Keeping Track

The only way to complete any project is to return to it over and over again, doing the next task till it is complete.  The more projects you have, the more difficult this gets as one project distracts from the other.  This has no doubt lead to the sale of multi-million copies of books on time-management, prioritising and productivity in general.  As life becomes more and more complicated, it becomes more and more important the underlying systems work reliably, without needing constant tweaking.

This year is an experiment in deliberate living, which to me means observing how I ordinarily do things and tracking the changes that happen as I implement new ideas. This post outlines the systems I have in place for doing just that.

The first part is just daily habits for sanity — exercise, mediation, cooking etc.  Things that I tend to avoid as each individual instance is “not that important”, but continued neglect of which results in fatigue and depression.  For these, I feel that getting out my smartphone or computer to fill in a form or spreadsheet is overkill.  The simple solution which I implemented yesterday is to use a family calendar with each column representing one habit.  This hangs in my kitchen and takes only a few seconds to fill.  It also allows more detail — what kind of exercise? how many minutes of meditation? what did you cook?


The second part takes care of the overwhelming majority of projects of my life and this is the most stable part of my system.  I’ve been following David Allen’s GTD system (Getting Things Done) since 2008. In the last three years, I’ve converged to using the list manager Things.

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Finally, as had been noted elsewhere, the “Next physically actionable item” concept that drives GTD often falls flat when dealing with academic projects.  Usually, the physical action is always the same — to sit at the computer and open your editor. The “next item” is a multi-day project and there is no meaningful way to break it down into smaller components.  After a gruelling and satisfying day, you may still have no visible progress to tick something off your to-do list.

So although I use GTD’s capture system to capture new ideas that come along and to keep track of upcoming travel, conferences, job and fellowship applications, and general work errands, I find that when it comes to keeping track of research, what works best is a post-it note.  At the top of each note is the project’s name followed by the current task, the date you started that task and a few words describing the partially complete status.  The date reminds you the last time you worked on the project, so you can schedule some time to work on it if you’ve neglected it for too long.  These status messages will be moved to a log once I start on the next step .

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All in all, these three parts go a long way in keeping me productive and healthy.