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GTD for Academics

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  • GTD for Academics

    The end of the semester is not quite a crisis, but it is an odd mixture of going on vacation (from teaching) and going into battle (research and summer conferences), combining a lot of wrapping up and starting up at the same time. It's a good time to re-evaluate systems, and share ideas about what works and what doesn't. Additionally, I believe academics in the US will face some storms in the next few years, and it's time to batten down the hatches.

    In the last semester, I have radically changed how I view my work. In addition to the usual contexts, I have classified my list items by focus area. My focus areas are Research, Teaching, Other Work, Personal, Family & Friends, and Home. It's a conventional list, but I have sharpened the edges more than I ever have in the past. I have taken everything that doesn't directly lead to a manuscript or presentation by me out of research and into other work. Preparing one of my grad students for his Orals has been moved to Other Work, as has the project of getting another student out the door and into a postdoc. Ditto for refereeing other people's papers. Teaching now includes only projects where I have to show up and teach somebody something. All service stuff, including book reviews, curriculum discussions, et cetera, goes into other work.

    My reasoning is that teaching and research, as I have narrowly defined them, have different demands on my time and energy than most of the other things I do. Teaching is stuff that simply has to get done, period. I have to prepare for class and for lectures to lay audiences, I have to write exams. Once agreed to, these cannot be put off. For my last exam, I had two students in the hospital, and one competing in athletic championships. It all has to be dealt with on its own schedule. Research, on the other hand, requires both time and thought, and doesn't happen by itself. You have to nudge the wet noodle up the hill with your nose pretty much all the way. By eliminating the mundane from this focus area, I remove the illusion that research-related activities sustain my research, when it is actually the other way around. It might seem that Other Work is a dumping ground for all the stuff I don't really want to do, and that could easily be true. However, GTD gives me a good handle on everything. Really, Other Work is characterized by lots of smaller things to do, lots of interaction with other people, lots of mid-course correction. Much of it does not have a fixed deadline, or can be re-negotiated. Some of it is very important, if not for me, then for somebody else. It has to get done, but it can often be done in small windows of time.

    This has been perhaps overlong, but I thought it might stimulate some useful discussion.

  • #2
    re: GTD & Academics

    Sounds like you've really cleaned up the edges. As I've come to discover after a good 4 years of GTD, it will never take away the limitations on my time and energy -- indeed, it seems like the increased ability to collect and process reveals those limitations even more! -- but it still makes one much more productive than any other system I've tried.

    I finished the book The Clockwork Muse and found some great recommendations for keeping those larger projects on track. I also read this post on getting a calendar and putting giant red X's on every day you work on your main project. The key is to "not break the chain." Both of them have been very helpful for the seemingly more distant finish lines.

    I also have all of my projects with tags that sort in my digital system, very similar to how you have defined your things by areas of focus:

    Project-[Teaching] Finish prepping this course for Fall 08
    Project-[Teaching] Finalize the exam for this course
    Project-[Research] Complete the paper for the conference in November
    Project-[Research] Do some research on this concept / theory

    Those tags help me keep perspective on where I need to be directing my focus and effort. So all three of these things have been helping me the most lately.


    • #3
      Yes for Areas of Focus

      I too make extensive use of categorizing by areas of focus. Where anything represents a discrete project such as a research paper, upcoming conference presentation, or class (e.g. "Teaching: Spring 2008--Accounting 419" is about to come to completion), then it gets listed separately with appropriate NA's added as needed, but I find it helpful to list "one offs" under areas of focus.

      For example, anything I need to do that relates to being department chair goes under appropriate context, but is also listed under "Department Chair" as the project title in the GTD Outlook Add-In. Other areas of focus include advising, maintaining our business school's accreditation, and graduate program director (though that one is mercifully phasing out this summer).

      So this means I end up with a project list that has several projects as defined by "orthodox GTD" (anything with more than one step remaining to complete), many NA's that are listed under an area of focus that I essentially see as an ongoing project (e.g., department chair), and some stray things that I tag as Miscellaneous in the Add-In only so that they are all in one place when I view my NA's by project as opposed to by context.

      Thanks for bringing this up



      • #4
        Please check back

        I've long enjoyed your comments in these forums, mcogilvie, so please check back and let us know how this is going.

        It seems like once every several months I do some significant system tweaking. Sometimes because what I think is a better tool comes along, sometimes because my perspective changes. I'm involved in that again now.

        I typically experience some gains... at least in the beginning, so I suspect some of that is attributable to enthusiasm for the new. The real test is whether the "improvements" are still there 30 days later when I'm in the thick of things and the excitement has waned. Good luck!


        • #5
          Grant writing

          Hi a fellow professor and researcher, I like your ideas of areas of focus. I have similar ones but was wondering -- do you include grant writing under your research area of focus? I have two RO1 grants now and am always writing renewals, new grants, etc. and it obviously is very much connected to my research. But then is different and not the actual research and data analyses.

          I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

          Thanks, and best wishes!



          • #6
            Originally posted by Longstreet View Post
            Hi a fellow professor and researcher, I like your ideas of areas of focus. I have similar ones but was wondering -- do you include grant writing under your research area of focus? I have two RO1 grants now and am always writing renewals, new grants, etc. and it obviously is very much connected to my research. But then is different and not the actual research and data analyses.
            Hi Longstreet,

            My research is supported by the Department of Energy, which is probably the easiest of the granting agencies to work with. They basically have an exclusive on my personal research time, and our interaction is essentially annual. I'm a theorist, so that also simplifies things a lot. So no, I don't include grants under research. For me, the grant renewal is a high-priority "other work" project. From talking to my colleagues, I know that other agencies, such as NASA, can provide a roller coaster ride requiring daily attention at times. From what I hear about NIH funding, two RO1's is doing pretty well right now. I have been involved in some large interdisciplinary grants, but those are collaborative efforts that feel much more like "other work" than personal research.

            I have broken out Travel as a separate focus area (a Folder in Toodledo, which I am currently using) because that is driving a lot of my work right now. Of course, there is a lot of cross-over with research, but it is deadline-driven with lots of interacting parts, and mixes science (will this stuff be ready to talk about by then?) with administrative stuff (should I fly from Spain to Virginia directly, or stop at home to do laundry?). Something similar might work for grants for you.