GTD for Academics: Organize
We're clear on the stuff we've captured. Now what?
We're up to the third part of the GTD for Academics series that began with Capture (taking things that grab our attention and getting them out of our heads) and Clarify (determining what those captured items mean to us). If you've been doing these steps, congratulations. If you've been trying, but without complete success, then there's no judgment or shame. Simply turn the page and try it again. (And I encourage you to post your experiences in the comments.) Either way, you have no doubt realized that this takes effort. Effort is often uncomfortable and failure-prone. But encountering it, is an investment in yourself, as well as a concrete action that pushes back on the culture of overwork and the epidemic of burnout.
The next step in being more intentional is to take the stuff we have captured and clarified, and Organize it.
My mom once asked me to help organize her kitchen. It was spacious and well-provisioned, but I noticed a lot of stuff was in the “wrong” place. Spices were in a cabinet that were on the other side of the kitchen from the range. Heavy pans were stored in an overhead cabinet, requiring a lot of lifting. Rarely-used utensils were in a drawer alongside commonly-used ones, requiring rummaging through everything each time she needed something. Almost every action needed to cook a meal (which is tiring enough) required extra steps that added nothing to the cooking itself. Done once, the extra steps didn’t add much to Mom’s work. But over the course of a single meal prep, it added up to near-exhaustion.
So I helped Mom move things around. We put the spices next to the range. The heavy pans went into a lower cabinet that required less lifting. Utensils were moved to a place whose nearness to the food prep areas was proportional to how often they were used. Simply getting items into a place that matches their intended use freed up a lot more energy that she could then spend on grandkids or going for a walk.
This is what real organization is: In the words of GTD inventor David Allen,
Being organized means simply that where something is, matches what it means to you.
This is why the first two stages of GTD don't involve "organization". You can only organize things you have captured and whose meaning to you is clear.
Being organized is considered highly uncool for academic types. The common idea is that disorganization is the sign of a creative and active mind. So if your office doesn't look like this:
...then you may not be as smart or creative as a "real" professor. But ask a painter if they are more creative with a canvas rather than without, or with their painting supplies set up in the right ways rather than without.
Without organization, you're taking the irreducible energy requirements of the work itself and doubling or tripling it with hundreds of unnecessary extra steps, like my Mom in the kitchen. And you have wonder how many of those faculty with disorganized desks are among the most burned out and exhausted -- and if there's a connection.
How to Organize
Last time, I introduced a flowchart from the GTD book:
Before, the inner core of this chart was in boldface because that part is used for Clarifying. This time, we’re focusing on the outer ring of the chart, because this form an outline for Organization.
Organization GTD-style involves three categories of containers in which we put stuff that has been properly clarified: containers for stuff that is not actionable, containers for stuff that is actionable, and containers for projects. Let's look at each of those in turn.
Non-actionable items. In Clarifying, if something is not actionable, then it might be of interest but it requires no action right now on your part. There are three ways this could happen.
If the item is holds no meaning for you, nor will it, then the correct container is the trash (or recycle bin, or email Archive, etc.). There is no point in keeping it, so just toss it. Examples abound: Spam email, papers that you don't plan on reading, announcements for meetings you're not attending, etc. Trash them as soon as you determine they are not actionable and have no meaning to you.
If the item might be of interest someday but not right now, then it goes on a list called Someday/Maybe. By "list" we just mean some set of reminders that you can review; this can be digital or analog, or a mix. Examples: An idea for a sabbatical that is still a few years away; a restaurant you heard about and might like to try sometime.
If the item is of interest right now, but still not actionable, then it is Reference material and should be filed away in a place where you can find it easily when needed. That might be a paper file, or a folder on your computer or in email. Examples: An agenda for a meeting that you are attending; a receipt for work done on your house.
Actionable items. The "item" that you would be organizing this case is a single, physical action that takes longer than 2 minutes to perform. (Projects are not actions; actions that take less than 2 minutes to complete should be done by now and wouldn't be under consideration.) Organize these as follows:
If the item is best done by someone else, then delegate it to the right person (which, again, does not mean boss that person around, but instead discuss and negotiate it with that person). Then, put a reminder of the delegation step onto a list called Waiting For so you won't forget you delegated it (and to whom). Examples: IT support questions from students; requests for work on my house that I've called in to someone.
If the item is best done by you and it has a real deadline, then put it on a calendar. By "real", I mean that the item absolutely must get done by that date and time, or it becomes un-doable. Many actions get deadlines imposed on them that are not real but merely "commitment devices" intended to motivate you to get the thing done. Don't assume all deadlines are real, and don't put a deadline on a task unless it is real or you will dilute the importance of the items that do have real deadlines. Examples: Faculty meetings; deadlines for turning in grades or conference proposals.
If the item is best done by you but it does not have a real deadline, put it on a list called Next Actions. Examples: "Grade next five exams for MTH 302"; "Hang up whiteboard in son's room".
The Next Actions list and the Calendar are the epicenter of your daily activity. Indeed, these are the only containers that hold things you have actually committed to doing at all.
But please note that the Next Actions list is not a "to do" list in the traditional sense. You are not expected to ever check off all the items on your Next Actions list. This list is just a set of reminders of things you've decided to get done when you have the time, space, energy, and tools required. It is in constant flux: Items come in as you Clarify them, others get completed, others get deleted if they become irrelevant, still others get relocated to Someday/Maybe if you change your mind about doing them. The Next Actions list serves you, not the other way around.
An optional but recommended extra step in building your Next Actions list is to subdivide it into categories using "contexts". In GTD, a context is like a tag that indicates some useful variable for differentiation -- location, energy level, time required, tools available, etc. For example, any next action that requires talking to someone on the phone can be given a tag of "Calls" (common GTD practice is to use the @ symbol for contexts, so "@calls" for example). Then when you have the time and space to make a bunch of calls (and your phone is available), you can focus down on the @calls context and batch all of your phone conversations together, which usually saves time and energy.
Projects. Remember that a "project" is defined as "a desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step". When you identify something as a project, it goes on a special list called Projects which will serve as another set of reminders for the big things you are working on. (If you're no longer seriously working on a Project, relocate it either to the trash or to Someday/Maybe.) Once the project is on the Projects list, brainstorm as many action items on that project as you can; then designate one of them to be the Next Action -- the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the present reality of this project toward completion. Then you can move that next action to the Next Actions list to live alongside the next actions that don't come from projects.
It's also helpful when you define a project, to create folders for reference materials attached to that project, wherever you keep such things, so that in future Clarifying steps you will have a place to put stuff that is not actionable but useful in the present and related to a specific project.
How I organize
My method of organization is an accretion of different methods I've tried in the past; it's cobbled together and frankly needs streamlining. But it's what I know. I use just three main components: ToDoist, Google Drive, and Outlook.
I have ToDoist split up into areas, which are somewhat confusingly called "Projects" in ToDoist, but not all of them are actual projects.
One area is NEXT ACTIONS where all my next actions that don't belong to projects live:
Above you saw that I have one area set up for each actual project I am working on, and inside each of those projects are the actions for the project with one action tagged @next to indicate the next action on that project:
The sidebar in ToDoist therefore acts as my Projects list. I also keep my Someday/Maybe list in ToDoist along with some other lists that don't play a huge role, so I'll leave those out for now.
There are some other elements you might notice: The colored labels on individual tasks indicate contexts, and the colors on the circles indicate priority levels. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of the software tool, because it gets distracting. Suffice to say for now that ToDoist is a great central hub for housing a lot of the lists that I’ve mentioned. But you can also do more or less the same thing using a plain text editor, or Google Docs, or a paper notebook — it’s all just a bunch of lists.
Outside of ToDoist it's much more basic: Date sensitive items go in my Outlook calendar. Reference materials go into either a folder on Google Drive(where I have a project folder for each project, and a generic "Reference" folder set up for stuff unrelated to projects) or into an Outlook folder (set up the same way). The Waiting For list lives in Google Keep (I told you it was cobbled together!) and when I hand off an action or ask a question to another person, I add it to the Waiting For list along with a date stamp so I'll know who's responsible for what and the last time I checked in on them. And the trash, well, is just the trash.
Time requirements. It took me a long time to arrive at an organization process that I felt comfortable using, but having got there, the Organization step is just instinct and takes almost no time at all. (Indeed, "taking almost no time at all" is what I mean by "comfortable".) The real time investment is in the Clarify step. Once I have clarity on an item's meaning, it's nothing to drag an email to the right Outlook folder or tag it in ToDoist and move it to the right project or list. Doing so saves more time than it consumes. But again, it takes a while to experiment until you find a process that works for you.
Keep it simple. My process might be way too complicated for you. Really all you need for this, are lists, a calendar, and some file folders. You can keep it analog if you want, or all digital, or a mix. You can quite easily set up a whole GTD system using only Google Docs and Drive, or Word + Outlook + OneDrive. When David Allen invented GTD, all he had was paper: An index card for Someday/Maybe, another for Waiting/For, another for Projects (with the actions listed on the card), and then one index card for each context of Next Actions. All put together with a binder clip. I think there's something to be said for analog approaches; bullet journaling is one particular way to do it. The important thing here is not the tools, but the habits.
More notes about power dynamics. Organization requires no special authority or position. Just set up your buckets and put things into them once you have Clarified. This includes putting things in the trash, which can be seen as a power move. But as with time, the real use of power here is in the Clarify step. Once that's done, organization is merely follow-through. And having followed through, you now have additional headspace to be more in control of your life and work.
Now You Do It
Homework for next time:
Read this article on the "PARA System" for setting up digital storage. I came across this (and Tiago's book) last summer, and the PARA system has been very useful in minimizing wasted effort by standardizing how I organize stuff across multiple cloud storage and email accounts.
Set up your lists, calendar, and file storage as discussed here. Keep it simple! Do not spend more than 30 minutes. Especially, don’t spend a bunch of time futzing around with software tools. Just like in previous posts, I recommend going fully analog with just a notebook and a ballpoint pen if you are new to this — build the habits first, then think about tools.
Then take three items that you have captured. Run them through the Clarify process. Then, organize them in the right place.
Take notes on what this felt like and the friction you encountered. Share them in the comments if you want.
Repeat the previous two steps to get more practice.
Next week we continue GTD for Academics by addressing two questions that probably came to mind if you are doing the homework: How do I keep all these lists and folders up to date, and how do I actually remember to do what's on them? That's the part of the process we call Review.
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The picture comes this tweet. No offense to the person in the photo, who is apparently a physicist at CERN, so a lot smarter than I am. But I do not buy the idea of “cluttered desk, uncluttered mind”. It seems to be saying that if you dump stuff all over your desk without any kind of system for knowing what it is and what it means to you, it is somehow out of your mind. For most people, like me and probably you, this doesn’t hold up in real life; and the science around attention would also say otherwise. This notion makes a lot of academics mad, just like “Don’t use your email inbox as a to-do list”. I’ll return to it later.
There are other tools I use that are off the main path here, such as Obsidian. I’ll leave these for a future discussion.
I’ve been transitioning from Google Drive to OneDrive lately, because my university — and especially the president’s office — is using Microsoft 365 more and more for everyday tasks. The jury is out on which one I prefer at this point.
In fact this article makes a compelling case for using Google Sheets as your primary GTD tool. I tried this once and found it to be somewhat cumbersome, but for others it might be the perfect fit especially if your institution is already in the Google Workspace universe.