Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) vs Work on One Project Every Day.”

This 3 (tasks) x 3 (hours) was my ideal situation. Some days I did less, or nothing at all, but I found three tasks gave me enough variety for for my day and made me feel like I made progress on several things each week. You can play around with this approach but the point here is you want to schedule specific work time for the tasks.

3. OmniFocus

A while back, Dr. Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer) shared details of her workflow in a Google Document titled “Academic Housekeeping – a check list and explanation.” She first shares how she organizes her files and email accounts, and then breaks down how she integrates OmniFocus, a task manager and productivity software. I’m not going to go into all the details of OmniFocus, but I strongly recommend you check out the Academic Housekeeping post to see additional details about how you can use it.

I like OmniFocus for two reasons. First, it keeps me on track. Once my semester plan is complete with my tasks for the semester and each week, I go into OmniFocus and add each major item as a Project, and then also add each of the specific tasks with the deadlines I previously established. The software shows you what tasks you should be working on based on the deadlines you allocated, and tells you what deadlines are coming up. Fantastical integrates really well with OmniFocus, so I can see my calendar, all my projects, specific tasks, and deadlines right in Omni.

Second, when you complete a task, you get to put a big checkmark next to it. And, when you haven’t completed something on time, it lets you know. Seeing this little number two on the icon on my dock means I have two items that are past due (Oops!). This is very motivating to me because I’m always striving to not have this indicator and it is very satisfying when I don’t.

It’s easy to use and doesn’t take a lot of time to set up. I know what you’re thinking: This seems like it takes so much time to set up, and it costs money. Do I really need more apps? But the software took less than an hour to learn after I saw how someone else was using it. At the beginning of each semester, it takes me about an hour to make my semester plan and another 30 minutes or so to put everything into Omni. After just an hour and a half I have a plan for the semester and a program that will notify me when I’m behind.

4. Reflect

At the end of the semester, it’s important to reflect on how the term went. Did you get the tasks done? Why might you have failed to complete everything? How could you modify your semester plan or your weekly workflow to accomplish more? Reflection is important because you must look at where you can improve and make changes accordingly. When working on your organizational system, a variety of things can be customized to your needs, but you need to put in the time to find what works for you. You may want to, for example, incorporate an overall graduate program completion or dissertation plan, or an Everything Notebook.

Though my system has additional components like email and digital file organization and literature spreadsheets, I hope this post has sparked your interest in reflecting on the system that you use. And I invite you to share regarding your system below.

What planning do you do for your year, semester, month, week, day? What tools do you use to make it all work?