Organization:That Optional Essential Thing

Being organized is like losing weight. It’s a state that everyone wants to enter, is always talking about, and is always trying new things that never work. It’s something to be admired and marveled, a trait that we exult in school and in the workplace. “Oh, I’m so disorganized,” you’ll hear someone say, waiting for you to tell them that it’s ok, everyone is. Or, commenting on a coworker, “She’s so well-organized.” It’s a sign of what we imagine the perfect life to be like: clean, aware, and in control.

Now, I’m the first to do the whole “I’m disorganized” thing.  The last few years I’ve procrastinated and been burnt out on school, and I’m naturally a bit of a clutter-bug.  I try to justify my stacks of clutter by saying I know where everything is, so that must mean I’m somewhat organized right?  (And it’s true, I do know where stuff is, unless someone moved my stacks.)  I’m ok with that.  So why am I writing a post about organization?  Because my time-management sucks.

Yep, that’s right.  I left home at 16, studied at the college level for 6 years (2 in high school and 4 in undergrad), completed 3 years in grad school, and my time-management sucks.

Let’s be honest here.  When I was in undergrad, I could push myself to finish projects at the last minute, do homeworks the night before, and generally be a slacker the rest of the time.  In grad school, the work has gotten too hard for me to continue that, and so some bad habits have developed.  Not finishing assignments, mooching answers off of friends, and having to pretend I know what’s going on when I have no idea.  (I’m sorry, those of you who have been victims of these things.)  It ended up stressing me out so much that I was starting to wonder why I was still in grad school.  There were serious moments last year where I was like “Maybe I’ll just quit after my master’s.”  That doubt is actually still not completely gone.

But, I’ve already devoted so much time to this, I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted it.  So this summer, about a week before school started, I wandered the internet, looking for a new organization system.  I started with a site called Lifehacker that pulls together a bunch of different tips, a lot of them related to being more productive.  However, a lot of the things I found on there involved using a smartphone (which I don’t have) or relying on web-based apps.  Given that the internet is one of my vices, and I didn’t always have access to a computer on campus, I didn’t feel that would be a good fit.

Enter Study Hacks.  Study Hacks is a blog written by a guy named Cal Newport who was a grad-student at MIT.  A lot of his advice is aimed toward undergrads, but he has a few excellent posts that really struck a chord with me.  I’m not sure what field Cal is in, some of his advice doesn’t really apply to the way mathematics grad school seems to work (or at least, not the way my school’s department seems to work).

The first week of classes is now over, and I’ve been trying out a system of his called Getting Things Done for College Students.  Getting Things Done is a popular organization/productivity/time-management system, you can probably google it to find out all the details.  The problem was that it was originally developed for the 9-to-5 cubicle monkey type of workplace.  Nowhere near what my work environment is like.  GTDCS is a nice handbook for adapting it to college life without me having to read GTD and figure it out myself.  I’m not going to hash out the details here because Cal already did it once and his post is excellent.  I will say that it basically involves me filling my gaps of time with tasks that I keep a list of, instead of making a daily to-do  list or trying to remember it all in my head.

I’m also trying to follow Cal’s advice about building an autopilot schedule and following a weekly ritual to get the week off on the right foot.  My goal is to minimize my stress as much as possible while still making great progress toward my degree. The stress, more than anything else, was what was making me reconsider staying in school.

This first week alone, I have copied my notes for Complex Analysis, come up with homework solutions for my students, managed my duties for a seminar I’m running, kept on top of my juggling club, and started to make progress on reading stuff in search of my thesis topic.  All in the first week of class.  On Sunday I will start tackling the analysis homework due Thursday and probably some more reading for seminars and meetings on Monday.  But I’m still way ahead of where I would be if this was last year.

Now, I’ve made a few personal modifications to GTDCS that I feel suit me better.  First of all, I’m trying to start everything by 9am and finish by 5pm.  I hardly ever get anything done when I’m at home anyway, so it’s nice to actually goof off without the guilt of “Well, I should be working on that assignment, or getting some reading done.”  Second, Cal says not to keep personal stuff and work stuff separate when he’s collecting ideas and tasks.  And I can see some of that.  “Make a deposit at the bank” really should go on a task list, since I have to make time for it during the day.  However, my sewing projects or playing music or religion related things should not go on my task list.  Those are all things I do at home, and they should stay there.  I’m not going to get five minutes of piano playing done between classes.

For that, I bought one of those dry erase/cork bulletin boards.  It now hangs on the wall next to my desk, and anything that I can think of as a personal project goes on the board.  I’ve nicknamed it the “Boredom Board”, since I’ll probably turn to it when I’m bored to see what I can do to fill the time.  On there right now is making repairs to some of my clothes and sewing a zafu for my meditation practice.  Along with retagging all of my music.

So yeah, the semester is off to an optimistic start, surprisingly.  What do you think of GTDCS?  Would you use it if you needed to change organization systems?  What do you use to manage your time and be productive?  Inquiring minds want to know.

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