'day in the working life' - planning, doing, and key takeaways.
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Hello, it's been a while.
Similarly to most people I'd imagine, there are peaks and troughs in the academic calendar, and there has been a constant peak for me for the past few weeks. This has finally started to settle down, and as we look ahead til the end of this term, I thought I'd take the opportunity to write a planning/organising post, as recorded in real time this week.
Now that things have settled a little, I've finally had chance to work from home for the day. And I had a fair bit to get done! I thought it might be useful to capture my full process in blog form, and then think about the key takeaways from working the way that I do. Full disclosure here - this is the way I work best. This is a tried and practiced process, and I know that I get work done this way. You may still be figuring out what works best for you, and that's okay! Hopefully some of these ideas will also prove useful.
Part 1 - Planning
This step is really key for the entire day of work. And not so easily done! Do not fall into the trap of spending the whole day planning everything, to then not get anything done.
In all fairness, a lot of the planning for my workday was done before the actual day. Things like:
- I use Wunderlist (other apps/methods are available!) to keep my to-do list. I knew what jobs I needed to do (discussed below), and had these already set out to me in the app. I knew, prior to that day (usually I check what I've got to do the night before), what I'd be focusing on. This saves time on the actual day.
- In addition to having my to-do list already set, I also time allocate to all of the activities I need to do, so I know how much I can feasibly get done in a day. This takes practice, but I'm still rarely ever right. Some things you'll know how long they take (maybe a training video with a set time), but others will be as long as a piece of string. As a general rule of thumb - give yourself a set time you think a task will take, and then add .5 extra time anyway (so for an hours worth of work on a task, give yourself another half an hour). This helps keep you on track for the day if you do run over (but also gives you some free space if it doesn't take that long).
- Food and drink! I'm not kidding. I know I have coffee and tea stocked, and also what I'll have for lunch and snacks. I'm not going to waste time moaning that THERE'S NOTHING TO EATTT in the kitchen.
- My workspace is always set up and ready to go (see picture above). I'm lucky I have a dedicated office at home for work - you may have a kitchen table to use, and that's still fine. I only have what I need (yes, plants are necessary), and I intentionally keep my phone out of my view and on 'do not disturb' (on the shelves behind, or in my bag if I'm working out of home).
It wasn't until I wrote these steps down as I thought about my day that I realise I do these things. Because I know this way of working is good for me, it's automatic now. Whatever your routines/habits/rituals are, you may want to revisit them, and see if they're working for you.
Part 2 - The doing
I am sorry, I do not have a fix for getting your work magically done :) this is the part that requires effort! Below is a screenshot of my to-do list for that day:
The tasks listed all vary - some personal, some marking related, some content focused. I try to batch activities appropriately (i.e. I sorted my car insurance whilst on my 'lunch break'). You'll also notice that I don't list my emails on my to-do - due to the sheer amount I get, I have to do these daily to keep on top of them. I batch my emails (I NEVER sit with Outlook open all day), so I usually do them either a. when I've finished a task ahead of my allocated time or b. at the end of the day (I always leave at least half an hour at the end of the working day, intentionally, in case things run over / emails to do / prep for tomorrow).
If it's not already evident where this is going, I split up my *whole* day using Pomodoros (you can read a post I already made about this wonderful tool here) - you can even see my yellow Pomodoro timer (literally just a kitchen timer from Amazon!) on my desk in the top image. So, as an example, this is how I split up my day:
- Inclusive Assessment Design Session - 2 x 45 minute poms
- Lifespan marking - 1 x 45 minute pom
- Exam Guidance - 1 x 45 minute pom
- Health & Safety course - 1 x 45 minute pom
- References (and other admin) - 1 x 45 minute pom
The most important thing for me here was addressing the most pressing/important task first (inclusive assessment), so I tackled this first thing when I started my day. I did actually run over (it took me over 2 hours in the end), but I made time up from other Pomodoros that didn't take as long as planned. I also had time left at the end of the day (which is rare - distractions do happen, even at home!), so I got ahead for my next day (which was all marking based). I did note, on reflection, that I work *much better* if I'm able to switch between tasks, like I did on this day. The next working day, where I did marking for the entire day, I found much more difficult. I have a short attention span, and I know this (which is why I love using Pomodoros), so switching up tasks keeps me going. I used to apply this to my PhD writing - I'd allocate some time to reading, writing, editing, engaging with others, all in a day, rather than just simply writing all day.
One of the important parts of 'doing' work is the breaks. When I break, I don't stay sat where I'm working, looking at my phone. I have to move - I make a drink, I check on the dog, tidy up what I can in 5 minutes (the house is never as clean as when you have something important to do, am I right?!), so I do feel as though I've had a short time away from the computer before returning.
Part 3 - The key takeaways
It was really nice to get back into the swing of things after a busy period, and also nice to reflect on the process! Overall, there are a few principles that could be applied more generally across the board with planning (and doing) work:
Preparation is key (but don't procrastinate!)
The preparation I did (and do continuously) is the pinnacle factor for the rest of the day going well. Though, I've done it! A whole day goes to planning your week/month/life, and you've not actually achieved anything. If you need to, you may wish to block out some dedicated time for finding an organisational method that works for you (post-its, to-do apps, calendars), but this should be done on a separate occasion.
Break tasks down
I know we all know this one! But there's no way you can just put 'essay / paper / PhD' on your to-do list and expect it to get done in one day. A chunk of writing can be broken down by paragraph, by theme, by section. I factor in intentional time for things such as:
- reading the assignment brief / journal paper guidelines / paperwork guidance
- spellcheck / editing / reading through final drafts (I was the worst for this, but I know it's so important)
- actual reading (for content) and storing references (I use Mendeley)
I have so many thoughts on space / time in academia. I still see busy-ness used as a reason for things not being done. I do get it. But. Leaving those few gaps in the day will enable you to get work done, not prevent it.
Practice practice practice
As stated at the start of the blog, I know what works for me. That has taken years of practice! And I'll still refine my ways of working, consider strategies to be more 'efficient', and discover new tools. But you won't know what works best for you until you try.
I fully appreciate my circumstances are a huge factor here - I don't have children, I have my own house I share only with my partner and my dog, in a quiet area, and am able to work at home in a dedicated office space. Everyone has their own set up and circumstance, and this is also subject to change, so it's about working with that.
I do hope some of these things were useful for you to takeaway!
Come say hi: @CharlotteJD