Thursday, October 3, 2013

Planning for Success - an update on my time management system

As I'm constantly experimenting with what works for me, and how I can optimize my workflow, it should be of no surprise that my time management system tends to gradually evolve over time.

The last time that I discussed my time management system on PhD Talk is more than a year ago. Since then, I've changed some of my tools.

Even though I haven't changed my overall top-down approach for planning what needs to be done, I've made some changes in the tools that I use: I tried to reduce the number of tools that I draw upon, to improve the fluidity in my planning.

I was reminded of critically analyzing my time management system recently, after reading The Sunday Meeting on Inside Higher Ed. I still do my planning usually on a Friday, before heading home for the weekend.

My current approach looks like this:

1. Tools for planning

I split up my planning from the general overview, down to the daily task lists:

- The general overview
With paper deadlines and conferences always planned several months in advance, and teaching duties coming up, I need a good overall view of what needs to be done in which month.
I am keeping the general overview in Google Calender, and I've added additional calendars with my personal planning, the academic calendar of USFQ, the Dutch holidays and more. More and more, I am gravitating towards Google Calendar for planning.

- To Do lists

I've given up filling out the Word documents with my monthly and weekly to do lists - something that I have used during my entire PhD. Instead, I've started to incorporate Google Task lists. These integrate better with my planning in Google Calendar. I still review my planning every Friday evening, to make my daily appointments. That precise moment also serves as a moment to reflect on my progress and to ask myself why or why not I met my goals for this week; a method inspired by the monthly progress monitor.

- Daily appointments
Rather old-fashioned, but I keep my day-to-day appointments in a paper-and-pen type of planner. (It's bound in red leather with a pattern of roses on it, if that explains why I can't switch to a digital version). I write down my most important task(s) for the day, and have all my appointments written down and planned. Also, I write down my To Do list for the evening at the very bottom of the day page. I've expanded on how I structure my To Dos in a different post.

2. Tools for tracking

I'm not using RescueTime anymore, and since leaving my office and office computer in Delft, I've also not been adding what I did to ManicTime anymore. I do plan to start using ManicTime again - but I'd need to sync it over different machines.
LeechBlock and Cold Turkey come in handy when I need to ban myself from the distractions of the internet, but most of the time I prefer a different approach: whenever I feel the urge to give up my task and go browse around, I smile, acknowledge the urge, let it pass, and continue working.

3. Tools for reminding

This part of my approach did not have a solid foundation earlier, but by applying the Task lists in Google Calendar, and having both my planning and deadlines in a visual display together, I've overcome this hurdle in my planning.

How does your time management system work? Has it changed much over the past year? And what did you learn from changing your planning habits?


  1. Cool, I think the most important thing that you show here is care. You take a lot of care with your time management and many of the things you do are deliberate. i.e. to make an appointment you must open you nicely decorated book and write. Also it takes a little extra effort and consideration. This is only a good thing when it comes to goal setting and productivity. It means that you have to take time to consider exactly what you want to achieve and what is important.

  2. I agree - it might take me the extra few minutes per day to plan in this way, but it seems to wire something in my brain that makes sure I get things done

  3. Great advise, just started my PhD this month studying Ultra-High Performance Fibre Reinforced Concete. The early days are the difficult times, putting together a research proposal and organising data in general. I find your blog to be immensely educative.

  4. Thank you - and I'm interested in your research topic, feel free to contact me to tell me more about your research :)

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