Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

My Academic Notebook Productivity System

There are a lot of productivity systems out there. I have developed one that works for me, and I’m laying it out here in case you might find it useful, too. It’s a sort of mash-up of especially Getting Things Done, but also Bullet Journal, Autofocus, and Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Everything Notebook. This system won’t work for everyone, but I think it will work for people with jobs like mine. I work at a small, teaching-oriented college where everyone has to wear a number of different hats. During the summer, I can focus on bigger or more intensive projects, but during the school year, I have what I think of as lots of little stuff to deal with. I have a heavy teaching load and a heavy service load, and I try (with limited success) to get some scholarship done during the school year as well. My day is interrupted frequently with classes or scheduled meetings. This is the system I developed to manage that.

It has three basic parts:

  • Everything I have to do goes on a to-do list, either the master weekly to-do list or its own separate to-do list.
  • Everything that has to be done at a specific time goes in an electronic calendar with notifications.
  • Everything has a home where it belongs in a physical or electronic filing system.

The notebook. The most important part of my personal productivity system is the notebook to-do list system. For me, the most valuable part of Getting Things Done is the concept of universal capture–you never have to worry about remembering things because they are all written down and organized. But I am easily and often distracted. If I don’t have a reminder directly in front of me, I forget. I need to be able, at a glance, to see everything I have got going on right now. So, directly beside my keyboard on my desk lives a notebook. During the school year, it looks something like this:

2018-05-10 15.09.34

I like to use legal pads because they’re longer, but you could use the notebook you want to use. I rewrote this sample week to be easier to read, which distressingly means that this is as neatly as I can hand write anything, even when I specifically trying to do it. If I have a weekly to-do list that is longer than a single notebook page, I take that as a sign that I have to re-prioritize or reorganize something in my work life.

At the beginning of each semester and the summer, I go through the notebook and write down the week number, date, and any to-do items that are reoccurring (like grading online discussion threads every week) or known well ahead of time (like preparing for final exams or revising a paper to present at a conference). As the semester goes by, I add new things as needed. If there’s going to be a meeting I need to prepare for in three weeks, that goes in the list three weeks from now. If someone mentions something that I don’t quite know what to do with right now, it goes on the list for further processing. Each item is an action item–it is a specific task that I can do in a reasonable amount of time to further some goal or meet some responsibility.

In this system, most of the things I have to do are given a specific day to be done, but not a specific time. This allows for greater flexibility. I used to try scheduling specific times for grading or revisions, but one emergency meeting or rescheduled essay and the whole day is off-kilter. As I go, it is easy to add new items to the list; because the day of the week is written in the margin on the left, adding new things does not mess up the order or confuse me later. If something is too big for a single action item, it gets a separate list of its own. Like I assume most college professors, I produce a tremendous amount of ephemeral printed material, so usually the back of unused meeting agendas or old quizzes becomes the home for sub-to-do list and gets tucked behind the appropriate weekly page in my to-do notebook. Full-blown projects get their own separate to-do list and folder(s), with the relevant weekly responsibilities also being listed in the notebook.

As each item is finished, it gets marked with a single line. Sort of like the Bullet Journal, I have a system of indicating whether a task was completed, deferred, or not completed. So, by the end of the day on Friday, my to-do list might look like this:

2018-05-10 15.26.02.jpg

Something marked through is completed. An arrow indicates that an action item was moved–perhaps a committee meeting was rescheduled, so I didn’t have to prepare for it. An X indicates that I did not complete an item. I can mark through something but also X it to indicate to myself that I partially or unsatisfactorily completed an item, perhaps that I didn’t sharpen up a paper presentation as much as I had hoped and had to add it to next week’s list. Things with just an X weren’t completed; sorry I didn’t finish grading your essays, HIS 105! Anything more complicated to remember than that becomes a note or memo in the appropriate file.

In addition to the listed action items, the notebook can serve as an inbox of sorts (because if I have another separate inbox where I do not constantly see everything, I will forget about it). Papers to process, a new copy of an academic journal, or notes I wrote to myself can be piled on/under the notebook to remind me to deal with them. I don’t need to write “Read Agricultural History” when I can just set my copy under the notebook, where it is impossible to miss. If I have something that’s more substantial than a single action item, like reviewing a book, it can be turned into to-do list action items.

Finally, at the bottom of the notebook is an orange tab. That’s my “everything else” section, a combination list of ongoing projects and things to think about when the semester is over or which otherwise don’t require immediate attention. A fellow professor mentioned using Kahoot in class and recommended it, but after some thought I decided I’m going to need to consider if or how to implement it more carefully, so it goes to the end of the notebook. Periodically (i.e. when it gets to be more than a page long, so I can’t see it all at once) I reorganize that section of the notebook into a series of more manageable reminders or to-dos.

The calendar. When I was an undergraduate, every semester, I did the exact same thing. I got a physical planner, maybe one handed out by the college, or one gifted by an optimistic relative, or one I wasted money on by purchasing myself. I wrote all my classes down in the schedule and put important due dates throughout. I’d use it for about two weeks, and then one day I would forget to look at it, and then that was it. If I printed out a schedule and taped it over my desk, that sometimes worked better, but the real lesson is that I don’t remember things and need to be told what to do constantly like a child.

Thanks to the magic of computer technology, I can have something tell me what to do constantly. I use Google Calendar (which links to my college e-mail address, since we’re a Google-powered campus, but you can use whatever works for you), and every single scheduled event goes into it. This means all committee meetings, college events, meetings with students, classes, and even my office hours. Everything gets a ten minute notification which makes a distinct buzz on my phone and a little pop-up on my computer; things that are farther away or for which I am afraid I will forget to prepare get an earlier reminder, too.

The end result of this is that I never worry if I have missed a meeting or that I am supposed to be somewhere that I am not, because my calendar tells me what to do. During the work week when I am not at a scheduled something, I’m doing whatever is on my to-do list for the day, or in the unlikely event I am ahead, taking care of things for later in the week.

The filing. In a way, my notebook is a combination to-do list and chronological index of or hub for my ongoing projects and responsibilities. Instead of constantly having all kinds of stuff rattling around in my head, I can safely let it go, assured that I will remind myself what I need to do and when I need to do it. Everything else gets put away until it is needed. A research project, course redesign, or some other big enterprise I’m working on has its set of to-do lists and notes, but it’s at home in a manila file folder in my desk unless I’ve specifically noted to do something with it on my weekly to-do list or I come across some relevant information that needs to be processed.


2 responses to “My Academic Notebook Productivity System

  1. JG December 26, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    Mr. “Historian,”
    Your version of the biography of Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark reads like Oprah’s movie script more than history. Clark was the middle child of three, not two. Annie Lee Cooper grabbed the billy club (pictured in her hands) and everything that happened after that was done to retrieve the club and make an arrest. The movie version is very dramatic but inaccurate.
    On March 7, 1965 Clark was returning from an appearance on ABC’s “Issues and Answers,” not leading his posse. Driving in from the airport in Montgomery, he arrived as the march was breaking up. You say everything is on tape, find Sheriff Clark. Or you can watch the movie again and see him on horseback, very exciting.


    • Charles Kenneth Roberts December 29, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      This is a curious place for what appears to be a defense of a dead racist authoritarian. I’m not sure why you’re bringing the movie up so much; assuming you’re referring to the Encyclopedia of Alabama entry, it was originally written in 2008.


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