I use a planner because my life has a lot of moving pieces right now, and it helps me make the best use of my time. A few years ago, I left my job as an elementary school teacher and entered graduate school. I have completed my coursework, and it’s now time to write my dissertation proposal and prepare for my qualifying exams.
When I was a teacher, my day was very structured. My day was dictated by a bell schedule and lesson plans. As a graduate student, I work the same number of hours, but there is no bell to tell me when to sit at the computer. No curriculum dictates how I move forward…My first two years, I struggled to use that flexibility wisely. Somehow, I conflated “more flexibility” with “more time to do other things.”
I know. Trust me, I know. It was a naïve mistake. I have done well in school, but I would have liked to have started my dissertation by now. Something had to change, and like the Type A person I am, I just knew that lists and a schedule could get me back on track!
I learned — through trial and error, along with some helpful reading — that I need a writing schedule if I’m going to get my own grad school work done. Family and my employer’s work tend to come first. When I shuffled pieces around, I deferred work on my own research and writing. No more! Now I use the Pomodoro technique (funny name, I know) to help me get in a minimum of two hours per day on my own writing. I often get in more, but the minimum helps me stay consistent and write every weekday. I read (part of my research, naturally), go to meetings and seminars, and work on paid research for my adviser the rest of the time. Well, that and the whole raising two children, managing a household with my husband, and living a life thing 🙂 But that goes in my other calendar!
- Every Sunday, when I do my weekly review, I put two hours (minimum) of writing time onto the schedule for each day of the week. It goes into my weekly agenda simply as “Writing.”
- Next, I think about what writing tasks I hope to accomplish during the week ahead. I use the OmniFocus app to store specific tasks (e.g., “Write about sample selection.”). Yes, I’m a Filo girl at heart, but I love to mix it up with a few digital helpers. The plan is only for one week. It’s best to be flexible in case something happens. My son, for instance, had some unplanned doctors visits and medical tests yesterday, so I fell a bit behind schedule. I’m going to try and catch up, but if I need to, I can move tasks to next week once Sunday comes around.
- I enter daily goals for my writing time onto a dedicated “Month on Two Pages” (MO2P) calendar. This has its own section in my Malden, and it speaks to how important this aspect of my work is to my life as a graduate student. I’m sure this system could work for people tackling other large projects.
- Each day, when it’s time to start writing, I open up my binder and review my goals are for the day. No time wasted on wondering what I should be doing; that was decided on Sunday. Just dive right in! Since I’m easily distracted, I should also add that I disable my internet during these sessions. It’s the only way for me to get the work done!
My goal now is to use the list on the side to record my total writing time each day. The two hours is a minimum, and I want to be accountable for meeting that goal. Perhaps I’ll identify patterns of when I’m most (and least) productive.
Some might wonder why I dedicate an entire A5 MO2P calendar just to tasks related to one part of my life. First, my research is an important part of my life. Before I gave it its own “space,” I found myself putting it to the side when family or work tasks demanded my attention. I probably added an extra year on to my doctoral program because of overcommitments in other areas.
It also helps take a big project and break it down into manageable pieces, all while allowing me to see the bigger picture. Adding family or other work events would be visually distracting, and it would be difficult to quickly gauge if I’m making appropriate progress toward my qualifying exams. It doesn’t clutter up my family calendar with tasks. The tactile and visual nature of writing in on the MO2P format helps orient my work for the week.
I’ve been a lot more productive since starting this system. The 2 hour minimum is a big factor, and the calendar allows me to avoid getting bogged down in planning what to write each day I sit down in front of the computer. This mix of paper and digital works well for me. Navigating between the two formats allows me to do the real “thinking” about what I want to accomplish before the start of the week, and it sets a productive tone for my writing sessions.