Organisation for PhD Success: Task Management

A few months ago I published a post on organisation to do with reading and referencing – that post was triggered by a conversation with my friend and fellow PhD student Lyuba (side-note, she’s started blogging – hoorah! Check out her blog here). This is the second post that came out of that conversation – how on Earth to keep track of all the things that you juggle as a PhD student?

Over the past 2 and a half years I’ve tried lots of different things, some have stuck, and others lasted little more than a week. Now I have a pretty set way to organise and keep track of everything; I’ve been using this method for about 18 months or so and it’s working well. I’m hoping that this post will help those of you who are struggling to keep track of multiple projects, and might encourage you to get a structured method of organisation in place going forward.

Working from a single, continual to do list

This is the thing that most people disagree with – but give me a chance. I work from one single to do list that never ends. It covers PhD work, other project work that I’m involved with, public engagement stuff, blog posts I want to write, Science On A Postcard work, household chores, self-care stuff, everything.

Previously, I’ve split tasks into different to do lists – one for work, one for home for example. That didn’t really work for me because I was spending too much time writing the lists, sorting tasks into lists, and then attempting to keep up with them all. One continual to do list means that everything I need to get done is written down in one place – granted, if I lose the list everything becomes a nightmare, but luckily that hasn’t happened yet! That list spans includes everything, at the moment it includes: ‘manicure before Thursday’, ‘book dentist appointment’, ‘drop dry cleaning off’, ‘finish systematic review chapter edits’, ‘review comments for journal manuscript’, ‘pay for writing retreat’, ‘upload new products to Etsy‘, ‘check interview location for Thursday’, ‘buy batteries for hallway clock’… I could go on.

I use a small To Do list pad I got from Paperchase last yearΒ  (left)- it’s nothing fancy, it was pretty cheap, and I don’t mind scribbling in it. It’s also got little boxes at the end of each line, meaning I can tick tasks off and easily see what’s done/needs doing. At the start of every year I used to spend so much money on stationery in an effort to get organised, none of those tools ever worked as well as this single list pad.

Long term tasks

When I spoke to Lyuba a few months ago, I explained the wonder of my single to do list, and she said ‘but what about really long term tasks?’. When she first asked I didn’t think that I had any one to keep track of these, but when I thought about it, I’m doing this without actively thinking about it. I use the desktop version of Outlook on my computer at work, and the Office 365 version at home – to track long term tasks that don’t fit on my single to do list, I use the ‘tasks’ function on Outlook.

For really long term tasks, I track these as ‘no date’ tasks – and the fact they’re on the list means that I’m still aware of them, but might not be actively be working on them. Other tasks get ‘next week’ or a custom date, which tends to be the following month. I check these tasks regularly because they’re right there when I’m writing and sending emails, which means that I don’t forget those tasks that I’ve said I’ll do months into the future.

Tracking your time

I’m aware that I’m in danger of looking like an organisation freak at this point, but my methods seem to be working so hopefully they’re helpful, rather than just something that people can mock.. Anyway, alongside my to do list and long term tasks list, I’ve started to block periods of time out of my calendar too. I use an Outlook calendar which is also on my iPhone too. At the start of each week I sit down and figure out when all my meetings are, what tasks need doing, and when I’m going to achieve each of those tasks.

An example week looks something like this:

This started because I was writing to do lists for each day, but I was finding it hard to strike the balance between lists that were too long (i.e. days when I had lots of meetings and not much time to get through work), or too short (i.e. days when I had no meetings, where I’d end up ‘finishing’ my daily to do list early on in the day). Blocking out pieces of time helps me to manage what I’m getting done and when, and also means that I’m more likely to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t working towards my goals for the day. Saying no isn’t something I like doing a lot a work, but with my thesis hand in date getting closer all the time, I’m finding that I really need to get my head down and write rather than helping out with this project and that. Blocking out a few hours to write makes me think twice about saying yes straight away – and that’s something I think a lot of postgraduate students need to do more often.

How do you keep track of everything that goes into your day-to-day life? Are you a fan of to do lists, or do you track everything through your phone? Leave a comment below – let’s share tips πŸ™‚

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6 thoughts on “Organisation for PhD Success: Task Management

  1. kylieball3

    Thanks Heidi, I enjoyed this post! Another tip I’ve found useful: I learned how to transfer incoming emails from my inbox, into a task or appointment in my Outlook calendar, to avoid my former (inefficient) habit of wading through countless emails repeatedly trying to identify which task/request was most urgent. Now I instead consider what action if any each email requires, how urgent it is, and how long it will take, then create a task or appointment in my calendar and attach the email there (and remove it from my inbox). Works much more efficiently for me!

    Liked by 1 person

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