Creating a Productivity System that Works for Me

Like many people, I enjoy having a routine. This summer, after moving from a cubicle into a shared office space, I began going to campus more routinely and working a similar schedule each day. The regular schedule plus the commute activated more natural boundaries around “work” and “home” time. On campus, I focused a bit more and got distracted a bit less. Most important, I felt anchored. I cherish the self-directed and flexible nature of PhD life, but it sometimes left me feeling like a dandelion blowing in the wind.

This new routine has done wonders for my sense of well-being. But it hasn’t done much for my time management skills. I used to think I was great at time management because I always met my deadlines and my expectations. After an exhausting first semester in the PhD program nearly two years ago, I realized I was terrible at time management. The only reason why I met my deadlines (and satisfied my perfectionist tendencies) was that I let work take priority over everything else. If I didn’t feel like I had accomplished enough by 5:30, I’d keep working until 9, 10, or 11 pm. If I didn’t feel like I had gotten enough done enough by Friday evening, I’d let work consume Saturday and/or Sunday. This didn’t leave my body, my mind, or my husband very happy.

Since that realization, I’ve re-framed my attitude toward work (it is an important part of my life, but not the most important) and changed my practices (regularly went to campus). The fall semester started this week, which means goodbye languid summer days, hello bustling campus and fuller schedule. I don’t like feeling overwhelmed by this, and I don’t want to spend the next four months waiting for winter break.

Various productivity systems, designed for academic life and beyond, suggest keeping a detailed schedule or assigning specific tasks to each day. I tried these approaches and found them rigid and stifling. So I’m going to adapt their principles into a system that works for me.

First, I commit to a consistent weekday wake-up and go-to-bed time. My alarm goes off at the same time every weekday, but I snooze it for 5 to 75 minutes. I’d like to limit the snoozing to about 10 minutes. To help with that, I intend to go to bed at a consistent time, and to begin my bedtime routine 30 minutes prior to that bedtime.

Second, I will go to campus on weekdays unless I have a scheduling reason to work from home. My experience this summer reminded me that it’s much easier to treat the PhD as a job when it involves a distinct workplace and a commute.

Third, I’ll restart a practice I followed when I worked full-time — tracking my hours. I was fortunate to have supervisors who let me take comp time if I ever worked more than 40 hours per week, so you bet I tracked my hours. I can get obsessive with practices like this, which is why I refrained from tracking my hours as a PhD student. But since I work on various projects, eagerly say yes to other projects, tend to fall into rabbit holes while working on any project, and am a recovering perfectionist, I think time tracking is essential to improving my time management skills. I keep things simple and do this in a spreadsheet.

Fourth, I’ve created a task management workflow to help me figure out what to work on when. I’ve written a month-by-month list of my commitments, deadlines, and events. At the end of each week, I’ll spend half an hour previewing the next week. I’ll create a to-do list with the tasks that need to be completed that week. I’ll then look at the calendar and schedule time blocks to work on those tasks. As I go through the week, I can move things around if needed. After a few weeks of this, I hope to have a better sense of how much I can accomplish in a typical 40-ish hour week and how much time to budget for certain tasks. This will (hopefully) help me let go of the perfectionist tendencies, resist the temptation of distractions (Twitter, I’m looking at you) and understand the “price” of saying yes to a given task.

Finally, I commit to keep my campus desk tidy. Stalagmites of papers and books make my home desk an uncomfortable place to work, and looking at them unsettles my mind. Yes, I’d like to clean them off, but this is about baby steps. My campus desk is big enough that the two piles that have already sprouted aren’t in the way. I’d like to keep it that way.

So that’s my plan for this semester. Check with me in four months to see how it goes.

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