In my search for the best way to get things done, I read many books by productivity “gurus.” It seemed so easy. I would simply follow the guidelines in the book, and magically, I’d be productive. Of course, you and I both know that there is more involved in being productive and getting things done than just that, and that’s oversimplifying the productivity genre by a lot. Let’s just say that by the time I became a Ph.D. student, I was pretty desperate for something I could actually maintain and follow. These are the big influencing factors that have changed the way I work from a crazy disorganized haphazard they-exist-everywhere system of notes and lists to the much more streamlined system I now use, that I’ll discuss in detail in the second part of this series.
Early Productivity Influencers
I was pretty good at making lists. It was just that list-making alone wasn’t working anymore. I was using a bullet journal-type system long before that became popular and what it is now. I’d have my notebook that went everywhere with me, and in it I would make notes, jot down ideas for papers, and write my lists of things I needed to do. I would journal, I would write snippets of conversation, I would write poetry. It’s not that it was a terrible way of doing things, but it wasn’t allowing me to be as efficient as I knew I could be.
Developing a better to-do list
My list was scattered everywhere. I had tasks written in class notebooks, ideas for future research scrawled in the margins of books, notes and lists everywhere. In fact, my purse was like a bottomless pit of old to-do lists. It was a mess! Sometime around the time when I thought “This is not an efficient way of making sure I keep track of everything,” I picked up a Palm Pilot and started using Microsoft Outlook. I moved all my lists, ideas, notes, etc. to the computer.
I also read, sometime around this time, a book that talked about the most efficient ways to make lists, Brian Tracy’s Time Power*.
Brian Tracy’s Time Power
Reading this book was the first step to getting more done. There are some very good suggestions in the book. For example, when writing goals, don’t write “I want to own a successful business.” Write it, instead, as though it has already happened. You’ll also want to take a moment to rewrite those goals daily. Why? It helps put you into the mindset of already being where you want to be, and it helps to motivate you to get more things done.
There’s also the idea of the “brain dump.” Get everything down. All of it. Set a timer. List out every single thing you need to do. Then, from that list, choose what you will work on today. If something new crops up, don’t just do it now, add it to your to-do list first. Otherwise, you wind up putting out fires all day and not working on what needs doing from your original list. You’ll also want to prioritize your goals – A, B, and C.
Once I started following Tracy’s system, I started to feel much more in control of my to-do list, but I felt as though there were more I could be doing to really be productive and keep track of everything.
Seven Habits for Highly Effective People
I’m going to be honest here. I’ve not yet made it all the way through Covey’s seminal time management book*. It’s not one that really clicked with me and the way my brain works, and I’ve started it over and over and over. I don’t think that I will finish it. For some people, this book really clicks. For me, there were things I took from it – like separating out the roles that I play in life, beginning with the end in mind, giving value to others before you ask for value from them, and being pro-active and not reactive. Instead of reacting to things as they come up, it’s important instead to look at what might crop up and take actions necessary to attain desired results. I also started to look more at how balanced my life was and to make renewing myself, taking care of myself, and developing myself more of a priority than I had been. It actually seems, now on reflection, that I’ve internalized a lot more from that book than I initially thought I had.
In fact, after reading Seven Habits, I started separating out my to-do list into role-based to-dos. I still felt overwhelmed by the list, but it was sorted, I could see how things related to the different hats I was wearing (student, scholar, teaching assistant, research assistant, budding novelist, homeschooling mom, friend, etc.).