Super charged academic productivity?

My background in architecture offices has given me a range of time and project management skills that are helpful in my second career as an academic. I think I’m pretty good at working multiple projects with complex dependencies, but moving into a management role at ANU has pushed me to my limit.

For years I’ve been using a simple to-do list system based on Cal Newport’s “How to be a straight A student”. I’ve been coping using this simple pen and paper method (just), but in January I hit crisis point. Two valued staff members left within a couple of months and I temporarily added their work to my already over burdened to-do list. My friend and extreme productivity guru Dr Jason Downs listened to my whingeing and suggested Omnifocus2. I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical. I’ve tried many project management tools, such as Producteev, Freedcamp and Trello , but, after an initial period of enthusiasm, I abandoned each one. Like being on a strict diet, complying with the digital tool made me feel … constricted.

Jason told me Omnifocus2 was different because it is built around the famous ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) by David Allen. This interested me. I read Getting Things Done years ago and implemented a few of the suggestions to great effect. For example, the folders on my hard drive relate to what I do: administration, writing, researching, teaching, supervising, blogging. My email has a similarly lean file structure, as you can see in the image below. While I have folders for automated feeds, the vast majority of emails end up in one folder called “archive”. If I need to find an email from a person, I just use the search function.

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To be honest with you, I knew that further implementation of the Getting Things Done principles was a good idea, but it seemed too hard. Omnifocus2 changed all that by helping me implement the Getting Things Done system with minimal changes to my existing workflow.

The Getting Things Done system conceptulises your work as having actions directed at goals, which, Allen points out, can be understood as different projects. In Omnifocus2, each project action can be entered and saved, with metadata and/or further information attached to it: word files, PDFs, photos, audio files and so on. This is like chopping up all the vegetables before you start doing a stir-fry: all the ‘digital stuff’ you need to do that action are in one place.

For example, I’m writing a book based on the blog for University of New South Wales Press (yay!). The book will be called How to be an academic. In this screen shot you can see this book in my writing project list on the left (grey) column. In the middle you see a series of actions related to my various writing projects and their due dates. When an action is complete you click in the circle next to it and a big, fat, satisfying tick appears. Actions close to the due date are yellow; they turn red when they are due. The light grey column on the far right is context specific, it shows the meta data and files attached to the selected action.

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I’m very aware that what you read influences your writing. I’ve been looking for chatty, fun, non fiction books because that’s the tone I imagine for How to be an academic. I saw a book in a bookstore called “Lives in Ruins” about the working lives of archeologists. It was funny and interesting – exactly what I am aiming for, but I don’t like reading paper books anymore. I pulled out my phone and added a new action to my How to be an academic list about reading the book. I took a photo of the cover and attached it to the action and synched to the Omnifocus cloud.

This is how the action appeared on my computer later:

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I used the photo to locate a URL to buy the book on Kindle and started reading it. You’ll notice the action “Read Lives is Ruins” is attached to a project and a context. Contexts are just another way of viewing actions. This is useful for complex knowledge work. A context can be anything – a person, a place, or even a mood. My context list contains ‘modes’ of academic work – writing, reading, teaching – as well as people that I work with. When I click on the context ‘Reading’ I see every action tagged with that context – this automagically generates a reading list aligned with my current projects:

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This context view also helps me co-ordinate my work with other people. For example, I’m editing a book with Deborah Lupton and Pat Thomson called ‘Digital Academics’ for Routledge. I’m writing a chapter in this book called “The Digital Kitchen” with the super awesome moderation team from the ‘How to Survive your PhD’ MOOC. I can keep track of what everyone is doing for this paper and where they should be up to by clicking on the context ‘digital kitchen team’:

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The context view is brilliant for dealing with email. Like most working academics, I find there’s a ‘tyranny of tiny tasks’ generated by other people that arrive via email. I can forward emails straight from my inbox to Omni, complete with any attachments. Each email automatically becomes an action which can assigned to a project and a context. The text of the email is saved in the notes pane. I can schedule each email task with a due date and see them in relation to my calendar for each day using the ‘Forecast’ view. This is yet another way of viewing the action list, but in relation to time:

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I can see my calendar entries for the day underneath the various actions. This forces me to actually allocate time to each task and (theoretically) prevents me from taking on more than I can cope with. Conveniently, when used this way, Omnifocus2 keeps a record of what I did and when I did it. I created a context called ‘service’ which groups all these ‘other people’ generated work together and keeps a record for any future promotion applications.

Since I started using Omni my email inbox is always empty – a major achievement for me. In the 15 or so years I have been a full time academic, my inbox has been bulging. In the morning I answer anything that can be dealt with in 2 minutes or less and send the rest to Omni for further consideration. I’m less stressed because I’m not mentally trying to keep track of 100 different things.

If you are writing a thesis you might not have enough complexity in your day to need Omnifocus2… yet! But I can see how it could be adapted to keep track of any project involving a lot of details – such as fieldwork or keeping track of lab experiments. Every thesis chapter could be its own project, or you could split up your reading and writing tasks. I’m sure it can be creatively adapted to many different problems. There’s a Screen Cast academy playlist on Youtube which I used to help me set up and learn the functions. I don’t think it’s a hard program to learn, it took me four hours, but people tell me that I often underestimate the difficulty because I’m kind of nerdy and love spending a weekend on the couch bending software to my will.

Omnifocus2 is a Mac only product, but you can get many of the same features in a free, cloud based product called Asana, which I use with my team at ANU to keep our work co-ordinated.

I hope this review has been helpful. I believe in try before you buy so I encourage you to download the free version if you are keen to give it a go on the Mac. If you love it and want to donate some money to Thesis Whisperer, you can buy it through this link  – but no pressure!

I’m still learning how I can implement Omnifocus2 in my work so I’d be interested in what you think. Do you use project management software in your work? Or are you a list maker? What would you recommend as good project management tools for doing a PhD?

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36 thoughts on “Super charged academic productivity?

  1. phambichha says:

    I am using Trello for my PhD writing as management tool to finish my thesis. I am satisfied with Trello.

  2. candicefkelly says:

    are you using it on both your Mac and iPhone? i clicked the link at the end of your post to see how much it costs but it brought up the iPhone version… so I’m a bit confused.
    i’m currently using Asana, and would be interested to hear what you think the benefits of Omnifocus2 are over that… i.e. am trying to decide if it’s worth the expense to upgrade to Omnifocus2.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Look, if Asana is working for you, it might not be worth it. The one feature I think distinguishes them is that Omni has better integration with the calendar and email functions on my mac. If you can live without that, I wouldn’t bother.

  3. xxynr says:

    If you don’t need the full complexity of Omnifocus, I can recommend It’s about $30/year and can implement GTD. It’s multi-client (phone, PC, Mac, web).

  4. Sian Hindle says:

    Thank you – this is interesting; I’m casting around for something to help with a full time academic role and a part time PhD. I’ve signed up for Trello, but it feels a bit flimsy. Will see if IT support Omnifocus2… Ta!

  5. Pascal Venier (@pascalvenier) says:

    I practiced Getting Things Done for a long time (2004-2012) and even run workshops for PhD students when I was a prof at the University of Salford in the UK. It was initially very helpful as it allowed me to regain control and helped me to significantly increase my productivity, ie doing more. However becoming more and more productive can be a double edge sword and your life can end up being a little like a game of Tetris: the better you get the faster things go. What is most crucial is perhaps to improve your effectiveness.

    The crucial limitation I found with Getting Things Done was that you could always go on adding more things to your lists (projects, tasks aka Next Actions) and it could become very frustrating, as you ended up having unreasonable expectations.

    In 2012, as I was transitioning out of academia, I discovered Personal Kanban, which involves using a board — either physical with a whiteboard or just a wall — to visualize your work (tasks and projects) and having a limit of work in progress (WIP limit ie limiting the number of tasks your start and have not yet finished at any given time). It is very counterintuitive but allows you to really improve the flow of your work and forces you to make crucial strategic choices about what you can realistically do.

    Trello is in essence a taskboard software, but it can be used if you use a WIP limit as a Kanban board. I personally use a software I find more powerful which is also free for individual user.

    The Kanban approach can also be used to manage your overall thesis project or any research project at a strategic level, whilst keeping track of your more tactical level, ie what you do day to day. If GTD may easily turn into a game of Tetris if not controlled, Personal Kanban forces you, more or less to play a game of go! It is very much at the end of the day a case of slowing down to go faster.

    I use it both to run the small business I now run — as an effectiveness trainer and coach — and manage my research projects. After a three years break since leaving a tenured position, I am rediscovering with a renewed pleasure the joys of doing research and publishing in a true #altac sense.

    My French translation of the Personal Kanban book is currently in press.

    I have published a series of posts which may be of interest:
    Doing GTD Kanban Style

    As to your current implementation of GTD, with OmniFocus one of the best todo lists softwares on the market, you could perhaps experiment with a WIP limit. Try and limit the number of items you start doing and finish them before you add a new one. Likewise for projects, how many projects do you currently have on the go? Have you tried to limit the number of projects you have started and not yet finished?

    If you are interested in a guest blogpost on Managing your PhD thesis project with Personal Kanban, I would love to do that.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      What excellent and sage advice – I totally agree that control is an illusion if you are over worked. I find putting things in the calendar with ‘work on it’ time is helpful, but I consistently underestimate how long writing takes. Thanks for your link on Kanban – I’ll check it out!

  6. Pascal Venier (@pascalvenier) says:

    Sorry: “I personally use a software I find more powerful which is also free for individual user.” should read “I personally use a software I find more powerful which is also free for individual user, which is LeanKit.”

  7. Jackson says:

    I hope this continues to work for you, Thesis Whisperer.

    There is a simplified system, based on GTD, that may be more appropriate for Phd students. It’s called Zen to Done (ZTD). This was a life-changer for me. There’s an e-book:

    Pascal has a good point about the tetris. Another problem is that if whatever system you use becomes an end in itself, and you spend ages interacting with it, that isn’t good.

    I tried a GTD system some years ago. I ended up with hundreds of little tasks and ideas which were simply not possible to fit in to my time, and major stress just from looking at the list. Eventually I decided to throw away the list. This wasn’t easy, and I wrote about it here . I now use a system based on ZTD but without the todo list.

    The secret to not having a todo list is to schedule tasks instead. I abuse Google Calendar for this, setting tasks as “events”.

    What I do have is a list of goals for the year, which I check each month, and a list of goals for the month, which I check frequently. Based on the goals I schedule activities on my calendar to get the goals to happen. Where other people are involved I have two Pending folders: an Urgent one to check daily, and a non-urgent one to check monthly.

    Time is just like money. lf you budget it well, spending less than you have, you can feel a sense of abundance (ie, leisure time!). The first step of making a budget is to keep track of your spending. For my PhD work I have taken to keeping a weekly log — on a piece of paper! — like a cashbook, with columns like “Creative writing”, “Research”, “Admin & correspondence”, “Attending events”. THis sounds dorky and I thought I would just do it for a week or two but ten weeks in I’m addicted to it. For example, yesterday was a terrible day with all kinds of interruptions and I felt like I was getting nowhere — but at the end of it my log said I had managed five hours of reading. I slept pretty well.

  8. Andrew H says:

    Another great article and food for thought as usual! Just one small comment though, it might be best to mention that the product that was described wonderfully over several pages (meant not sarcastically at all, it was well written as usual) that it is for Mac only. I had to have a good natured laugh, as I was getting interested, getting sold, then I read at the end, ‘For Mac only’ and it was like my wife leading me on, getting dressed up yummy and then say, “I’ve got a headache” (this actually honestly doesn’t happen to me!! No

  9. Rosey says:

    Thanks, Inger. Great food for thought. Since October last year, I’ve gone analogue for my phd project and family tasks. I’m using an approach that’s called the Bullet Journal that’s come out of the US. It combines a dot-point to-do list, goals, current month and six months at a glance in a notebook.

    It’s very flexible. You can also allocate a specific page to a topic. For example, my current notebook has a page for planning my son’s birthday party and one for an important phone call.

    There’s a small amount of time involved to stop and set up each month-at-a-glance, but I find that writing helps me to think through the priorities and to integrate the disparate parts of my life. (Although, I do use a different system for my paid work. I wouldn’t recommend this approach for very complex projects or a high volume of tasks.) I’ve used Asana and Trello, but it works for me to use a tangible notebook for home and study.

    For the bullet journal, I use a very light, A5 notebook that fits in my handbag. The other benefit is that if I have a key document – say that pesky parking fine – I have somewhere to put it.

    I’ve noticed that a community has grown online around the bullet journal. Some people get benefit from including a lot of colour in their bullet journal. Mine is vanilla flavoured. I’ve found that you don’t need to follow the approach to the letter for it to be useful.

    Thanks, as always, for your tremendous blog!

  10. AEMcDonald says:

    I’m currently using GTD to capture my to-dos and actions, OmniFocus2 for iPad to organize and schedule them, and a Bullet Journal to keep track of daily tasks and outcomes as a bit of a modified Kanban process. I like to think that I’ve stolen the best pieces from each of these productivity approaches!

  11. Dana Wanzer says:

    Interesting! I’ve been following your journey in learning this software. I personally use (and love) Todoist, but I need to work on better integration of my email application to ensure better follow up with emails I’ve sent. I’ll probably use IFTTT or Zapier to achieve this, though, rather than learn a whole new program.

  12. Anne says:

    Thank you for your wonderful blog and book. I am writing my MPhil and you have already helped me a lot with all your lovely cheat sheets and recommendations (especially Scrivener and Papers). Will also check out Getting Things Done, it sounds like my cup of tea.
    Regarding the other book you mentioned, My live in ruins, I have actually read (or rather audio-booked it, free on borrowbox through ACT libraries) and I really enjoyed it!

  13. Jakob says:

    I use Evernote for this kind of project management (and also did so during my entire Ph.D. project). Of course, Evernote is a more general purpose tool, and I have – at multiple occasions – considered to start using a dedicated project planning tool, like Omnifocus, Asana, or Trello.

    It’s probably a matter of personal taste, but I prefer to avoid spreading information in too many places – and PDFs, images, or other attachments can easily be attached in Evernote, where I anyway write work journals. Clearly, Evernote does not have the same level of sophistication in the task and project planning tools as dedicated softwares, but it does have the ability to make to do-lists, checkbox lists, reminders. Which I have found to be plenty sufficient.

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