A Productivity Tip for Postdocs

I had a bad start to the week last week. Bad in the sense that I was falling way short of what I wanted to achieve in the first three days. Actually I realised my productivity had been dropping gradually for a few weeks. Hmm.
 
I did get the urgent things done and some little jobs but I had set myself ambitious goals about tackling several big projects. These are projects in areas I know very little about, where I need to sit and think about how to tackle them, do some research, make a plan and then refine the plan as I go along.
 
For some reason this process just was not happening. I got side-tracked, kept losing the thread and escaped by doing other things instead. Procrastination central.
 
Eventually I got frustrated and stepped back (literally) from my computer and looked at my desk – which was a mess. This is not unusual. I often have a ‘busy’ desk if I’m in the middle of something; but usually I clean up once I’ve finished.
 
In his wisdom, Albert Einstein asked “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” So I prefer to alternate the state of my desk between ‘busy’ and ‘clear’!
 
But this time I realised it was a jumble of present and future work on the desk, plus a bunch of stuff I may need one day and can’t get myself to throw away … because my planning and workflow system had broken down. And all that clutter had gradually eroded my productivity, basically because I was feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
 
The second half of the week was a whole lot better. I use a modified version of the productivity and workflow system created by David Allen, author of ‘How to get things done’.
 
David Allen’s suggestions that I adopted as a postdoc (but sometimes neglect to follow)
 
1. Do not let documents you’re going to be working on pile up on your desk. Papers, reports, notes etc. should be filed away until needed (the same applies to files on your computer’s desktop). They may remind you that you have got a job to do, but they also clutter your desk – and your mind.
 
2. Create brief reminders of the work you need to do and get these organised in files that you review regularly. I do this in form of 1 sheet of paper per project or subject matter. I tried to do this electronically but writing by hand works better for me. I then do my planning of the steps I need to do on this piece of paper. Once steps are completed they get crossed out.
 
3. Create ‘work to do’ folders for the reminders that you review regularly to plan your days and weeks. Allen suggests you have a file for every day of the month and then one for every month of the year, but that created way too many files for my needs. Currently my main files are:
·‘to do this week’
·‘to do next week’
·‘to do next month’
 
4. When I plan my week I cycle all the reminder sheets of my current and future work in these folders. Everything in ‘To do this week’ gets looked at every day and either gets done and crossed out, scheduled for later in the week or moved into the ‘to do next week’ or ‘to do next month’ file. I look at the ‘to do next week’ file on Friday afternoon to plan the next week and the ‘To do next month file’ at the end of each month.
 
Why does this work?
       Since everything is written and kept in files I review regularly I don’t worry about forgetting things.
       I can plan and then methodically work my way through projects, one step at a time.
       I avoid desk (and brain) clutter.
 
Why did it break down and what have I learned?
       I had started to put actual work documents into my ‘work to do’ files which turned them into storage files. Because these files then became useless I stopped looking at them and started to make piles of actual work and associated notes and plans on my desk. That worked for a bit but jammed up the works once there were too many different projects involved.
       Lessons:
·      Once you have found a system that works for you it still needs regular maintenance and review. As projects become more complex or change, you need to keep assessing if what you are doing works.
·      If your system breaks down, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work for you, it may just need a spring clean – as mine did.
 
In the meantime things have improved on my desk (but are not perfect yet…)
       My piles of ‘actual work’ to file have moved from on top of the desk to under the desk with a big sticker on them ‘to file’. Since I have a Masters in walking past things once they are largely out of sight, it may be a while until these piles actually get filed away.
       There is still a small pile of actual work on my desk (as opposed to only my ‘to do this week’ file). I know I will need these papers and notes in the next couple of days – but then I promise to put them away! Put it down to channeling Einstein and resisting a completely empty desk …
 
What do you think? Do you use a similar system or do you find a desk stuffed with work good for getting things done? I look forward to your comments in the box below.

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