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What do you do to get organized?

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My organization skills really need to be improved, especially since I am about to begin a grad school program. If you have any tips or strategies you use to be organized (to organize physical space, data, schedules, whatever) please share it here. I'd love to hear what you do to make your lives run in a more organized fashion.

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At a previous job of mine, they were really into Steven Covey's planners and his ideas about planning. First thing's first, I would definitely get a planner. It doesn't have to be a Steven Covey planner, but you need a visual daily reminder of what's up next.


Then, the thing that I learned that helped me out the most was the idea of "Big rocks vs. Little rocks". Basically, each day (or week, depending on your preference), you plan your day (or week) according to the things most important. So, let's say you have a paper due next Friday. One of your "Big rocks" next week would be to do research, determine a thesis, start an introduction... so on and so forth. This is why daily planning is better, because Sunday could be your research and thesis day, Monday your intro day..........


Now, the "Little rocks" are things that need to be done eventually, but aren't pressing issues. Let's say your rent is due on the 1st. Well, today is the 25th, so you want to get the check to your landlord soon, but it doesn't need to be done today (unless you have to mail it). I got so reliant on planning this way, that soon I was planning calls to my parents, lunches, and even naps!


Hope this helps somewhat.

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Planning is definitely vital, but overplanning (planning, as AboveTheRim said in the above post, naps, and other little things) seems to be counterproductive in my particular case. At the times when I did it, my planning became so abstruse that it started confusing me instead of helping. But then again, it really depends on the person!


Other than that I also go for the "big rocks/little rocks" setup.

Having a weekly planner where I can visualize tasks helps not to loose track of the things to do. I try to just write down the really important things, for the reasons I mentioned above. When I start annotating "Call friend x", "Buy fruit y" and so forth it just confuses me visually to look at so many unaccomplished tasks and it increases my anxiety.


One thing that is useful is to set goals for your study/work instead of periods of time which you plan on spending doing something ("studying for 2 hours" may be crammed with distractions and then those 2 hours aren't productive; but if you set yourself to "study chapter 1" then you'll accomplish it regardless of the time it takes).


Also making time for resting is paramount!

Edited by flip-a
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1. Lists. Lots of them. I've been using workflowy for a year now and I like it a lot. 


1.1. To do lists: I have weekly, monthly, and semester/year lists that contain different goals with different fine-grainedness. 


1.2. Meeting notes: I summarize my meetings either during the meetings or right after, that way I have a documentation of everything that happened and down the line I can search my notes for relevant examples or whatever. 


1.3. Deadlines: All conferences, abstracts, one-time things go on a list way ahead of time so I don't forget them. 


2. A good calendar. I used to have a physical planner (I likes moleskin) but now I just use google calendar with 5-6 regular calendars (classes, meetings, teaching, regular events, irregular events, private). Everything I need to do goes on there, otherwise I won't remember it. 


3. Schedule your off time in your calendar or make it a habit to have certain times off, otherwise your private life can easily get consumed by your work. 


4. Learn to say no. Not everything out there should make it onto your calendar or to-do lists. 

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I usually keep a couple of jotters. One for 'research scrawlings' that I'll take to meetings with my advisor and write down all ideas/notes related to my research in there. 


Another is more of a To Do list collection: I'll write up lists of things to do each day/week, record phone numbers/addresses. Basically I try and centralise everything so I don't lose any vital information.


I'll also set aside time a little bit of time for planning the week ahead on a Sunday night or first thing on the Monday. I'll sit down with a nice cup of tea and work out what needs to be done and when. 


The final piece of advice is that (for me) organisational strategies will depend on what "kind" of "disorganised" person you are. If you feel disorganised because you always seem to be losing bits of paper - focus on developing a new filing system. If you feel that you're procrastinating too much - organise your time in a stricter/more beneficial way. Etc.

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This might depend on your program but I personally do not find much use for a physical planner. I used these a ton in high school and university because I just had it in my backpack, which is always with me. But at grad school, I have a desk now, and whenever I leave my desk (to go to a seminar, class, whatever), I just want to grab the minimal things (notebook, pen, coffee/tea).


Like fuzzy, I use Google Calendar for everything! I am at my computer most of the time, so whenever I do have to schedule something, I'm probably already at the computer so Google Calendar is easy to pull up and add an entry or find an opening. If I'm away from my desk (e.g. in class, seminar, at lunch), I can access my calendar on my phone.


I don't like physical planners because then the info only exists in one place so if I forget it, then I can't see what's inside! My phone is always attached to me though. I also like Google Calendar because it's easy to set up a variety of different calendars in different colours that you can click on/off. For me, I have a different calendar for classes, for departmental events (e.g. seminars, meetings), for travel, for doctor/dentist appointments, and for meeting with supervisors etc. Having everything appear at the same time can be overwhelming, especially during the year where there are tons of classes going on. So, in the same idea of "big rocks"/"little rocks", I use the separate calendars to separate different priorities and when I need to focus on the big picture, I can turn off the little stuff or vice versa.


I also really like electronic calendars because I can share them with my wife very easily. If I used a planner, we would also need some other bigger calendar at home where I'd write in dates I'm travelling or evenings where I have late classes/meetings, or nights where I have to be running a telescope. With Google Calendar, sharing these events with her means she can easily find out my schedule at her convenience! 


I think Google Calendar really does organize most of my life! For physical stuff, I keep a separate "lab notebook" for every project I work on and date every page/entry. For coursework, I have a filing cabinet next to my desk with hanging folders and a file folder for each course. As I get materials handed back, I file them away for each course and at the end of the term, I organize the folder so that all of the handouts, homework, notes, etc. are in some logical order in case I need to refer back to the material. I print a copy of the syllabus and keep it at the front of the folder for easy reference. I also print out extra copies of the problem sets, final exams (if it's allowed to do so) etc. to replace any copies I might have lost or thrown away in frustration.


I used to keep my desk in messy piles (e.g. a pile for project 1, a pile for project 2, a pile for coursework) but I recently got one of those document trays from IKEA to make things a bit neater. I also have a drawer that I reserve for travel related documents. Whenever I book a flight, hotel, car, or pay for registration, I print out a confirmation and immediately put it in the drawer. I also use Gmail's "label" feature to store the email confirmation in an easily findable location. This is because you often make these reservations weeks or months ahead of the trip and sometimes the last day before a trip is hectic because of last minute stuff. So, this prevents me from having to dig through all my piles of papers to find that confirmation # etc. and this makes sure everything I need for both travel and reimbursement is in one place. 


For data on computer, I use Dropbox and Mendeley to keep everything synchronized across my work computer,  home computer, and other work computers. All homework materials and things I write are in Dropbox so I can work on my problem sets etc. at home if I want. I usually only keep research data on my work computer. This is because the files are often huge but also because I don't want to be doing too much research work at home. My Macbook can connect to my work computer remotely to run things on the work computer if necessary though. I use Mendeley to keep a common repository of all papers as well as an easy bibliographic tool. Finally, I also keep all my travel documents (boarding passes etc.) on Dropbox so that I can access all of this information from the Dropbox app on my phone. 


With these two pieces of software, I never have to worry about manually (i.e. with a USB stick) synchronizing files between my computers and trying to figure out which version is the newest one! 

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Oh yeah, I also back everything up on dropbox and on two external hard drives (one attached to my work computer, one to my home computer). I scan everything once a semester - all my handouts, hand-written notes, printouts, etc - and get rid of the paper copies. During the semester I have trays for each class / topic to keep my papers in order. I try to read only on my computer, or if I wrote comments on a hard copy of a paper, I'll copy the notes to a pdf so I can find it all later.  

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1. I am a big fan of dry erase boards. I have a huge one in my room as a monthly calendar, and it gives me just a quick visual reference when I am up so that I can keep track of things. Everything goes there, deadlines, basketball games, and general to-do's. It has a slot for monthly goals, which I fill in. Also, on Sundays I always write a small achievable weekly goal that I can get through.


2. I love to make lists as well. Breaking things up into small easy tasks really helps keep me moving, and I am one of the biggest procrastinators ever.


3. I love love love my day planner. It has a monthly calendar to jot quick notes, as well as a daily calendar with plenty of room to make notes. I crack it open a couple of times a day to make sure that I am top of things. It also has a large section for notes. It's small and light, so it's easy to take around with me. My planner doubles as my notebook for non lab meetings and seminars.

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Wow it's so great to hear what everyone else does to stay on top of things.  Quite a few ideas I'll be trying out myself.  Ok so what do I do?  Well it depends on the area of my life I'm working on.



-Google Calendar for class days/times, school related meetings, exam/project/paper/homework deadlines, reminders to study/work/research, etc.  I've also been using this to track how many hours I'm studying each day for the GRE.

-Accordion file with a section for each class for the syllabus, handouts, homework/papers due, etc.

-Paper notebook for lecture notes, one per class

-Citation managers (mostly RefWorks, but sometimes EndNote or Mendeley) for organizing my research and keeping notes on each article.  I'm trying my hardest to stop printing everything and handwriting my notes because its way to much paper.

-Google Drive & a flash drive for backing up my work.  Eventually I'd like to incorporate an external hard drive.

-Post It Note task lists for when I have a study day and I need to work on several classes.  I list stuff in order of importance and check them off as I go.

-Pack lunch or dinner and snacks



-Google Calendar to track personal appts, exercise, bills, social events, volunteer hours, etc

-Google Task List for things that I need to do, but have no fixed deadline or sense of urgency

-Paper files for important documents, copies of receipts, etc.  Back ups on hard drive and Google Drive.  Eventually an external hard drive for this too.

-Multitask chores and cooking. 

-Cook for about a week at a time, sometimes longer, and put ready sized portions in tupperware.

-Stockpile my pantry and freezer.

-Group errands and volunteer commitments to save on gas/time.



-Google Calendar to track projects, client hours, meetings, etc

-Post It Note task lists and list stuff in order of importance.

-Organizing trays for urgent stuff, pending stuff, stuff that can wait, etc

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Paper Planner

I have a simple monthly/weekly planner that I got for $8 at Target. I write down major events like due dates and exams in the monthly, so I can see everything important that's coming up. I also put a post it with my goals for the month on the monthly page, so I can reference that quickly. I write daily tasks and to-do lists in the weekly section. If I have something that isn't given a specific day to complete, I write it on a postit note that can move with each day. I cannot stress this enough: write in pencil. Things come up and you will need to erase to make space.


Google Calendar

I preprogram all of my repeating events in my Google calendar. I also add any events that are at a specific time, once I know them. The Google calendar allows me to see my day spatially, instead of as a long list. And it helps me determine how much free time I really have to complete my regular tasks.


An example of how I do this:

  • My current monthly (July) has the following events: birthdays, paydays, doctor appointments, dinner/coffee dates, appointments with PI, phone interviews.
    The post it has: write academic statement, write personal history statement, email more POIs, finalize grad app list, plan honors thesis, finish reading current meta-analysis papers, student for the gre general and bio.
  • My current weekly (starting July 22) has the following events in their respective pages: the daily chapters assigned in my gre practice books, submit timesheets, clean the rat cage (needs to be done every 5 days), skype meetings, when my lab group is at the greenhouse, coffee date, and write academic statement.
    The post it has: remember ti exercise, drink water, keep up with literature, and smile.

I used to use all electronic, but I really like to see my week laid out in front of me, as well as my month. I can get that better with paper. Also, I am often in the field, so I need something that won't lose battery or reception.

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In addition to Google Calendar, I have found the mobile apps Astrid and Evernote useful. I use Astrid to remind me of tasks and appointments. When you have snoozed a task one too many times, Astrid will pop up with a witty and funny reminder. Evernote can be used to jot down to-do lists with reminder options, and much more. Dropbox is definitely an essential in grad school. My lab group also has Dropbox for data sharing and such. An alternative to Dropbox is Google Drive which has similar functions.

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I really like the "big rocks/little rocks" strategy. It's so simple yet effective. I'm also going to try google calendar since it's so popular and seems to be really handy.


What strategies do you use to organize large blocks of time and smaller gaps in between classes and appointments?


Do most of you do your work on one computer or have a desk top and a lightweight laptop and store your data in both places?

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Google calendar or some kind of calendar software's great for deadlines, conferences, presentations, tests, etc.  Spend a bit of time at least once a month to keep that CV of yours up to date (it's easy to forget about bullet points months later, and it's a real pain to catch up if you need an updated one ASAP).  For the never-ending pile of reference material, EndNote allows you to type notes for each source you save, providing a quick reference rather than rereading the material many times.  Play around with different ideas, you'll learn what works best for you!

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