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Graphic of organizational goals for 2014

Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

Every New Year I join the millions of people who set out to develop a New Year’s resolution. This year I plan on getting in shape, getting one step closer to completing the dissertation, and, most importantly, I plan to get organized. As a graduate student I have come to accumulate tons of papers and general clutter throughout the years. While many people wait until Spring Break to do their cleaning and purging, I’ve found the new year is the perfect time for a clean restart, and getting organized has historically ranked amongst the top 10 resolutions of the new year. However, the key to getting organized isn't necessarily just cleaning and decluttering, but developing productive habits that keep you organized. Therefore I’ve presented five strategies I plan to use to stay organized and tackle my resolution for 2014.

1. Maintaining a physical inbox

I navigate my inbox to handle incoming emails, so why not adopt a similar system to handle my physical mail as well? I recently stumbled across the idea of using the physical inbox while listening to a workshop on The idea is fairly simple: when I come home from school or work, I put all the paperwork I’ve accumulated into a cardboard box. This includes handwritten notes, physical mail, business cards, to-do lists, receipts, and anything else that needs to be handled. At the end of the day, I scan the documents that need to be scanned, reply to any mail that needs my attention, and throw out any trash. I put off any larger tasks for the weekend. Since I recently started doing this, I’ve found there is less paper clutter around the house, and I’m one step closer a paperless life.

2. Managing digital articles and eBooks efficiently

As a full-time graduate student I have to juggle writing multiple papers and research projects, while simultaneously curating my interests. As a result I download multiple articles and eBooks every week and have found several copies of the same article in different places on my computer. In an effort to rein in the clutter of my Downloads folder, I’ve adopted a new system for managing digital articles and ebooks. As soon as I download any pdf article or book, I immediately input it into my bibliographic reference manager—at the moment I’m using the newly updated Papers 3 app. Once I create a bibliographic reference, I delete the original article from my Downloads folder and read and annotate the article in Papers 3. Any bibliographic reference manager will do, but I can say already the method has helped me keep track of the articles I read and avoid unneeded duplication. If you want to adopt a more complex system, Mac users can use a Hazel to redirect PDFs to specific folders and delete copies or even use a more complex software package like DevonThink to manage documents.

3. Developing a note-taking workflow

Note-taking is one of those things that is unique to each individual. I’ve bounced back and forth between taking digital vs. handwritten notes, but at the end of the day none of them were able to fully suit my needs. Over the years I have created my own method of using unlined copy paper for note-taking. I add the class title and the date at the top of each page and take notes on the left hand side. On the right side of the page, I’ll add any additional research I need to do or jot down little to-do lists to remind myself of anything that needs to get done later in the day.

At the end of the semester, I run the notes through the scanner and create a pdf for each class before throwing away the paper notes. Because I take notes in pencil—I like to be able to erase—I sometimes have to darken the contrast before scanning, but it works out great. The only thing I haven't quite figured out is how to make my handwriting OCR searchable with good accuracy. It’s not a big deal considering I generally know the topics I’m looking for, and it doesn't take much time to visually search through the PDFs.

4. Handling multiple projects and to-do lists with Trello

To-do lists are an important part of every organizational workflow, and I’ve tried many different apps and formats. Currently I continue to write daily lists with a pencil and paper but sometime use Any.DO on my phone. However, with these methods it can be difficult to simultaneously manage multiple projects. Thus enters Trello.

With Trello each project is organized into “boards” which can be shared with other Trello users. For my own purposes, I have a Trello board for my own personal use and one for work to help manage stuff around the office. For my personal Trello, I keep a short, medium, and long-term to-do list for what needs to be done today, this week, and this year. I also create new lists for specific projects associated with grants and research papers. For work, I create “members” to represent interns and co-workers so I can keep track of who’s been assigned to what task so that I can follow up if necessary. The best part about Trello is that I can set due dates which turn green, yellow, and red as I get closer to the deadline. I can also create a checklist for tasks, attach files (up to 10mb each), and add labels. Once the task is complete, I simply hit “archive” and it’s stashed away.

Trello has an IOS and web app which means I can access it from any device. I’ve found the free version works great for my needs, but they also have a paid option for more storage and a few additional perks.

5. Organizing the wardrobe and selecting the right outfit

In addition to organizing papers and tasks, I’ve found one of my biggest trouble areas for organization is the closet. I have a fairly large closet so space isn’t an issue, but I’m a sucker for a good deal and thrift shops which means I can easily accumulate a lot of cheap clothes. As a lecturer last semester, I spent too much time in front of the mirror each morning as I struggled to dress professionally and still maintain a bit of creativity. I tried to lay out my outfit the night before—like I used to do as a kid on the first day of school—but that didn't last. Instead, I decided to just keep track of the outfits I wear. When I get an outfit I like, I’ll snap a photo in the mirror and keep moving. If I’m ever lost about what to wear—or what to pack for a conference—I’ll just go through my camera roll and rebuild the outfit. It has saved me a lot of time in the morning trying to match outfits and has helped me to realize the full potential of my wardrobe.

These are just some of the organizational changes I’m making for 2014. What organizational goals do you have for the new year? How do you plan to stay organized?

[Image by Justin Dunnavant used with permission from the author.]


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