How I plan and track my work

The academic life forces us to juggle various responsibilities. We have to be good teachers and mentors to our students, produce high quality papers and grant proposals, lead smaller or larger teams, be valuable members of our communities… The list goes on without end. The only limit to what we do is the one each of us sets for themselves.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the mountain of work an academic faces. Like a seasoned mountaineer, she needs to find a path that lets her climb the slope in front of her with as little effort as possible. And this is not possible without careful planning.

No single approach to planning works for everyone in every situation. I know that all too well myself—I spent years trying one system after another, thinking the next one will be the real deal. Some would work for me for a while, some for a bit longer. Sometimes, I would change a system only to find out that the old one worked better for me. And sometimes I would try a system over and over again thinking that if it works for everyone, it must eventually work for me, too.

All this experimenting taught me a few things.

First: It is important to try out different systems. People are different and an approach that works for me might not work for you. Someone prefers pen and paper, someone else needs an online app. One swears by Getting Things Done, another can’t imagine their life without a Bullet Journal or a kanban board. That’s alright. You need to find what will work for you.

Second: At some point, you have to stop. The thrill of trying and tweaking yet another approach to productivity can be difficult to overcome. But the point is to find a system that serves you, not you serving an endless row of planning tools.

Third: Planning systems are like bufet tables. You are free to take a few things you like from each. You don’t have to comit to a whole system just because you like one of its features. Adopt that feature and move on if the rest is not to your liking.

And finally: No system will ever work for you if you don’t use it. A to-do list is not going to help you if you write it once but never consult it to decide what you should work on next. The fanciest planner can’t help you stay on track if you never check it. Once you find a system that works for you, you need to comit, use it, review your approach, and adapt as necessary.

With all these caveats out of the way, here is how I keep up with my work load.

I use an odd combination of online and offline tools, with the most important being Trello and my paper notebook. I use Trello as a big, complex, structured to-do list in which I can keep track of all the tiny steps I need to take. Is there an issue I need to clarify in a discussion with a colleague? It goes in Trello. Do I need to remember the next step in my research project? Trello. An email I need to send? Trello. An article for review? Trello. Paperwork I need to sign? Trello. An idea for a blog post? You guessed it.

My various to-do lists in Trello

Even with as much structure as possible, Trello is just an endless list of tasks (or a list of lists of tasks). To prioritize and plan when each task gets done, I use my notebook planner. Every Sunday, I sit down, look at what needs doing, and decide on the priorities for the upcoming week. I write down what I will work on each day (including any scheduled events such as meetings, seminar talks, or similar). To make sure I remain productive, I follow two simple rules: I plan to work on at most two or three different things on any given day and I leave plenty of open space.

The first rule ensures that I can give each task my undivided attention and dive deep into it. The second rule is there so no unexpected difficulty can throw me off my game. Sometimes, a tasks takes longer than I expected; sometimes, an important matter arises that needs my attention straight away. Leaving enough time open ensures that such events don’t derail my plan for the whole week by Monday morning.

A look into my planner

My notebook also serves as a record of all the things I’ve done. For each task, I write how long it took and what I did. For the more important tasks, I write down how to proceed next (for large projects) or what I learned (for talks I attend, papers I read, or things I research).

The last important tool I use to keep track of things is Toggl Track. It’s main purpose is simple—keep track of how much time I’ve worked on any given day. Although my work contract specifies I should work for 40 hours per week, I know from experience that I can’t keep focused on science for that long. Keeping my load sustainable in the long term means I can do about 30 hours of focused work per week (or 6 hours per day). Toggl helps me be honest and put all this work in but it also helps me stop when I need to. On a good day, working for 6 hours might not seem like much and I might be tempted to work longer. But I know that if I do, I will do less the next day. By stopping after 6 or 6.5 hours, I ensure that I will have enough energy also for tomorrow.

I use, of course, many more tools in my work: Overleaf for collaborative writing; Slack, Zoom, and email to communicate; Tweetdeck to manage Twitter; BibDesk to organize my reading; Hemigway Editor for blogging; ring binders to store my research notes and papers I review. If it’s a part of my work, there is an app (or an offline tool) for it. But if I were to describe them all in detail, this blog post would turn into a book.

What systems and tools do you use?

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