As graduate students or young professionals, we usually find ourselves in the conundrum of wanting to be organized and time-efficient while also having no idea how to achieve that. There are so many resources out there that claim to be the ultimate solution for our organization issues. But, where to start? In this short article, I want to share with all of you a few tips that I have adopted during the past few years and that help me get somewhat closer to the goal.
1. Start by keeping an agenda.
Keeping track of what we do every day is important. Some people prefer to keep a traditional agenda with pen and paper. Some others have migrated to a more digital approach. I am part of the latter although it cost me a lot to make the transition!
For those of you who like pen and paper, Bloom Planners has a beautiful collection, but there are many more options and most of them have online shops! For those who prefer a digital approach, there are so many too. I will briefly talk about the ones I use, Google Calendar, and Trello.
Whichever option you choose, be sure to structure your time. I know that seeing each day full of colored boxes without any “empty” space will seem very stressful. However, it does not have to be so. Some of those boxes should be things for your own self-care, going out for a walk, working out, Zooming with friends. The thing is that, if you leave empty chunks of time it might be difficult to know where to start and actually sit down to do it. I usually organize all my activities as boxes of time in Google calendar.
The other thing you can do is keep a more detailed track of your goals. Trello is awesome for that. You can make boards and fill them with checklists of tasks. The boards can be different projects you are working on or, as I do, the different days of the week. In that way, I know exactly which tasks to complete (or try to) every day.
2. Is that really doable? If not, break it down!
That takes me to the second point. Your goals need to be realistic and doable in the time frame that you specified for them. A good technique for achieving this is having only S.M.A.R.T goals.
The definition of each letter sometimes varies but they all point in the same direction. I use it as:
Are your goals Specific? Measurable? Attractive? Realistic? Time-framed?
You need to ask these questions when setting your goals. Now, remember that goals are not always the same as tasks. A S.M.A.R.T goal can be “Submit this paper for publishing before the end of the year”. Is it specific? Yes, because it described exactly what it entails. Measurable? Sure, I can track my progress on the matter from now to the end of the year. Attractive? Well, if I really want to publish the paper, then the goal would be attractive to me! Time-framed? I have whatever remains of the year to do it.
Notice that I left “Realistic” out for a bit. I did this because in order to determine if a goal is realistic I usually look at the tasks at hand. What tasks do I need to complete in order to get the paper published?
Let’s assume that I already have a draft of the first three sections of the paper. I need to write two more. Then, some tasks to achieve would probably be “Write the remaining sections of the paper”, “Share the paper with my supervisors”, “Make appropriate edits suggested by them”, “Share the paper with co-authors”, Set-up the paper into the journal formatting guidelines”, “Submit”... Can I do all these tasks in what remains of the year? If the answer is yes, schedule them in your calendar and then get to work!
3. Learning to estimate time, to say yes, to say no...
One of the things I learned by doing some of the webinars offered by the NCFDD is that when you estimate how much time you need to do a task, then you have to multiply it by 2.5 to have an adequate idea of how much time it will actually take you. This, of course, is not an absolute rule but we do tend to underestimate the time that we will need to perform a task. Especially if it entails writing or doing research, which usually presents unexpected challenges in the making. Overestimating time leaves us with room for the unexpected and increases our odds of actually doing what we need to do!
This pairs up with the fact that you are going to constantly be asked to do/participate in things. Most of them will seem to really contribute to your personal growth while also giving you the chance to help out others! That is awesome. However, beware of not saying “yes” before actually looking at your agenda and realistically deciding when and how would you make that fit. It is okay to say no! You don’t always need to be the one person that helps out.
4. Choose what works for YOU!
Some people work better with a set time frame and whatever is not done during that period it has to be done later. Others benefit from different approaches. Perhaps to work on a task until it is done regardless of how much time it takes. Take some time to know yourself and determine what option is best for you. You might find that such a decision can also be contingent on the task at hand! Check out the Pomodoro method for an example of such a technique.
5. Take time off! For real, do it.
Finally, be sure to take some time off! Even better if you set time apart to do it! We all need to de-stress, especially during this year, and sometimes we just let ourselves go unattended for long periods of time since we feel we have so many other things to do. However, it is a cycle. The more you postpone your self-care, the worse you feel and it will just get tougher to deal with all the tasks at hand. You can block this time in your schedule as a reminder. Also, setting alarms/reminders for activities like exercise or sleep routines is key!
Remember to always be firm but flexible! Things don’t always work exactly as we planned and we need to be able to have that malleability. Re-scheduling might be a little easier in the digital agendas but it can certainly be done in any one you choose.
You can read the Spanish version here.