Ivory Tower Writing #24: Getting organised, part 2 – project organisation

One of the biggest problems with academics is that they can never say “no” when a new opportunity for research comes. Then, all of a sudden, there’s seven projects—two journal articles, two book chapters, two op-eds, and one conference paper—due next month.

Hopefully that scenario is fictional. But, in this part, I want to focus on project management, which is less about managing individual drafts and more about planning for the bigger picture. These are some of the processes and methods I follow to manage my workload (which never seems to go away).

Like the previous post, I will be mentioning third-party software (mostly Notion) which I am not getting paid to promote. That being said, you can always find alternatives that work for you.

But first, prioritization…

The first thing to do when faced with a figurative mountain of upcoming duties is to prioritise. Then you can decide how to work on them. The simple “urgent/important” 2×2 matrix should suffice here. Once you’ve plotted out your duties in the matrix, you can then start deciding how to address them.

Urgent/important matrix

…now, to business.

Let me say it upfront: I don’t like to-do lists. While some people swear by the effectiveness of to-do lists, often I find myself feeling exhausted just looking at a burgeoning to-do list.

One of my favourite ways of managing things is to combine the Kanban board with a Gannt diagram. Both are really easy to set up, and they provide a nice visual aid to the things you’re getting done. This approach combines the best of both worlds: the Gannt diagram provides a bird’s eye view of a project, while the Kanban can be used to handle the more granular aspects of projects. We can do all of these things using a word processor or a spreadsheet, but for this example, I’ll be using the Timeline and Kanban templates in Notion just so everything stays in one place that syncs to the cloud.

Situation: I have a term paper on Napoleon that is due in two weeks, which is an urgent and important task. The task seems daunting, but I’ve survived all term papers so far. I can do this as long as I plan my attack. I need to dedicate time for a literature review, which would require some time in the library. Then, I’d need to produce a first draft and later, revise it. Let’s say I can finish library research in five days and add in another four days to write the first draft. Revisions should take at least two days. That’s already eleven days, which should leave me with enough buffer time in case something else pops up. So, I now have three main tasks: read, write, and revise.

Let’s plot that on the Timeline. I assume that the day we start is 13 July and we’ll ignore weekends for now, plus, I’ll assume all of these things need to be done sequentially (which is usually not the case).

The timeline view in Notion

You now have a rough timeline of your project! While you could zoom in the timeline to further micromanage your hourly time blocks, at this point, this should suffice.

Now, what does the Kanban do? The Kanban is a nifty tool which allows you to focus on the tasks you want to do on a specific day. Going back to our previous example, let’s now focus on the library research portion of the task. There’s only a limited amount of time I can spend in the library because I have a life, other classes to attend, a part-time job, or extracurricular activities. But I have to get things done, so I’m willing to commit three hours per day in the library. This means I won’t be able to read all of the books on Napoleon; at best, I can only read two, including the time it takes to jot down notes.

Let’s plot that on the Kanban in Notion. Side note, Notion also has a nifty “Reading List” template, which is useful if you want to keep track of all your readings.

Kanban view of the reading list
Kanban view of the writing process

To state the obvious, the Kanban allows you to “see” the pile of things you’re supposed to do, “pick” some things out of that pile which you aim to do within a time limit, and then “see” them when they are done. I find this to be satisfying because it makes me feel like I’ve actually made progress.

The neat thing about these methods is that you can easily scale them up to managing multiple projects because Notion allows you to link pages with one another almost seamlessly.

So, I plotted a timeline of what would be my “important” work from July to August.

Then, in the “address reviewer 2’s comments on Article A”, I wrote down some of the things I need to do plus some reminders:

Yes, the deadline is September, but I like having things done well before the deadline so I can do other things.

And when I click on the “Project Timeline” text, it brings me to a Kanban which breaks down the things I need to do.

So, there you have it, a way to break down seemingly large, daunting projects to bite-sized tasks that can be done without preparing for protracted siege warfare. Of course, you should also try to plan ahead  for procrastination and other pseudo-urgent tasks like email and that annoying colleague who always asks for a favor at the time when you’re just trying to get in the zone…

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