practical phd

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It took me years to come up with a time management system that worked for me.  YEARS. It has only been through trying different approaches that I figured out what works for me.  In fact, at different times in my education and career, different systems have worked. Making adjustments was necessary to find what works for me today.

During undergrad, I used a to do list and a wall calendar with deadlines for each class color coded along with my work and extracurricular schedules.  While this system worked well then, it didn’t fit when I transitioned to my first real job post-college. Where my coursework assignments all had hard deadlines, my work assignments included tasks that were ongoing or didn’t have set deadlines.  Some of that work was tasks I needed to repeat every week, but others were assignments that I needed to make progress on, but weren’t pressing. I had to find a way to balance the deadline work with the flexible work.

Lucky for me, my job offered a time management workshop that I attended to learn some new strategies.  I already used to do lists of what I needed to get done, but the workshop gave me a new system to try. The instructor taught a way of implementing goals by breaking up a larger goal into steps and mapping those steps onto the calendar by blocking off specific times to work on each task.  So if I needed to write a status report from a site visit, I might block off 2 hours each day to work on it around my meetings for a week or so depending on how long I thought it would take to complete. Same for any other task I needed to work on each week until my work days were filled with meetings and tasks.  I tried this for a few months. However, I found that it wasn’t flexible enough for my work style. The problem for me was that it was hard to predict how long most of my tasks would take to complete and for most of them, I preferred to focus on that task until I hit a stopping point or it was done. I found myself constantly readjusting my work task appointments in order to finish my assignments.  While that wasn’t necessarily time consuming to do, it was tedious and not how I wanted to be spending my time.

So when I started my MPA program and had an opportunity to take another time management workshop, I immediately signed up.  At that second time management workshop, I learned about remember the milk (RTM), a free task list website, which I began using to manage all my deadlines.  In RTM, I had a to do list for my MPA coursework, one for work deadlines, and one for my personal deadlines.  This helped me keep track of all of my hard deadlines.

After ditching the calendar block approach, I came up with a more flexible way to manage my day-to-day to dos that I still use today.  The solution that worked for me is pretty low tech. Each semester, I make a table in Word with a color coded column for each of my broader responsibilities like book project (previously dissertation), other research, teaching, home life, and other.  The rows in the table include a week level summary in which I note any hard deadlines in the appropriate column and then a row for each day of the week. I combine work and personal in this list since many personal things have to happen during business hours such as making doctor’s appointments.  

Every Monday morning, I take about 15 minutes to plan what I’m going to work on over the course of the week.  I map each specific task to the days and try to take into account other time commitments I have. As I complete tasks, I use the strikeout format to cross out what I’ve finished and I move around anything that is incomplete to the next day I can get to it.  I also add tasks as I realize what I thought was one step is really three. I like the flexibility of Word because when things takes longer than expected, as they often do, I can copy and paste the task from one day to the next.

These days I’ve been using this Word table and red calendar appointments on the days I have hard deadlines. When I have a longer list of deadlines as I did when I was applying to fellowships, jobs, and postdocs, I use RTM, but I no longer use it for one off deadlines for journal reviews, resubmissions, and CFP deadlines.  

What I’ve described here is my custom made time management system.  You can find your own custom time management by trial too. Remember that time management experts recommend only making one major change at a time and trying that change for at least 30 days before you decide it’s not working.  Part of why it took me years to perfect my system is I tried every new aspect for a semester rather than changing systems mid-semester. Whether you give it that long is up to you, but 30 days is a fair trial period. At the end of 30 days, assess what is working and what isn’t.  Make adjustments and try again. It’s worth the time and energy to find a system that works for you!

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