Five sensible steps to increase your productivity

Steven Covey’s Four QuadratsI’ve got a date with a tropical rain forest for the next 12 days or so, so posting will be light. What follows is my basic system for deciding what to do, day by day. It is accrued, accreted, and amalgamated from GTD, 7 Habits, and lots of trial and error.

The basic idea: combine strategic planning with a simple rule that guarantees you do stuff daily that promotes your long-term academic fitness. Its simple and professor-proof. Here’s the gist:

Step 1. Use a To Do List. I said it was simple. You need a file where you link your schedule to your goals, your tactics to your stratigery. I used to call this Trajectory, but that name was too dorky even for me. Now it’s called +Calender. It used to be an MS Word file, but now I use Omni Outliner (the check boxes are a great feature, and it doesn’t swallow up all my CPU). Any outliner with headers and subheaders will do.

Todo List

Step 2. Divide it into a planning section… This is your strategic part, where you lay out the things you want to get done. I break it into my

remember–aphorisms that help me through my day. Private aphorisms… 😉

habit of the month–if you do something for one month, it becomes a habit, right?

current writing tasks–writing is important enough that I highlight manuscripts at the top of my must get done list. These often overlap with my…

big goals–this is a laundry list of currently most important Group 2 activities (things that are not urgent but contribute to my long-term academic fitness). Group 2 activities require a sustained effort over days/months/years, but lead to successes that are truly important to you. As an academic scientist, this list tends toward papers and research, but also includes things like improving my running speed and endurance. Your list will inevitably be much longer than anything you can reasonably accomplish in a month. Get used to that. Finally, there is...

service— tasks like letters of recommendation and manuscript reviews that I’ve promised folks. These are my social contracts, which often can slip below the radar unless they’re staring me in the face every day.

Weekly list

Step 3…and a Weekly To Do list section. The second part of +Calender is the traditional To Do list. These are organized on a weekly basis. It also allows me to cut and paste each week’s events into a separate Archive file. Think of your Archive as your academic diary. I’ve been keeping yearly archive files now for about ten years. You never know when you need to reconstruct what you were doing 4 months or 4 years ago.

Step 4. Identify two items each day from your big goals, bold them, and put them at the top of the day’s list of things to do. Now here’s the critical thing: Do these Group 2 activities as early in the day as you can, before other crap gets in the way. These two items are the activities that, when completed, will let you fall asleep at night, serene in the fact that you’ve done something important that day. The earlier you do these each day, the better you’ll sleep, and the more productive you will become.

Step 5. Once a week, swap out your Weekly To Do List. Once a month, revisit your Big Goals. GTD and 7 Habits both emphasize the importance of regular review. This is where you look back on the week’s events, smile serenely as you check off one of those big goals, copy the week’s To Do List to your archive, and plan out the next week. The monthly review is a good opportunity to sip a cup of coffee or your favorite frosty beverage and think expansively: add to (or prune) your Big Goals list, change your habit of the month.

So there it is: two files, +Calender and Archive, keeping strategic separate from tactical, making sure that two Group 2 activities are bolded and done early each day, plus weekly and monthly reviews. That’s my system. What’s yours? Share the love, people.


10 Responses to Five sensible steps to increase your productivity

  1. Rue says:

    You asked…

    I lean toward GTD, so I keep my hard landscape on my google calendar. I depart from GTD in that I schedule chunks of time to focus on specific projects, not to mention things like my workout.

    I then use Toodledo to track my to do list items. I depart somewhat from GTD in that I tend to choose items during my weekly review that I want to accomplish in a given week and put a due date on them for the upcoming week.

    I make extensive use of toodledos Folders and Contexts. There are GTD style active projects as folders, but I also have folders for things that tend to get multiple to do’s over time but which never go away. For example, I have one called Marriage Maintenance 😉

    The other departure from strict GTD is that I have a context for Reading, since much of it is reading for breadth as opposed to working on a certain writing project.

  2. Doc says:

    I just discovered your blog and would like to continue reading it. Do you have an RSS feed? If so, could you please send me the link!



  3. Mike says:

    Greetings from Panama.

    Rue’s as always excellent comment stresses the all important point that getting organized is a matter of assembling a toolkit that fits your needs.

    To Doc: I am a simple academic with limited skills. I admit I haven’t added a lot of buttons to this site, tho I guess I should look into it. In the meantime, I use Google Reader, which allowed me to subscribe to this site. That may be one way to keep abreast of the content here..

  4. Rue says:

    You inspired me with this post, so I have started my own blog talking about both academic productivity and the transition from being a student/employee to being a scholar.

    One of my earliest posts dealt with an extension of this system that I have been considering. I noticed that while each specific writing project has its own resources and theme, they all tend to have a similar set of next actions. The topic of a journal article doesn’t change the process of doing background research, outlining my arguement, drafting, revising, finding the appropriate journal to submit to, submitting, addressing comments and walking through to publishing.

    So my goal is to create some job sheets to help me remember the steps and organize my thinking about how I write. Then I can put “review jobsheet” on my next action list and document the entire process end to end. But I definitely want some input on what should go ONTO the aforementioned jobsheet.

    If you have any ideas/thoughts, please feel free to stop by and comment at

  5. tombirkland says:

    I sort of played around with this 2×2 grid the other day, and arranged the matrix into things I want to do, and things I don’t want to do, and things I have to do, and things I don’t have to do. It was interesting to see how things sifted out–I had some projects that weren’t interesting any more that I didn’t have to do and I didn’t want to do any more, so I put them on the back burner. The have to do/don’t want to do cell is things like grading papers (tedious) that I find have to be attacked first thing in the morning and head on. The want to do/have to do cell is where I try to focus my energy, and it seems to make me happier. But I don’t know if I will stick with this–every time i develop a system the first thing I seem to do is try to find a “better” one. That’s not working out particularly well thus far.

  6. […] Plan daily, evaluate weekly. Daily To Do lists, drawn up weekly, serve two functions. Clearly, they increase the odds that you will do something useful that day. Always a plus, that […]

  7. […] do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop […]

  8. […] do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop […]

  9. It looks like these are mac based programs. Are you aware of any PC software (free or otherwise) with the same functions? I really like the dynamic checklists, and weekly archiving.

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