The Productivity Systems that Keep Me on Track

Over the last seven years of my life (aka The PhD Years), I don’t think I developed any long-lasting systems of productivity. I tried a lot of things, but nothing ever stuck for long.

Now that I’m a professor, I feel like systems are the only way I get anything done these days. They’re also how I make sure that most things don’t slip through the cracks.

In this week’s post, I summarize some of the most useful systems I’ve developed over the first semester of my first year on the tenure track. Although I use them in my life as a professor, many can also be useful for students and other academics.

System 1: Microsoft Outlook

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about apps for better workflow.

Now, as part of my new job, I am beholden to a new suite of apps under Microsoft Outlook. When I first received my Outlook account, I will admit that I hated it. It was so foreign to me after nearly a decade of using Google, and there are some reasons for that.

Now, a little over a month into a very busy term, I don’t know where I’d be without Outlook.

The system I developed using Outlook is simple: put everything into your calendar. And I do – it’s all there. My class meetings, my office hours, and even my research time (when I actually have the time and energy to dedicate to my own research).

A screenshot of calendar in Microsoft Outlook.

Why do I do this?

Not just so that I know where to be and what to do when. It’s also so that I don’t accidentally double-book myself. Any time a meeting request comes through Outlook, it automatically checks for time conflicts.

System 2: My Post-Class Routine

My second system relates to my post-class routine.

The minute I return to my office after class has ended, I always make sure that the first thing I do when I sit down is upload the Powerpoint from class to our LMS (Canvas).

Sometimes this takes only a few seconds, other times, when the file is especially large, it might take a few minutes. Either way, I make sure that I do this first thing.

If I don’t, the second I leave campus for the day I am almost 100% sure that I will forget.

System 3: Sticky Notes

Speaking of forgetfulness, my third system involves the half a dozen sticky notes that I have posted all over my desk at any given time. Sticky notes are a big organizational technique for me (I’ve talked about using them in other contexts before). These notes are just another fail-safe way of combating my Swiss cheese brain.

The sticky notes on my desk contain everything from short-term to-do lists to things I may need to follow up on to longer-term plans that I don’t want to forget about. I also keep a running to-do list in my designated Teaching Notebook, which I carry around everywhere.

On an almost weekly basis I do a brain dump of all the things that I either need to do that day or over the next few days. This way I stay on top of everything that needs to get done. This is especially helpful when it comes to prepping for teaching.

Any given day might require a dozen or more tasks that must be completed before I feel 100% ready for the day.

System 4: Excel Sheet

My final system is a little more long-term, especially when it comes to thinking about future courses and the tenure process in general.

I keep an Excel sheet that does two things. First, I keep a running list of any advising meetings I have with students. I include information such as their name, standing, and a summary of what we discussed.

This use of the Excel sheet will be helpful when I need to report on my progress pre-tenure. I know that service, including advising, shouldn’t be a huge burden this year because I’m just getting started. But I obviously am never going to turn away a student if they come to talk to me about future plans or projects they’re interested in pursuing.

Second, the excel sheet also has a tab for reflections on my teaching experience. I got this idea from Dr. Catherine Tan on Twitter:

While I haven’t been as consistent as I was in the first few weeks of the term, I have found it to be a much easier method of reflection than sitting down and writing full entries in a journal.

For each class period, I record the date, the class number, and the highs and lows for that day. The entries might be a few words or a few sentences, depending on how it went. Common topics include the length of class, level of student engagement, and any fun anecdotes I can remember.

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