Managing the Work Flow

Wowza. Had not realized that it had been so long since I posted here. I’m going to cut myself some slack because it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything, and we’ll just say that I took the summer from blogging off. I do owe some practitioners a post on DITA and structured authoring and programs, but I’m going to start with this one on work flow and keeping track of things. This is blog that several folks had requested from a various communities that I belong to so I’m posting it here rather than trying to repeat it in a variety of other places.

Research projects in progress sticky note. #postitnoteposse FTW!

The question that actually prompted this post was “how do you keep track of your research works-in-progress?” My answer is really old school and not fancy. I do it on a sticky note, as seen in the photo with lots of things written on it. At the top are five things that are in review (all article length).  “Capstones” is a collaborative piece the co-author and I are hoping to get out the door by 9-30. The next four are book-length projects in various stages of review. The dates are meaningful in that something has to occur by those dates. For example, the methods book is scheduled to come out of peer review around that time. The bottom set are article length things that are in various stages of writing all with a target date for completion by the end of the term. One will be done much sooner than that, but I lump them all together because it’s easier.

I always hesitate to use myself as an example for all sorts of reasons so let me lay out some additional explanations. Your list will likely look very, very different unless you are at a big research place. Please do not compare yourself (it’s not healthy in this job because we all have different jobs and different goals!!). Second, this is just a way to keep my eye on the bigger projects that need an eye on them. Knowing that i things in review reminds me that at some point this term I’m likely going to have drop things to work in a review or a re-submission to another journal. This works for me because it’s simple. I can recycle it and start over very quickly. I can move it, which means some days I just don’t want to think about and I stick it somewhere out of eyesight.

There are some folks who use a whiteboard for this or an excel spreadsheet. I say you need to use whatever works for you. I’ve used this system from pretty much the beginning of my time as an academic (and parts are a holdover from when I consult), and it’s always worked. The year or so when I tried to go electronic was the least productive period of my academic life. Experiment with a few options, but then you do have to commit to see what may work for longer periods of time. I cannot emphasize enough that you have to have a plan–for each day, week, term, and academic year. (I also recommend 3 or 5 year plans, particularly when you’re on the tenure-track.)

Monthly due dates and partial daily schedule.

So once I have this laid out, I then can put specific tasks related to these projects in the calendar/planner, which is how I keep my day-to-day life planned. I just switched planners again (some people swap out phones, I’m a serial planner swapper. I wish I had time to make my own cause I finally sketched out what it needs to look like. I digress. That’s a blog for another day!) so here’s a partial shot of the planner. On the right side are a series of due dates for the upcoming month. These are typically grants or internal things that I have to get done by certain dates that are not flexible. I then put reminders of those things in the bottom task area on certain days. The daily task areas are my to-do list for that day. You’ll see that they aren’t overly ambitious and that’s because this job has taught me to be realistic so I don’t always walk around thinking like I failed for the day.

The page on the right is where I would mark out time for meetings and then add additional tasks at the bottom. I teach on Tuesday night so the time right before it is for student and course related tasks. If I don’t have students coming, I use this time also for completing service tasks related to my the professional writing program. The times in the morning are blocked out because that’s when I exercise, drink lots of coffee, and get myself ready for the day. I also spend about an hour of that time sending emails, and then I won’t send emails again until much later in the day (unless there’s something I’m waiting on or a crisis has appeared.) I generally write late in the morning and the early afternoon. I used to be a morning writer, but I don’t that much anymore.

The orange sticky notes that you see on the calendar image are fully adhesive. I use these to write down tasks that need to be done, but aren’t a super big priority. That way I can move them from week-to-week. I usually stick this floating task list on under Sat/Sun. If I have time to do something, I do it and mark it out. I move it to the next week until all the tasks on it are done.

I do try to schedule meetings (of all kinds) on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday because the afternoon is dedicated to school stuff (so there’s no research or writing happening that day) and Wednesday because I’m tired from teaching at night. The “meeting days” shift from term to term based on other factors pushing on the schedule, but in general, I try to confine all meetings to those days. If for whatever reason, Monday gets meetings, then I try not to schedule on Wednesday. My point here is to keep like items together so it doesn’t throw the whole week off. Wednesday, outside of meetings, is schedule as service day. This is the day that I do tasks associated with my various service obligations at the national and university level. I do reviews, write letters, talk to folks about their research, do meetings, write reports, etc., etc.. So what I’ve done is to plan and schedule things that I have to do and I try to do it in a way that allows maximum time for my research writing.

At least 90% of the time, I keep a lot of padding in the day. The reason for this is just don’t know when something may pop up that truly needs you attention. We all know that much of the immediacy in higher education is not really immediate. (Though, due dates are real. Especially if you work with me!) But there are times when something really does need your full attention, right then, without having been on your schedule. So I usually have an hour or two (yup, that much) embedded in the schedule somewhere. If nothing happens, great! But then if it does, I have room to maneuver and not feel as if I’m getting behind.

NOW, this is me and my life. Your life is probably going to look a lot different. (YES, I did say this above, but it bears repeating.) So in place of some of my time for research, your schedule may have grading or working on a curriculum revision or whatever. The key is to have a plan that works for your job and life.

Planning sheet for part of the attention-comprehension gap.

Finally, I use one other document that keeps me on track, particularly for larger research (or even large service projects), and that is the project break down. All project management systems use some version of breaking the project down into doable tasks so those tasks can be scheduled and completed. The theory behind it is that if you have smaller tasks, you’re able to complete them and it increases your motivation on the project. It also makes it all seem less overwhelming. Now, I’ve tried all sorts of electronic tools to manage projects such as trello, things, omnifocus, combination of google things and numerous to-do list online apps. All of them have great features, but none of them worked for me. Much like my sticky note system, I use the old-fashioned legal pad for project management. (I chuckle when I write this because even when I managed multi-million dollar projects, I used a legal pad. There was someone else on the team who put it into a project management system 🙂

The planning sheet is simple. It lists the project and then a series of things that need to get done. Some of these items are duplicated into the planner on a specific day or on a floating task list. I try to plan out the whole project (or stages if it’s really big) and then I revisit the planning sheet every week. Sometimes I recycle it and start over because things have developed in the week that precipitates a new approach. Sometimes I just edit and cross out and make notes. This one represents my multi-year, multi-site project the attention-comprehension gap. This page represents some things that need to get done by the end of October so most of these items will become tasks over in the planner.

That’s it. Not fancy. Not cumbersome. Not complex. It’s just some pretty simple ways to project manage my academic life. I encourage you to find the system that works for you because when the work life is managed and manageable, life gets a whole lot better.