How I stay organized

I’ve had this conversation with several people over the past few weeks, so like most things I talk to people frequently about I figured it was a good idea to write it up.

Despite what you may think, in my personal life I am not a super organized person, my apartment is a disaster most times, as is my desk at work. Organization is not something that really came naturally to me, though I’ve always found it calming and it helps me keep my baseline level of anxiety about life at bit lower, which is why I stick to a system.

I am not here to tell you that you need to use my system, just to give an example of what works for me. I am a very tech centric person, so are my tools. Others may find a paper based system, like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Everything Notebook more helpful link here.

The center of how I remember things, and organize my day is a constantly updating list of things that need to be done. I manage all of this through Todoist. Everything from when the dogs need to have their quarterly flea and tick meds, to reoccurring work tasks to my weekly grocery shopping is organized here. Its digital, so its on my phone, computer, etc and I can link it to my email, so I can archive emails and have them pop up on my todo list later on, say if I need an email for a meeting in a week, or if need to follow up on an email in a month if I haven’t had a response. I can create reoccurring tasks, so I can remember things that need to be done on a regular basis, or even just once a year.

I also have two spreadsheets I maintain, one is a three year plan, where I can plop in things like conferences I want to attend, deadlines for abstracts, writing goals, when my brother is graduating from college, etc. I got got that idea from The Professor Is In. This helps me set long term goals, plan out my priorities for each month, and make sure I am not missing any big deadlines, like for grants, or graduating. I check this weekly, its one of my reoccurring Monday tasks.

I also have a spreadsheet where I keep track of all my projects, what the status is, who has it right now (especially helpful for manuscripts), example spreadsheet here when we next expect to meet/when I am next expected to contribute, what journals have rejected them, who I suggested for reviewers, etc. I got that idea from Alex Bond. I check this at least once a day, sometimes many times a day depending on what project I am working on in that moment.

I deal with email in two ways. If it will take me <5 minutes to reply, I do it right away. Otherwise the email gets added to my todolist, and gets answered at the end of the day, or gets scheduled for sometime in the future when I will have the information I need that way I don’t end up reading the same emails over and over and over again.

I’ve also found these three books very helpful in how I think about time management/organization and graduate school

A PhD Is Not Enough by Peter J. Feibelman

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Cal Newport’s Blog Study Hacks is also outstanding.

In summary, what I use, may not work for you, but I know very few people who are successful that don’t have some kind of system for managing their tasks and their time. It may take awhile to find what works for you, and I hope this has been helpful.

Questions - I’m on twitter @RallidaeRule or email aurielfournier[@]

Update 2017-11-13 - Now as a postdoc I have found time blocking to be really helpful in keeping myself on task and productive. I still use the above tools, but also block out my calendar either a few days or a week at a time to help myself stay on task and manage many competing items on my todo list.

Written on January 26, 2017