30 Jun

my hybrid systems for keeping myself sorted: analogue

I’m finally getting this post on my analogue organisation systems out. It’s been in draft since the beginning of June and it looked like I was going to get it up earlier this week, but I kept forgetting to take photos of my notebook in the daylight. I finally remembered to do it very early this morning. The light is quite blue, which I didn’t notice til now. Ooops!

Anyway, onto the story.

A while back, I was spruiking the benefits of my approach to managing my time and my to do list with a bunch of friends over dinner. I think they were all a little taken aback by my enthusiasm for my system and the tools I use to make it work, and by the fact my system involved paper and pens.

At that time, I was using a week to a page paper planner with hourly time slots. They wondered how I could manage that without making a mess of my planner, and I introduced them to the wonders of erasable pens (which I then bought them for Christmas to illustrate my point).

I’m no longer running a paper agenda that breaks my day down hour-by-hour, but I am very reliant on my Traveler’s Notebook to keep me organised.

Although I am very much a technology lover, I also have a great #loveforanalogue (check out the hashtag on Instagram). When it comes to to do lists, I feel most organised and centered when I’m working with paper and a pen. I need to see everything in front of me and I need to have it with me wherever I am. The more I’m juggling, the more reliant I am on my paper to do lists. If it’s not on my list, it’s not going to happen.

Last week I blogged about Midori Traveler’s Notebooks, and my MTN is the core of my paper planning. Actually, the one I’m currently using is commonly known as a fauxdori because it’s not made by Midori, but by an artisan who started out selling via Etsy. Inside my leather notebook cover, I have a bunch of different inserts, some I’ve made, some I’ve bought. I don’t go anywhere without it. Sometimes it’s all I take with me (along with my phone, which is of course constantly in my hand), with a bit of cash and a credit card stashed in a card insert I have in there.

My Butterscotch Wanderlust notebook from Foxy Fix. It's the regular extra room size and has four pieces of elastic inside.

My Butterscotch Wanderlust notebook from Foxy Fix. It’s the regular extra room size and has four pieces of elastic inside.

It takes up a bit of space in my handbag, but my everyday handbag is monstrous. Even when I have a smaller bag, it’s worth the weight and volume because I have absolutely everything to hand. And I love the feel of it. The texture of the leather, the weight, and the way the width sits in my hand.

So let me tell you a little bit about how I use my MTN (I’ll call it that for shorthand, even though it’s not actually made by Midori).

The first thing I should say is that my system is not fixed. It’s an evolution. I’m constantly tweaking it from week to week. And that’s the really great thing about using a MTN. It’s a flexible system and it can evolve as I need it to.

Inside my MTN

Folder insert

I made myself a folder insert so I can tuck things I need to keep in here. At the moment, I’ve got a receipt for pizza I bought for a class, which I need to claim (I hate the expenses system at work so I store up my claims for ages), a gift voucher for the bookshop at work which I got for participating in research I think, and an Instax pic of the kids. In the back half of the folder I’ve got some receipts for tax and a template I use when I’m ruling up my weekly spreads.

On the right you can see the front of my semester calendar.

On the left, you can see the folder insert, and on the right you can see the front of my semester calendar (see below).

Semester calendar

I need this with me for quick reference. I have cut down and laminated a copy, then folded it in half to fit under one of the elastics in my notebook cover. I use it all the time.

Whichever way I set it up, I was going to have a blank spot on one of the four faces of this insert so I made it pretty with some scrapbooking paper (see previous pic).

On the left, the first opening of my semester calendar.

On the left, you can see the first opening of my semester calendar.

As you can see in these two photos, my semester calendar sits inside my homemade folder insert, and both of these are wrapped around the first book in my MTN, my monthly planner.

Monthly planner

I have a month to an opening Midori insert (refill 017) on which I map various things, including the days I plan to be in the office, major deadlines, leave and so forth. I plot these things using colour coded little dot stickers and block out leave time with washi tape or just by drawing a line through the dates and labeling it.

My monthly spread for July.

My monthly spread for July.

I’ve decided I don’t go in for planner decorating, but I thought I might back when I set this insert up over the summer. Hence the pineapple washi. Which is adorable, but does raise some eyebrows in Serious Academic Meetings.

The little clouds are sticky notes and were a necessity on this spread because I stuffed up in non-erasable pen. But I actually quite like the size and standout-ness because I can see at a glance when I’ve got something big on. Blue clouds are life things; white clouds are work things.

I use little colour dots to indicate specific things: green dots are work days when I know I’ll be on campus; blue dots are days I’m planning to work when I know I’ll be at home (I use blue dotes to indicate weekend days I’m working at home, not just work days I’m working at home, to help me keep track of my plans).

The washi tape strips on the calendar itself are functional: they block out periods of time to indicate specific things.

This insert is almost finished – July is the last month I can fit in here. Once it is finished, I think I will just draw up the monthly spread in my work notebook instead. I think I can easily draw this layout myself and it will reduce the bulk in my MTN a bit if I cut out one notebook.

Work notebook

My work notebook is up next, on the second piece of elastic in my notebook cover.

I don’t use a daily time-based paper planner. I used to copy my commitments for the week into a weekly planner insert so I could see exactly where I had blocks of time to get work done. For a while this worked okay, until I had probably the most important realisation I’ve ever had about the way I schedule my days and my workflows: I’m kidding myself if I think I’m going to get anything done on meeting days. When I’m on campus, I generally have meetings all day and any in between time gets absorbed in hallway conversations. So there is absolutely no point in having a visual reminder of where I’ve got time to work, because if I’ve got stuff scheduled, I won’t have time to work anyway. In addition to that, I need to see my to dos for the week on a weekly spread, and there wasn’t enough room to put them on my weekly planner page.

I use a Midori grid notebook (refill 002) to make task lists on a weekly layout. I use a two page spread split up into sections:

  • one large section where I compile a running to do list for the week, on the right of the spread
  • five smaller sections for Monday to Friday
  • two even smaller sections for Saturday and Sunday.

Some work gets scheduled for a specific day. For example, this week final grades were due on Monday and I also needed to send back students’ assignments, so that went on Monday’s list. On Tuesday I needed to get a complete draft of a project report out to the project team for review, so was on Tuesday’s list. I also note things that are due on a particular date in that day’s section.

In a perfect world I wouldn’t schedule more than one big task or three smaller ones on any day, but in reality, I blow that out of the water fairly often. To avoid over scheduling my days, I compile a running to do list for the week. I try to get through the whole list in the week but that rarely happens.

This is last week's spread. I'm in project completion mode so that to do list is really about capturing things for later, so I don't forget, rather than about doing them now.

This is last week’s spread. I’m in project completion mode so that to do list on the right is really about capturing things for later, so I don’t forget, rather than about doing them now.

On Sunday, I draw up the next week’s spread (although at the moment I’ve been drawing them up a few at a time in advance, to save getting the stamps out every week) and start transferring things over and plotting out what I need to get done for the week ahead.

So far, this hand drawn and stamped layout is working really well for me. I’d rather not have to draw it up, but it’s not hard and a small sacrifice to make to have the perfect spread. I could design a layout and print my own insert pages, but I really like the Midori paper. I’m thinking about buying some Tomoe River paper to print my own notebook pages on. There’s heaps of tutorials online for making your own notebooks.

I’m also going to add some teaching related spreads to this notebook, inspired by a YouTube video I watched last night on bullet journalling for teachers and academics. I want to create a content list for content I need to create, a topic planner, and a page to make notes about things that didn’t work that I want to change for next year.

Bits and pieces

Next up I have a couple of plastic inserts, including a zipper insert and a card holder.

First up, the zipper insert. It has a post it on there with a bullet journalling key, which I don’t actually use because I use modified symbols. They’re just in my head, not written down anywhere. The standard version is pretty intuitive and my version is even simpler, because I don’t mix notes and events in with my planning.


Inside my zipper insert, I have a little glassine envelope with some Midori paperclips inside (four or five of which came free in this envelope with a Scratch and Jotter order, which was a cute touch), some little cloud post its (super cheap on eBay), and a paper bag with some coloured dot stickers inside.


Then I’ve got my card insert with some discount codes for online stores, wifi passwords, and the little ticket for my graduation photos – from my undergrad degree, no less! I still haven’t ordered them, but the digital files for my PhD graduation came yesterday. Not sure if I’ll ever get round to ordering my undergrad pics, although I did order the proofs a couple of years ago.


Lists and stuff notebook

On the last piece of elastic in my MTN I have my lists and stuff notebook, complete with title card decorated by Miss 7.


This is a Midori grid notebook where I make lists and notes to do with life stuff. I use the collections principle from bullet journalling to create lists that I add to over time. I have lists for books I want to buy, TV shows I want to watch, movies Mr 7 wants to watch when he’s older, gift ideas, fabric I love that I might want to rebuy, names and contact details for tradies, lists of things we need to do around the house, lists of things I need to buy… I brain dump all of this stuff into this notebook, which has numbered pages that are indexed at the front of the book (theoretically – I’m crap at maintaining the index).

Notes about some doll's clothes I'm making Miss 7 on the left and dimensions for the homemade folder inserts on the right.

Notes about some doll’s clothes I’m making Miss 7 on the left and dimensions for the homemade folder inserts on the right.

Renovation notes.

Renovation notes.

Some things obviously need to be written down, like my renovation notes. Other things – like lists of books I want to read – might seem like they’re not necessarily a part of a productivity system. But the reality is that while this is not work stuff, getting it out of my head is an important process in reducing cognitive load. I don’t have to think about remembering this stuff because I know it’s been captured, which means less worrying about whether I’m remembering everything I need to remember. So this particular notebook is really important in keeping my head clear.

That’s it!

So that’s my analogue system for keeping my self sorted. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but that’s the beauty of the MTN system. It’s infinitely flexible and customisable.

And that’s also it for #blogjune! I didn’t quite make it to a post every day this time round, which is a bit slack really, particularly seeing I managed more last year when I was finishing my PhD. But I got to a respectable 22 posts and I’m pretty happy with that. I’m even more happy with the great conversations I’ve had this month. There have been some great posts and I’ve really enjoyed reading them and reconnecting with people I haven’t talked to in a while. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it a little bit too much, using it as an opportunity to procrastinate! But it’s been a lot of fun. Thanks for the conversations and procrastination fodder, everyone!

#blogjune 22/30

26 Jun

principles that underpin my productivity and time management systems

Public domain image courtesy Eric Rothermel at Unsplash

Public domain image courtesy Eric Rothermel at Unsplash

For pretty much the whole of June, I’ve been sporadically working on a post about how I keep myself organised, in response to Rachel’s post on the topic. It’s ended up incredibly long, so I’ve decided to split it into three posts: one on principles; one on how I use technology; and one on my analogue systems.

This post is about the principles that underpin how I organise my time and to dos.

Time and task management approaches

Like Alisa, I use a combination of bullet journalling and David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD).

I use bullet journalling approaches to managing my paper notebooks (more in a later post).

I also apply some of the basic GTD principles in a pretty lightweight way.

  • I use GTD principles for processing actions, but all of my actions go onto a single list – or onto a day in my bullet journal – rather than onto separate context-specific lists.
  • I use a lightweight version of the ‘someday/maybe’ approach to getting ideas down for later by using an EverNote notebook to record ideas I don’t want to lose track of.
  • I do a simplified weekly review, which is based around the process of migrating items in my bullet journal and organising my calendar for the coming week.
  • I try to operate with my version of an empty inbox, which is 20 to 50 items. I don’t know why, but I just cannot get my inbox under that. This is is something I’d like to change.

Over the years I’ve found that if I use a full implementation of GTD, I spend a lot of time managing my system. It becomes a chore and a distraction.

The right balance of working at home and on campus

I work at home quite a lot. The right balance for me in terms of managing my workload and minimising commute time is to have three days at home each week. That doesn’t always happen, but if I have any less than two days at home in a given week I start to fall behind on everything. That’s because I’m usually on campus for a reason – to meet with people or to teach – and my time is therefore fragmented. I also spend a lot of time in incidental conversations when I’m on campus, and I lose about three hours a day to commuting.

It’s also important to me to have enough time on campus. After three days at home in a row, I am desperate for some contact with other people and I really, really need to get out of the house.

Meeting free Mondays

This year I’ve been having meeting free Mondays. The idea is that I’ll spend Mondays at home and won’t have any Skype meetings. I haven’t managed to preserve them every week, but most weeks my Mondays have been mostly meeting free. My intention was to spend Mondays on research but the reality is I used them for preparing learning resources and shooting teaching videos. Even though I didn’t use the time for what I intended, having that day up my sleeve made a huge difference to my teaching experience this semester. Next semester I’ll be teaching Mondays, both day and night, so I need to find another meeting free day. It will probably be Tuesday.

Consolidating meetings

My biggest struggle in terms of workload management is carving out time to work uninterrupted, which is pretty essential for research and writing. I do a fair bit of diary wrangling to consolidate a majority of my meetings into two or three days a week.

Maintaining an up to date calendar

My work Outlook calendar is always up to date and always a true reflection of where I am and what I’m doing. I’m going to cover this in more detail in my post on the tech parts of my system, but in a nutshell, having an up to date calendar is a critical part of my system.

Realistic planning for task management

There’s nothing worse than getting to Friday and realising you’re still working off Monday’s to do list. I try really hard to be realistic with my daily task management. In a perfect world I wouldn’t schedule more than one big task or three smaller ones on any day. In reality, I blow that out of the water fairly often, but over-scheduling is really a killer.

I had a really critical realisation recently about the way I schedule my days and my workflows: I’m kidding myself if I think I’m going to get anything done on meeting days. When I’m on campus, I generally have meetings all day and any in between time gets absorbed in hallway conversations. I no longer schedule tasks for those days.

To avoid over scheduling my days, I compile a running to do list for the week, in addition to planning to tackle individual tasks on specific days. I try to get through the whole list in the week but that rarely happens. I reassess and migrate anything that’s still important on a Sunday when I set myself up for the coming week.

So that’s it for the basic principles. I’ll be back tomorrow with an overview of the techy parts of my approach to managing my time.

#blogjune 20/30

08 Jun

outsource all the things

Since everyone is crazy busy these days, I thought I’d write some posts about some of the things I do to save time and be more efficient. I’m calling them productivity ninja tips, and I’ll be cross posting some of them on my teaching and learning blog, too. Today’s post is about outsourcing.

Public domain image courtesy Pascal via flickr

Public domain image courtesy Pascal via flickr

So let’s get started with outsourcing. I’m rather fond of outsourcing.

I try to increase my efficiency by outsourcing as many of the things that don’t need to be done by me – i.e. that don’t require me to use my brain or be physically present – as I possibly can. Sometimes these are things I really want to do (like making the kids’ birthday party invites) but that I know I will obsess over and spend way too much time on.

I also outsource the shit jobs I don’t want to do.

Here are some of the things I outsource, why I outsource them, and what you can expect to pay for these services.


I have a cleaner and I will never, ever not have a cleaner, even if I have to give up buying coffee to fund it. There is nothing better than coming home from work to a clean house. So good. Having a cleaner costs $30 an hour and it takes three hours to clean our four bedroom house once a fortnight. This includes a lot of dusting because we have a lot of ‘stuff’ around the house. The dusting is important because I have bad allergies. We do very little in between, and she manages to squeeze in things like cleaning the fans, doing the skirting boards and cornices, and cleaning the oven at intervals.


I outsource transcription of research interviews. Have you ever transcribed an hour of audio? Me neither, and I don’t plan on ever trying. I am so slow at transcription that it makes absolutely no sense for me to spend my time doing it. I know some researchers find it’s important for them to transcribe their own interviews to really feel like they’re across the data. I’m fortunate to have a good memory and that, combined with written reflections I make straight after each interview, means that transcripts are really all I need. And I can always go back to the audio if I need to. I recently used Interim Business Solutions to transcribe a chunk of my thesis that I dictated while driving from Brisbane to Toowoomba. They did a great job and turned it around super fast. Transcription prices vary depending on a variety of factors like audio quality, number of speakers, and turn around time. You generally pay per audio minute.

Transcription is not just good for research either. A little while back, I paid to have someone transcribe all of the mini lecture videos I have made for my teaching. This meant I had scripts to work from and allowed me to easily edit and update the content without starting from scratch. I think it cost me about $700 to get all my mini lectures transcribed for two units. I’ve since used and updated the scripts twice.


kate2 (1)This post was actually prompted by the job I’m currently outsourcing: creation of avatars for the participants in my PhD study. This one has a back story. Do you know about Fiverr? The principle of Fiverr is that you pay a fiver for everything. I LOVE Fiverr. I also love a particular artist on there who has done quite a bit of work for me. For Christmas, I got avatars made for my team, based on photos I sent her and ideas I gave her for what I wanted them to wear and be holding in their pics. That’s me, over to the left there, complete with lifelike tiny waist and great pins. Thank you, Anastasiia! I found her via Corin, who had an awesome avatar drawn and posted it on Instagram. Fortunately I caught her before she got really busy and increased her prices (every cent of which she deserves, btw), so I managed to get 14 characters drawn at a ridiculous price. Her current rate is still extremely reasonable, with a photo likeness avatar costing $45.

JacquiRight, so that’s the back story, and now onto the current job. My research is heavily grounded in my participants’ narratives and it’s incredibly important to me that I retain their individual presences in the narrative I’ve built around the data. I’m introducing the participants by presenting a social media profile for each person, and Anastasiia is drawing an avatar for each participant. These are cartoons without photo likeness, because obviously I can’t show my participants’ faces, even in cartoon format. I’ve given the artist a brief that includes something that makes me think of the particular participant. At right: the participant I’m calling Jacqui (pseudonym).

My only concern with services like Fiverr is sometimes the prices are really low and I’m uncomfortable paying them. It feels exploitative. For this latest batch, I’ve insisted on paying more than I was quoted. She did the first four, and I asked for some changes, so I have insisted on paying more again for the remaining avatars to make up for the extra work.

Etsy is a great source for getting custom work done, too, like kids’ birthday party invites. I’m definitely capable of doing this work myself, but I tend to spend way too much time on it because it’s fun and I’m a perfectionist. In previous years, I’ve picked a design, supplied a photo and asked for customisations, and you get back a good looking file for $25. This year, I bought a whole bunch of graphic elements on Etsy and then made the invites myself. The graphic elements I bought cost about $15 or $20 in total and included cartoon character versions of our favourite Star Wars and Frozen people, as well as backgrounds.

Web work

I’ve also used Fiverr to get a basic stylesheet created when I didn’t have time to build it myself. My students wanted one for an assignment. It wasn’t part of the assignment, but they wanted to be able to see what their HTML looked like styled, and I can’t justify spending hours on something that isn’t actually part of the assignment. I can, however, justify paying someone else to make one. It wasn’t perfect and I had to do some editing, but for $5 (or the $15 I insisted on paying because $5 is ridiculous) it was pretty damn good. $15 is still crazy cheap but I feel okay about it because I had basically no design parameters and was happy for them to reuse something existing.

Freelancer is another great option for getting a whole bunch of stuff done, though I’m tending to go for Fiverr more these days. When I put a job on Freelancer I find the process of choosing an offer really overwhelming. I’ve used Freelancer mostly to get WordPress themes edited when I want to tweak a theme a bit but don’t have time to mess around. My last Freelancer job involved some CSS and PHP work on a WordPress theme – probably about an hour of work – and cost about $50, which is pretty damn good.

There’s also a guy I’ve had help me with moving websites around, who I’m about to contact again about another job. I found this guy because he makes a WordPress plugin for preparing sites to move servers and he’s done a few jobs for me (including moving a conference website). Again, I’m capable of doing this myself, but I’m slow and it’s more efficient to pay someone. The last move he did for me was a reasonably complex move involving a stack of email accounts moves too and it cost me €80.


I ‘outsource’ bill paying and finance management to my sister. Granted, she doesn’t get paid, but this is a division of labour thing. We trade off on other things.

What I don’t outsource

As far as work goes, I don’t outsource core business stuff that I should be doing myself or that I should be looking for my organisation to cover. I tend to outsource the things that are ‘extras’, or the things that are part of my broader professional life, like maintaining my personal professional websites. It’s just like delegating to one of my team, except it’s a broader team.

I know I’m lucky

This feels like a really middle class, self important post to write, but I think it’s actually important to fess up to how I manage competing priorities because it’s not easy and it has personal impact. Working the way I do and at the pace I do has a cost. That cost can be time, or it can be money, or it can be both. I am by no means flash for cash, but I’m even less flash for time. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty that I can afford to outsource. But the thing is, I make trade offs. If I can claw back a few hours of writing time by paying $50 for some WordPress tweaks, that’s a good trade off for me. It’s about using my time for the things I’m really good at or that I need to do myself, or for the really important things like getting to school assembly when someone is student of the week. And I trade off on things like going away for holidays to fund some of my outsourcing. I’d rather get my house cleaned once a fortnight than go away for a week every year. For realz. Because the cleaning has a much bigger impact on my day to day.

Over to you!

I am currently looking for a designer to pretty up the diagrams for my thesis. If you have any suggestions, I’d be grateful to have them!

What do you outsource?

#blogjune 8/30

13 Dec

my academic writing productivity pattern is shot

I’ve written about 40,000 words in the last four weeks. But I could have written more.

I have noticed a pattern and today, in one of my bazillion chats with my virtual office / PhD buddy, she articulated this pattern perfectly and I went “ohemgee, you’re right”.

The pattern goes like this: mad, crazy, frantic productivity > flailing about trying to be productive > complete lack of productivity > repeat.

I can write up to 4000 words in a day. (I know: I am very, very lucky.) But the next day, I invariably spend most of the day trying to get started and hating myself for my lack of motivation, my lack of discipline, and my ability to be busy doing nothing all day. So on day two, I rarely actually get any writing done.

And that’s a problem, because once I have a break from writing, I get stuck and I find it incredibly difficult to get past the inertia and get writing again.

Everyone talks about the sprint to the PhD finish line. And almost everyone talks about how it’s not actually a sprint, but a marathon. My problem is I’m attempting to run the marathon at sprint pace. So I’ll pump out 2000 or 3000 or 4000 words and at the end of the day I’ll practically fall over the finish line. The next day, I brush myself off and take another look at the finish line I crossed the day before and I realise it was actually a mirage, and the *real* finish line is about another million kilometres away. And then I am filled with despair over how much track lies in front of me so I stop and look for four leaf clovers. Then I crawl a bit more. Then I watch the crowd. Then I do some online shopping. Then the day is over and I’ve gone nowhere and I know that tomorrow the distance I have to make up is going to feel completely and utterly overwhelming so I’ll just do nothing and then that’s it!

I’m no longer running the race.

I stopped.

I have to go back to the blocks and start all over again. And that takes a whole lot of mental preparation.

21 Sep

modified pomodoro technique for getting shit done

Today Penny tweeted about having an unproductive week and suggested maybe she should have a break from social media. I tweeted back saying that usually when I’m unmotivated, I use social media distraction as an excuse for being unproductive, when the reality is I am just unmotivated. My point: don’t give up social media unless the problem is *really* social media. And even then, don’t give it up – just modify the way you use it.

So how do you get stuff done when you’re either distracted by social media or unmotivated? For me, the answer is the Pomodoro Technique.

I heard about the Pomodoro Technique from my friend and colleague Zaana. The principle is you focus on one task and work intensively on it for short bursts of time. Traditionally, a Pomodoro session runs for 25 minutes. During that 25 minutes you work exclusively on the task you set yourself, and at the end, you take a five minute break.

I do a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique. I find I need longer than 25 minutes when I’m working on research, so I work for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break. When I start a session, I put my phone on silent  and I leave it face down on my desk so I don’t see notifications. I also close distraction apps like TweetDeck and Outlook and then I put my head down and go. During my 15 minute break, I’ll get up and make a coffee, answer email, catch up on Twitter, take a Pinterest break, look at my favourite fabric stores to see what’s new, work on my schedule, plan what I’m going to do next, check my grocery order, work on a blog post, catch up with RSS feeds… Most of the time I do some kind of work in my 15 minute break, but it’s still a break because I’m switching tasks. I try to restrict my social media use to my breaks and it helps that I often do Pomodoro bursts with a friend, so we tweet as a start gun and then when we’re finished, we check in with each other on Twitter to see how we both went. Being accountable to someone else for finishing the session is a really good motivator, and it also gives a sense of working in a team environment when I’m actually squirreled away at home (and so is the colleague I’m working with).

I use a Pomodoro app (Easy Pomodoro, available from the Mac App Store), which not only times the sessions, but also allows me to name them. Last Saturday, I called my sessions ‘Sorting Saturday’; Wednesday was ‘Whacked out Wednesday’; Thursday was ‘Think it through Thursday’. The app gives me a quick view of how many sessions I’ve completed for each session name, which means at the end of the week, I can quickly see how many sessions I got through in the week.

I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique every day, but when I’m distracted or unmotivated, it really helps me push through and get stuff done (without killing my social media time).

29 Aug

when the pursuit of efficiency makes you completely inefficient

I am all about efficiency. I’m a task monster. I like to strike stuff off my to do list.

As a task monster, I try to do things the most efficient way possible. My quest is to find the fastest way to do a task without compromising on quality, and without impacting on my workload down the road.

Here’s an example.

I started coding my interview transcripts for my PhD in Word, using comments. I thought this would help me see the codes in context. I quickly realised this wasn’t going to work. After one transcript, it became clear I needed a system to help me manage the codes. So I followed up on research I’d done earlier about qualitative data analysis software. I bought and installed HyperRESEARCH and started coding my transcripts. Along the way, I generated almost 1500 codes. Two weeks ago, I hit a point where I was ready to start coding at a higher level… to start moving from codes to categories.

I have spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to manage this process in practical terms. And my preoccupation with efficiency means I stalled, in a big way, and I haven’t made nearly enough progress.

Rather than just getting in and getting it done, I have been fretting about finding the most efficient way to do this. My concern was I knew I couldn’t sort my codes in HyperRESEARCH because it wouldn’t support my workflow (and I only realised this after I’d done a lot of coding using the software). I didn’t want to do it anywhere else, though, because ultimately, I’ll have to put everything back into HyperRESEARCH to map the categories with the original codes and the chunks of transcript they relate to. I became so caught up in doing this in a way that wouldn’t impact on my workload down the track that I just didn’t do the work at all.

This morning I sat at my desk and cried because I couldn’t fathom how to get out of this quicksand and make some progress. Then I DMed one of my PhD ledge buddies (@zaana) in frustration and in amongst her very practical and helpful reply was this gem:

i think the reality is that some of the ways we need to synthesise & sense make are just not efficient but at least you know you’ll get there

I don’t actually know I’ll get there. Not today. Some days I know it, but today isn’t one of them. But apart from this last phrase, the rest of this statement resonates. Sense making is messy. (It’s also other things, for me personally: it’s happens through crafting a story in a visual way, but that’s a digression.) So I just need to let it *be* messy, or whatever else it needs to be in order to make some progress.

So I made a plan. Breakfast (at midday – is it any wonder I was crying into my keyboard at 11am? I couldn’t find the tomato sauce for my french toast so I skipped breakfast.) > coffee > blog post > JUST FREAKING DO IT.

Because ultimately, staring at the wall, crying, while I sink further into quicksand is not very efficient at all.

09 Aug

in pursuit of the perfect weekly planner

I’m a really visual person. I need to see my week laid out in front of me on a single page, and because I don’t use a paper diary, I need a weekly planner to do this. I like to have a visual map of my time so I know when I’m committed, and when I can be working on stuff that requires concentration (like my PhD).

On weekdays, I like to plan my day out in blocks of time, assigning an hour or two to particular tasks. These get moved around during the week, but allocating them time helps keep everything in perspective. So my planner needs to have time slots mapped out for weekdays and those time slots need to extend beyond normal business hours, because I start work early and finish late.

The bulk of my work right now is my PhD, and this means I need to focus on micro goals because looking at the big picture is scary as hell. So I need a space to make a note of one or two things I want to achieve in a day. I also need space to note down my focus for the week and to remind myself of my next deadline.

In addition to the diary-style weekday section, I need a section for work I plan to tackle on Saturday (because the reality is I really need to work six days a week). And I need space to write a list of the fun things I’ve got planned for Sunday. This last space is important, because having plans for Sunday helps me keep on track.

I am also trying really hard to stick to a weekly menu plan, and rather than have a separate menu planner, I want to keep track of this on my weekly planner.

That is an extensive list of criteria. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been hunting for a weekly planner that does all of these things for a long time. I’ve looked on Etsy and scoured Pinterest in search of a downloadable planner, but none of them did what I needed them to do. So I finally made my own.

It’s not an example of awesome design but it’s also not ugly. And it’s functional. I’ve tweaked it over the last three weeks to evolve it into the perfect planner. I’ve shared it with a couple of colleagues who have found it useful, so I thought I’d post it here, too. Here’s what it looks like:


If you would like to use the Word version (which will allow you to customise the planner), you will need to install three fonts:

I’ve made a number of different versions for myself and a couple of friends. Here they all are:

  • The Kate: This is my version of the planner. It includes space to note a focus for the week, upcoming deadlines, a goal for each day, and lunch and dinner plans for each day. Times run 7.30am to 7.30pm. Sunday has space for me to note down fun plans. Word | PDF
  • The Dinnerless Kate: This planner has all the same spaces as the one above except meals. Word | PDF
  • The Kate In Reverse: This planner has all the same spaces as The Kate but the day starts and finishes later and Saturday is fun-day, instead of Sunday. Times run 8.30am to 8pm. Word | PDF
  • The Miss 11: An orange version, with a space for a name. I made this one for a friend’s daughter who has lots of activities to track. Times run 7.30am to 7pm. Sunday is the fun day. No spaces for meals on this one. Word | PDF
  • The Miss 11 Version 2: Another orange version with a space for a name, but this time with times running 6.30am to 8pm. No spaces for meals on this one. Word | PDF

Happy planning!

27 Jul

three things i don’t know how to do

There are lots of things I don’t know how to do. These are the three I struggled with today*.

I don’t know how to do a PhD

Today I coded a transcript of an interview. It was great! What fun, to be able to sit and think and interpret really interesting content. (I’m not being sarcastic – it is actually fun, and a privilege.) But in the in-between movements, I kept thinking oh-my-god-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-surely-I-must-be-doing-this-wrong-I-can’t-even-code-a-transcript-how-can-I-write-a-thesis.

But then I remembered I don’t actually have to know exactly what I’m doing because the whole point of doing a PhD is to learn to be a researcher. And then I thought oh-my-god-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-surely-I-can’t-write-a-thesis. And then I stopped thinking and went and made some more tea.

I don’t know how to do one thing at a time

I’m so used to frantically multi-tasking that I have completely lost the ability to do just one thing at a time. Actually (as an old friend told me the other day in an instant messaging conversation I was having while I was on a Skype call followed by answering email), I never knew how to do one thing at a time. My attention span sucks. I can’t even watch TV without writing a blog post or answering email or having a conversation via DM on Twitter at the same time. I get frustrated at the cinema because people whinge about the light being a distraction if you have your phone on. I don’t know how to focus on one thing at a time, particularly when that one thing is something time consuming or detailed. Even if it’s interesting. Even if it’s really, REALLY interesting and I really want to do it. I just can’t seem to stop myself trying to do other stuff at the same time.

I am, quite simply, a stimulus junkie.

I don’t know how to finish <insert any task/project/thing here>

I am not a completer. I am an ideas girl. I’m a starter. I’m a mid-range runner. I like to design projects, kick them off, get them implemented, maybe even start the post-implementation evaluation… and then in the blink of an eye, I tune out. The shine of new projects dies quickly. Maybe it’s about being a stimulus junkie. Maybe things go from stimulating to unstimulating once I’ve worked out the challenges. Whatever it is, the product is the same. If something goes on for too long, I’m over it before we get to the end. My to do lists (both work and life) are full of things that I just can’t seem to finish. And I JUST WANT THEM TO GO AWAY.

This is interesting, really, because I am a details person in the worst kind of way. I am completely and utterly pedantic about details that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t actually matter. Like being consistent in the capitalisation I use in blog post titles, or finding the exact right font for a job, or lining things up precisely in a Word document. It took me six months to hang a picture gallery in my office because I was scared shitless of making a mistake, of not getting the visual balance exactly right, or of knocking holes in my newly painted wall in places I didn’t want holes. My blog posts sit in draft for days or weeks because I am never sure I’ve proofed them enough or that they will make sense to anyone but me or that I actually want to show them to the world. (*Case in point: this post. It’s been sitting in draft since Wednesday. So when say ‘today’ at the top of the post, I actually mean three days ago.)

I think I just had another epiphany. I literally just figured this out, in the middle of writing that last sentence. Like a real epiphany, not one I planned to have in order to tie this post up nicely. In fact this epiphany is poor timing, really, because it has messed up the rhythm of my writing (and subsequently caused me to let this post sit in draft for several days). This was supposed to be a post about “things I don’t know how to do”, not “figuring out the reasons I can’t do certain things”. But I am all too aware of how hard won these nuggets of self-knowledge can be so I’m running with it…

And here it is, my epiphany: Maybe I don’t know how to finish anything because I am overwhelmed by having to do everything to my own exacting standards.

So perhaps the third thing I don’t know how to do should actually be…

I don’t know how to settle for done

Done is good, but rarely good enough for me. Which is quite a problem, really, when you’ve got five months to write a thesis (five months minus two days, if we’re going to be specific).

Now, where did I put my cult of done sign?