Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Getting things done for students: The principles and how they apply

My intention here is not to cover the fundamental principles of David Allen’s approach to personal productivity. That’s what the book is for. Go and read it. Instead, I’m going to be discussing the types of modifications I think will be necessary for GTD to work for a student while walking you through my own attempts to implement it in my life.

The principles

Just as a quick reminder, the fundamental principle of Getting Things Done is this: collect everything (and that means everything) that is in your life into one physical place, decide what you need to do about it, implement a trusted system which you can be 100% certain will remind you of it all, and then do it, based on the time, place and situation you are in, reviewing the whole system on a regular basis to ensure nothing is missed.

This all sounds very simple and common-sensical, which it is. David Allen has simply created a system which ensures that everything is captured, processed and organised quickly and simply. The beauty of it is its flexibility and applicability to pretty much everything in your life.

There are a few points, however, that I think could become an issue for students trying to implement the process.

One of the major difficulties I foresee (and to some extent have already experienced) is physical reference storage and filing. Most students move ‘house’ at least once a year, and some will move several times during the academic year if living in halls. Even for those who have a more permanent abode, space for personal filing and storage can be very limited. I will be moving into student accommodation in a little under one month, and I will need to make sure that I take all my important files with me. Obviously, this makes things like filing cabinets rather impractical. When thinking about storage, therefore, a major consideration is going to be ease of transportation.

Second, I will need to put some thought into how lectures, practicals and assignments fit into the project/next action structure that Allen proposes. Does one treat each module as a big project, or sub-divide into smaller sections? How should the paperwork be filed? Sorting this out will to some extent be trial and error, but I’ll be devoting a future post to thinking about the goals of lectures and how to incorporate into GTD. Thinking about the goals of studying should help to clarify how to go about organising best.

One of the most obvious things about Allen’s book is its focus on businesses and, in particular, overworked and stressed executives. However, there is no reason why the principles in it can’t be applied to overworked and stressed students! I foresee a greater degree of emphasis on setting own deadlines and the importance of keeping work flexible to fit around the busy, often on-the-go lifestyle of students. These are things I’ll be exploring over the coming weeks.

The benefits of using GTD principles and methods are already becoming clear to me. By getting all this ‘stuff’ out of my brain and on to paper, it should leave my mind more clear and able to think about higher-level research and study. I look forward to it!

Next up: How I collected and processed - baby-steps forward.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What does a student need to do to be productive?

Over the last week I've been thinking about the following question:

What sorts of things does a student need to keep track of in order to lead an organised, productive and efficient life?

Leaving aside the sector of the student population whose main concern in life is the location of the nearest watering-hole (and I won't even attempt to guess what proportion that is), most student have many different demands on their time and energy. These group quite nicely into three main categories:

  1. Academic
  2. Social
  3. Domestic

1. Academic

These are all the things that are necessary, important or useful in getting a degree - the whole point of going to university in the first place, and therefore one of the first things that spring to mind. The types of things in this category divide into two sorts: scheduled (those with a time constraint or deadline) and unscheduled.

Scheduled academic commitments include, first and foremost, lectures, practicals, seminars and tutorials. These are the unavoidable things. No matter how hard you try, if you don't turn up to a single lecture all year, your chances of doing well are pretty non-existent. I also include any meetings with tutors or supervisors here: although they can be rescheduled (unlike lectures), missing them always makes a bad impression.

Secondly, deadlines for essays, projects, dissertations and the like are also scheduled commitments, although not in the same sense as lectures. However, they're one of the most important things a student has to keep track of: miss a deadline, and your grade is likely to be a big fat zero.

Finally, there will be other types of work that have to be done by a certain time, or not at all, such as set reading for one of the above mentioned commitments, or other types of preparatory work, which will vary from course to course.

Unscheduled academic commitments are things like keeping up with class reading, doing extra reading or practice assignments, and, for most people, the preparatory work for assignments. (In many cases I think this should be scheduled, but more on that later).

2. Social

Despite all of the frenetic work that the above implies, most students will also wish to indulge in some social activities, be this a student society, volunteering, or simply meeting friends at the pub for a drink. There may be recurring commitments (such as orchestra rehearsals or weekly meetings) or one-off events. Either way, it's important to leave some space for the stuff you want to do, as well as the stuff you have to do.

3. Domestic

This heading covers all those things that you can't really avoid if you want to survive - cooking, cleaning, shopping, dental appointments and the like. The point here is to get them all done in the most efficient and painless manner possible, so that your mother doesn't winge about how ill you're going to get from the 3-week old milk in the fridge.

It's all too much - how am I going to keep on top of it all?!

Although keeping track of all these varied commitments seems difficult, all that is really necessary is a system in which to plug it all into and the means to keep that system up-to-date and trustworthy. Having browsed the multitude of websites on this subject, I have decided to try and implement David Allen's Getting Things Done system (GTD). I've just received my copy of the book today, so keep your eyes peeled for another post explaining the system soon. In the meantime, check out these resources for an introduction to the concept:

Getting started with Getting Things Done at the excellent 43 folders,

and the highly detailed and excellent GTD primer at Black Belt Productivity.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

An introduction

I've been exploring the world of productivity and studying efficiently for a while now, ever since I felt lost and confused in the sea of chaos that was my final year at undergraduate level. At that time, the reading and research I did online helped, but I never implemented a coherent system, for obvious reasons - implementing a system to stay organised requires some thought and effort, which I didn't have at the time. I've since decided that it's time to devote some energy to it, before I go on to post-graduate study in October.

So why write about it? Why not just follow one of the dozens of schemes out there, like David Allen's Getting Things Done, probably the most well-known organisational tool out there? Several reasons:
  • Although there are plenty of systems out there, none are directly targeted at the student lifestyle. In fact, surprisingly little has been written on how students can keep themselves organised by adapting a system like GTD.
  • I've always found writing an excellent way of shedding light on a topic. This is more than an academic exercise - I'm hoping to learn a lot and change the way I study, in order to be more efficient and achieve the academic career path I want. Writing will help to clarify my thoughts and show me what's working, what isn't, and how I might improve.
  • Publishing, as opposed to writing privately for myself, is intended to provide some accountability for myself. I don't want to get lazy about this, and one way of helping me stay on track will be knowing that other people can read, and perhaps learn, from what I'm doing.

If you're wondering why I am not, at present, making my identity known, it is simply this: if things go badly wrong, I can crawl back into the oblivion of the World Wide Web without embarrasing myself to all my acquaintances. But just in case you want some background facts:

  • I've just gained a 1st class honours degree at a top English University.
  • In October 2006 I'm beginning a 1-year Masters course at another top English University.
  • I'm hoping to publish parts of my undergraduate dissertation in the course of the next 12 months.
  • Eventually, I plan to complete a Phd and stay in academic research, in some form or another.

You may be thinking: "Why does a 'high-flyer' like this need to organise her life? Surely she has it all organised already?" Well, no. On top of my academic commitments, which are set to be pretty intensive come October, I play two musical instruments, ballroom dance socially, am active at church and enjoy running and cycling. I also read fiction voraciously. During my undergraduate degree, I often found one of two effects:

  • I had to work hard at my studies, and didn't organise myself well enough to leave time for other things.
  • Or, I procrastinated about studying, and then got stressed out and didn't achieve as well as I could have done.

So I have decided that I need to implement a more structured way of organising my life. I'm hoping that this will have the following beneficial effects:

  • Keep me on top of all my studies and allow me to excel.
  • Allow me time for leisure activities.
  • Most importantly, free up my mind so that I can do some thinking.

This last may sound rather strange, but let me explain: I'm not the sort of person who tends to forget appointments, lectures, exams and deadlines. I keep a pretty good calendar. But I also tend to keep a lot of stuff in my mind, important things that I would worry about forgetting, and less important things that I later couldn't remember. Crucially, using my mind as a memory-dump allowed me precious little time for creative thinking, reasoning and research - things that will be essential in later academic life. My ultimate goal is to have myself organised enough to leave plenty of time for actually engaging my brain and doing some research.

Enough for the first post. In subsequent posts, I'll be going over some of the tools I've looked at, see how they might adapt to student life, and start implementing a system.