Work Flows, Part 2: Staying Organised

This is the second post of a series on how I work.  I’ll be covering a range of topics including the principles that guide me in my approach to PhD work, how I stay organised and focused, the tools I use to collate and interpret literature and other content, my “product creation” process and things that help me stay sane!  Feedback is always welcome: comment below this post, find me on Twitter or send me an email: jac [AT] jacquietran [DOT] com.


In another life, I must have been a keeper of records.  If there is one word that describes how I work, that word is meticulous.  There’s comfort to be had in colour-coded schedules, easily-accessed notes, and version control!

Organising my time

Back when pen and paper were the cornerstone of my workflow (not that long ago…as recently as second year of my undergrad studies!), I carried around my planner with me everywhere.  A solid A5, day-to-a-page diary to tell me where I needed to be and when.  The trouble was, my schedule would regularly change, and I’d spend way too much time writing and re-writing the recurring events in every week.

These days, Google Calendar is my time management weapon of choice.  I’ve got separate “calendars” for PhD time, work, errands, free time, and exercise; each calendar set to a different colour so that I can tell what’s on the agenda at a glance.  I’ve also got GCal synced on my smartphone; great for setting up meetings wherever I might be.  I can pull out my phone and quickly tell where my availabilities are, or I can just as easily shuffle around other commitments as needed.  Recurring events, such as supervisor meetings, work shifts, gym sessions, and karate class, are simple to set up and adjust as necessary.  Sometimes I miss the tactile nature of pulling my planner out of my bag to schedule a meeting, but I have happily traded tradition for  simplicity and accessibility in this case.

Organising my projects and tasks

The extent to which I can stay on top of my projects and tasks changes all the time…and I’m sure I’m not the only one who would say so!  However, when I feel like things are starting to get out of control, I try to take a beat and spend time reviewing what I’ve done and what I’ve still to do.  Mind maps are a great friend to me in such circumstances…the process of scribbling and doodling helps me to think, and specifically it helps me to break through mental clutter to identify my next steps.  And my contingency plan, when all seems lost, is to ask myself, “What better task than no task at all?”  In other words, are these projects and/or tasks still necessary to complete?  If not, then I scrap the task or project altogether and enjoy the sudden freeing feeling that overcomes me.  If they are necessary, then I ask: “Do I need to be the one to see the project or task through?  Can I simplify the process?  Can I move it along today with one small step forward?  Can I delegate the task and shift ownership to someone else?”  In answering these questions, I often find that tasks I have postponed for some time have become unnecessary or irrelevant to my present direction and outlook.

Organising my notes and writing

Where would I be without Evernote?  I happened upon it in Honours, when I decided that my lever arch folder and tab dividers were not going to cut it.  The thought came to me that, in February, I might read a potentially useful article and place it behind a tab labelled “Sports Technology”, for future reference.  Come September, in the mania of thesis writing, I might want to draw from this particular article, but how to find it?  My distant memories would reveal that the paper crossed over into areas of “Athlete Monitoring” and “High Performance Sport”, conveniently forgetting my initial categorisation of the article into the field of “Sports Technology”.  A frantic search would ensue, with no outcome other than frustration and dismay.  With a projected 100+ references to cite, and many more that would be read but not included in the final thesis, I realised that I needed a system that was as accessible as possible.

Since 2009 (my Honours year), Evernote has steadily grown to become to cornerstone of every bit of “knowledge work” that I do.  I use it to store every kind of note or resource I record, whether of my own making or the work of others.  But for me, the most important feature is its extensive search and tagging features, which have shown themselves to be invaluable through every step of the research process: from development, to implementation, to analysis and interpretation.  In the context of my PhD research, I have the following 7 notebooks within a notebook stack cleverly titled “PhD”:

Article Annotations: I read almost all my articles electronically, and annotate in Adobe Acrobat Pro.  Then I upload each annotated PDF and the text from my annotations to a new note within this folder, titled in Author-Date format.  At this stage, I’ll also add tags for relevant topic areas and disciplines.

Data & Stats: Instead of keeping a lab book in paper format, my data processing and analysis notes go straight into Evernote.  Most all of my data handling requires the use of a computer, so it’s easy to keep a data analysis log in real time.

Free Writing: When my thoughts are but mere embryos, barely indistinguishable as a life-form, I like to free write to encourage my brain to connect the dots.  I set a 10 minute countdown, then write like crazy!  The unedited brain dumps that result from these efforts live in this Evernote notebook.

Meeting Notes: Writing up meeting minutes is such a time suck, but also a fairly critical activity.  Though I’ve taken to the old pen-and-paper method in recent months, I still like the idea of taking the minutes on my laptop during the meeting, but I haven’t figured out a way to engage in the meeting AND take notes effectively (including notes on my own discussion points!).

Misc Annotations: Similar to the Article Annotations notebook, but used for literature that is not peer-reviewed or “scholarly” in nature.  General literature remains an important and undervalued source of information in a profession that moves as quickly as sports science does.

PhD Blog: If I ever catch myself saying or thinking, “That would make for a good blog post…”, the idea goes into this Evernote notebook 🙂

PhD Notes: A repository of resources related to PhD skills, PhD progress, PhD frustrations, and so on!  My favourite how-to documents (e.g., “How To Write A Literature Review”) live here.

A philosophy, a process

At this stage of my studies, I’d say my system is pretty well fleshed out.  But it is always changing, and I am always open to further refinement.  The one thing that remains constant, that makes all these habits work, is commitment.  This system works for me because it matches my goals for time and resource management, but also because I commit to doing the little things that keep everything in order.  After all, a system is just a system, a tool is just a tool.

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