In my prior life I was a devoted follower of David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity .  It’s a great organizational system for an IT professional and/or manager.

Adapting it to the life of an academic, however, has been going less smoothly.  So recently I decided to reread the book.  As any graduate student knows, however, there is ALWAYS more reading to be done than hours to do it.  So I “reread” the book as a an audio book downloaded onto my ipod.  (Side note: audio book downloads have saved my sanity.  Whether I want to quickly brush up on a related topic or de-stress with some fluff fiction, downloading the unabridged audio book and listening to it during my commute or exercise time has kept me from going insane!)

For those unfamiliar, the GTD methodology focuses on getting things out of your head.  The theory is that your brain isn’t made for keeping lists, which is why it is so very bad at it.  At best it will keep track of the fact that you were SUPPOSED to do something but not quite what.  That results in open loops, which cause more stress.  His solution is to get everything out of your head into a trusted system. 

The system includes processing rules and guidelines as well as lots of tools and tips for implementing them.  (And believe me, I can get totally buried in those tips when I am avoiding doing real work.)  But reviewing the material brought home to me new understanding of why my old methods were falling apart:

  1. As an academic, I rarely have small projects.  My projects are things like “write and submit journal article on why school lunch is a particularly ineffective surrogate measure of poverty for students in charter schools”.  Actually completing that task will probably take weeks or months and involve dozens or even hundreds of individual next actions.  But unlike the average GTDer that Allen talks about, I only have a few of those.  This makes it tempting to keep the project list in my head.
  2. It is very easy to get overwhelmed when everything is a BIG project, even if there are only a few of them.  The trick is always to break the project down and identify the very next thing I need to do to move it forward.  However again, when there are only a few of these it is easy to get out of the habit of actually writing them down.
  3. Contributing to the failure to write down next actions is that many of the projects are very similar: research and write article about blah.  The steps are the same although the details (which specific articles to read to prepare, what analysis to perform, etc) differ.  So why write down next actions when they are all the same?

These 3 items together have caused me to fall out of the habit of writing things down, which means I’m keeping them in my head again.

But there are really good reasons to break this before it becomes a  habit. 

  • Fewer lists means more mental processing space to really think creatively about these things
  • Writing them down gives me an opportunity to write more than just the next action.  Putting a project on a project list gives me the chance to envision my successful outcome and put boundaries around the project
  • Writing the project down also lets me get started on brainstorming ideas for it, at which point I may generate more next actions or even new projects

Having said that, I think I’m going to work up a checklist for the most common types of projects.  Writing a journal article has some pretty standard steps, and I think I can use Antony Johnston’s job sheets as a model.  If I have a checklist, then its a matter of tracking projects and having a checklist for each project that I work through.