Teaching, writing, researching: organising academia

I start my full teaching load in a few days.

Effectively, I am on campus/es Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday (that one hasn’t been decided) and then a 3 hour commute Thursday night to teach five hours on Friday (and then back again). The only way I am going to get through this is through organising myself very, very well.

I am a big fan of my iPad & I worry that I am not using it to its full potential when it comes to academia. I have written a little bit about this here, and I intend to keep exploring how this cool little device can be used for research, writing, time-management and especially document/pdf management which I think it has nailed down. But, the biggest problem I have is that I like my to-do lists to be analog. I like to write them down, I like to put a ‘completed’ line through them even more and I like to be able to see an overview. For these reasons and for writing notes on the fly, I just can’t get my iPad to replace my pen.

So, in the interest of expediency, I have decided to run both this semester.

I am also teaching both online and in person so this kinda fits in a way. I created an initial list of the main ‘stuff’ that I will need to deal with on a day-to-day basis and came up with the following:

  1. emails from students
  2. emails from other people involved in courses I teach
  3. Emails from admin for the universities I teach at
  4. Emails from the (yet another) university that I study at
  5. Emails from DA
  6. Emails and links to/for CFP
    • Editing tasks for journal I am attached to
    • Reviews/papers/conference abstracts etc
  7. emails for some bills – eg my phone
  8. Analogue bills – electricity etc …
  9. one-off and ongoing appointments – doctor, DA etc ..
  10. Dates for animal appointments
  11. One-off emails that need responses
  12. One off tasks that need attention
  13. PhD related tasks (and subtasks – obviously this is a big list)

ETC …. Phew!

There is an awful lot to be organised although it can be separated into three main types:

  • home/personal
  • PhD/research
  • teaching/student management

I asked around to see how others manage their workflow and the responses I received varied between digital only and digital/analog combinations. It seems that the academy has embraced technology but is still invested in tangible products. I get this – there is something about the smell of a book or a photocopy and something about drawing a line through a completed task that is lost in the digital translation. Perhaps I will eventually make the leap fully but for now I am content to use a combo approach.

I got the following response from a Grad Student who is due to submit in a few months. She is one of the most organised people I know and generous with sharing her workflow/organisational tools & approaches:

On email:

When it comes to email (which is the worst, by far), I learned a while back to keep everything separate. I don’t have my emails from one forwarded to another and I generally don’t let emails sit (if it requires a response, I respond right then). That being said, I do have several folders in my various email accounts that help me stay sane. Each has a ‘Action needed’ folder… And whenever I have something that can’t be dealt with immediately, I shove it in there. 

So basically what I do is this: I schedule the time for dealing with each body of emails – work email, uni email, personal emails, etc. Usually I start with the emails first thing in the morning, over coffee. I open my personal email (gmail), scan the emails, answer the ones I can immediately, file the ones that need a response in the action folder, then review the action folder for things I can now act on. If something has a specific due date, I will note it in my toodledo app and then I move on to the next email account (work) and do the same. Ditto for uni email. 

Now, let’s say I have work email from students. It’s a Thursday, when I only have an hour scheduled for work crap… so I scan the emails, answer the urgent ones, and file the rest in the action folder. I have office hours on Mondays from 1-4, so I know I will get to those non-urgent emails then – no need to even mark that in toodledo or put it on a to do list because the first thing I will do during office hours is deal with that action folder and anything new.

Same with personal email… If a bill notification comes in, I will stick it in the a tion folder and forget aboutit – because I know I have scheduled an hour on the 2nds and 16ths (after I get paid each month) to deal with the bills.

For me, it comes down to compartmentalizing and scheduling. I gave up trying to schedule every little thing or micro-manage it all… Now I just throw things in the folder and schedule regular predictable time to deal with that folder.

On research Tasks
For the diss, I use the reverse calendar. First, I set up toodledo with the long term main tasks only so i can stay on top of my due dates. I then use scrivener to make a larger to do list for that main tasks (like, write chapter 2). Then I go analogue… I keep a pad with a running list of things I need to do week by week and then day to day, in order to meet that due date for the big task. I like be able to physically scratch off a completed task – it feels good and helps my motivation.

A recent TT faculty member is more cross-platform like myself, she outlines her approach here:

On scheduling

I have block scheduled my week: research/writing every morning 9-12. Teaching prep thursday afternoons. Service (reviewing, meetings, etc) in in the afternoons. Teach in 2 evenings per week. Any afternoons that I don’t have service stuff to do, I spend on research and writing. 

On email
I don’t get a lot of email, so I tend to deal with those as they come in.

On using analog notebooks
I keep a moleskine notebook and sequentially number all my work tasks. I use the course number as a prefix for any teaching tasks, and use a project acronym as the prefix for my research tasks, so I can keep track of what goes with what. If i have a task tht has some lead time, i will put it in my notebook with a “by XXX date” with it (often in a different color ink). I love to cross items off as I finish them. I bring this book everywhere with me, and keep track of whatever work stuff comes up. I will make extra lists as appropriate – plot out a calendar for the week if I have a lot of meetings., make a list of deliverables for a particular project or overall for a term, whatever helps to keep track of things. I write everything down as it comes in. Everyday I put a new header for the date, and then I just keep going with my list. I don’t usually go to as fine a level of detail as individual emails etc., but if that works for you, use whatever it takes to stay organized.

I used to also keep my research notebook in the same book, but this term I have split them to a scheduling/planning book, and a separate research notebook. It seems to be working better, because now I can keep my research notes without having it jumbled with crossed off tasks that I really won’t care about in a year.

I keep track of all my files and data analysis notes in my research book, with enough details so that I can completely reconstruct what I did an why, even 5 years down the road. Notes for papers and stuff that I read goes into Sente, and then into Scrivener.

On personal stuff
I put reminders, tasks, and appointments for rest of my life in my phone. I don’t put any life stuff in my work notebooks. And I don’t usually put any work stuff in my phone, unless it is a meeting that I need an extra reminder for.

The iPad

Ironically, I have an iPad that i don’t use for work at all. Analog just works better for me. My system has had a few evolutionary changes over the years (like the switch to 2 notebooks), but I have basically been running this system in this fashion for about 6 years now.

More on scheduling
The best advice I have ever received about organizing my time is to block out chunks of time for particular activities and stick with it, week over week. I don’t have to worry about when I am going to do my teaching prep, because I know that I always do teaching prep on thursday afternoons. I have allocated my prime time to research, otherwise I will waste it on teaching stuff and fluff that I could easily do when I am more tired. The blocks might have to change a bit from term to term, but it works. It also has the advantage of putting you in the habit of doing things at particular times, and habit can be a great source of momentum for doing things when you really don’t feel like it.

These two answers were a great help to me and I had an ‘aha’ moment re the scheduling that they both mention.

The idea of scheduling blocks of time that are used week after week for the same thing simply had not occurred to me. I schedule blocks of time of course but I tend to be reactive regarding this and depend upon my schedule and especially my teaching load/hours to dictate how this will operate in any given semester. Now while this has to be the case in some respects as there is no point scheduling Tuesday 10-12am to deal with CFP’s when I am teaching 10:30-12:30. But, there are times where I know for a fact that I will be at home and these can be ideal for the scheduling under discussion here – for example, checking email from 6-7am daily (or 6-7pm if you prefer).

Note: Cal Newport’s Study Hacks has a great post about this approach to scheduling and discusses recurring and non-recurring tasks as well – you can find it here if you are interested in finding out more.

Tools of the trade

The digital

Because I am planning on using both digital and analog, and to separate work/research from home/personal (I love the example above of using the iPhone/iPad for personal stuff. The calendar app is great and I have a copy of my weekly teaching and consultation schedule together with room number and phone number of the person in charge of the course in there as well – this will help prevent double-booking of personal/work appointments and is a quick reference while I learn my new schedule.

The analog

I love Moleskine so I immediately went to their selection to find what I was looking for. I have used Moleskine notebook hacks previously and I do love them but I was looking for more structure with areas for recurring tasks in a diary-style environment. I found two possibilities; both are 10 inches and soft cover, and both combine a formal diary with a notebook. The weekly notebook/planner has a weekly schedule down the left hand side of the page and a ruled page on the right for notes, to-do’s etc. It’s a perfect combination for recurring and non recurring tasks, together with a month-at-a-glance for an umbrella overview. The Monthly Planner is similar in that it has a double-page with a monthly view followed by a double page of ruled paper and at the back there are 52 pages of ruled notebook paper. Both planners also have the wonderful Moleskine pocket at the back for daily ephemera that always seems to come in.

The monthly has 2 pages per month followed by 2 pages for notes

The weekly has a page for the week on the left with a page for notes on the right

I bought both as I was unsure which is going to best meet my needs. I figured I can use the second one for either a dedicated research diary/notebook or for home/personal. The both have advantages, and while I am drawn to the weekly, I really like the extra 52 pages offered by the monthly. I am going to spend some time setting them up this weekend to see which one ‘feels’ right and then go with that.

The combination

The last (but not of least importance) is portability. I am campus-hopping all week and need to know that I have my stuff with me wherever I go. I have an individual folder set up for each class (I will write about this setup in a different post) but I need my Moleskine planner and my iPad at all times.

Enter the Moleskine  10 inch laptop case.

Fits an iPad and a planner together perfectly

I found this at a local bookstore although you can get them through Amazon. It is a folder-like soft case with an elastic strap (of course) and the beauty of it is that it perfectly fits my iPad and my planner together. I haven’t decided if I am keeping my Apple iPad cover or ditching it (I love to hold a naked iPad but dust/dirt is an issue – this may be the answer to that). It has a nice black finish on the outside and a gorgeous butter-soft interior that will keep my iPad nice and clean. When I am traveling I have bunches of stuff in my bag and I was worried that my soft-cover planner would quickly get ruined. The case solves that problem as well – cool bananas!

It also has a beautiful, soft interior to help keep the iPad clean

So, I have the theory and the equipment, I just have to put them into practice. I will write again about how this is panning out and what I am learning along the way.

If you would like to get your own 10 inch laptop case or Moleskine planner/diaries –

you can find them at Amazon:

Moleskine Planner

Moleskine 10 inch case


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