Getting Things Done…

I have a productivity plan. A way to get things done that I need to get done. It involves a Sunday night ritual where I go over my To-Do list, examine my weekly calendar, schedule appointments, pay the bills, look at my weekly expenses, and water the plants. It is a plan that, of course, involves numerous software applications and iphone doohickys, influenced by GTD, Clockwork Muse, The Creative Habit, and Inbox Zero. It’s tried and tested. When the plan is moving, it’s great. I get things done. I’m on top of the world. However, it has one fatal flaw.

I’m involved.

In order for this productivity plan to work, I have to sit down and implement it. I have to make the active decision to turn off the TV, lock my office door, sit down, and put things into gear. I’ve noticed that, as time moves on, I go from weekly to bi-weekly. Sometimes a weekend trip means I miss a week, and then it becomes once a month. Next thing I know, I realize I haven’t looked at my To Do list in months.

Typically these moments occur near the end of a semester, when I’m rushing to get projects done: There are only a couple things to do, and they are big, obvious, and due soon. I manage to convince myself that looking at my To Do list isn’t going to change anything, that big thing is still due, and it takes priority over everything else.  So I push the smaller things out of my mind, and forget about it. This summer, the Campus Archaeology Field School took precedent; I was barely in front of a computer for the month. And now, the stress and hubbub of moving across country has taken its toll on getting things straight. While packing, however, it occurred to me that I hadn’t sat down and taken stock of what I have to get done this coming semester.

So, this means that this week, now that I’ve settled in Williamsburg, I need to start planning. Of course, it helps that a new phase of work and life is beginning: that’s always a good time to refresh, reevaluate, and get started in new routines. It’s one of the reasons why I love being on an academic schedule; every two or three months the semester ends, and you can pick up and begin your routines from a fresh starting point. Often this gives me a chance to try a new piece of technology, or adopt a different productivity thing I read about somewhere. It also lets me ditch old ideas that haven’t worked.

This fall, however, the things I have to complete (ahem, my dissertation), are a little bit different than those things I’ve been completing over the past few years. There is no classwork due, and no regular desk/office/field job, and no boss to report to on a daily basis. I am in charge of my own time, making my own deadlines, and setting my own goals. I have to make sure that my days are spent working on my dissertation and other research. The people I report to won’t be across the hall, they’ll be across the country. This means that there are no daily reminders about what I should be working on. I’m simply cast out into sea and expected to return regularly with a chapter. This wouldn’t be a problem if, as I mentioned before, I wasn’t involved.

So, this means I’m going to have double my efforts to stay on task; I’m going to have to be my own boss. The weekly refresh may have to move to a different day or time, so that it isn’t so easily interrupted by weekend activities. Otherwise, I am just going to have to do a better, more consistent job of staying on task and sticking to the plan. We’ll see how it goes…

Do you have any tips or pointers? How do you stay on task? Also, I’m looking for any book recommendations about how best to approach this dissertation…please leave some suggestions in the comments!

Image borrowed from PhD Comics!
  • Jeff Chelf

    Best of luck Terry! Things always work out in the end, the only advice I follow.

  • Emily

    Hey, that’s my Sunday night GTD ritual too! Some other things I’ve learned:
    -Consider the next immediate action you can take to move a project forward, and just do it. Don’t think of it as writing your dissertation, think of it as working on X point in your discussion section.
    -If something will take less than 5 minutes to do, just do it.
    -Set aside an hour, three days a week, where you commit to writing something, whether it be a point in your discussion, or analyzing and writing up some results. I try to do this with reading too.
    -I carry a notebook where I write down everything that I want to remember- this is my favorite GTD trick!
    -Immediately put any date/appointment you have to remember in your calendar.
    -Check in on your involvements, and don’t say yes to/keep doing anything that isn’t value added to where/who you want to be.
    -Set aside a “planning day” where you clean out your inbox, check in on the coming week’s calendar, delete completed tasks, run any errands, and tie up any loose ends. Don’t worry about getting things done on this day- try to do something that’s fun and relaxing. Similarly, try not to spend significant time throughout the week doing these tasks.
    -Don’t use any productivity technique that you really have to force yourself to do.

  • Thanks, Jeff. I follow that one pretty regularly, too.

  • Thanks, Emily! All great points…you’re clearly a David Allen convert, eh?

    A lot of those things, such as writing things down and adding things to my calendar, I do with my iphone. As for saying “no” to things, moving to Williamsburg has made that much easier…I don’t know anyone here to ask me to do things!

  • dad

    1. You have to be terrified all the time.
    2. And probably stop doing all of the planning about the planning.

    Man, you’ve got some of my bad DNA.

  • Anonymous

    The only way I can complete “big” tasks is to bust them up into smaller components and integrate those into the to-do list. That way, I feel like I’m making some kind of progress on them while not abandoning everything else–especially when my “everything else” seems to increasingly involve family obligations. I’ve tried all the online to-do management sites, and I always come back to a notebook as the best tool for keeping track of daily tasks.

  • Maria 'Gus' Raviele

    Hi Terry, glad you've settled in after the move. I have two big tips for dissertation writing. First, don't feel like you have to write pages and pages and pages every day. One thing I learned is that even if I spent my day doing nitpicky 'brainless' work on the diss, not to beat myself up for not writing. You're still getting diss stuff done that you would have to do eventually. It also gives your brain a break. Second, start in the middle. It's easier to write up your methods and background first than to start from the beginning with the introduction. I'd also suggest trying to get together with other grad students who might be writing. I didn't do a writing group every day, but it was a good change of scenery to go somewhere and be with people during the day instead of just in the office, alone, and probably reading the same sentence or paragraph over and over.

  • Maria ‘Gus’ Raviele

    Hi Terry, glad you've settled in after the move. I have two big tips for dissertation writing. First, don't feel like you have to write pages and pages and pages every day. One thing I learned is that even if I spent my day doing nitpicky 'brainless' work on the diss, not to beat myself up for not writing. You're still getting diss stuff done that you would have to do eventually. It also gives your brain a break. Second, start in the middle. It's easier to write up your methods and background first than to start from the beginning with the introduction. I'd also suggest trying to get together with other grad students who might be writing. I didn't do a writing group every day, but it was a good change of scenery to go somewhere and be with people during the day instead of just in the office, alone, and probably reading the same sentence or paragraph over and over.