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Ashley Wiersma is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on twitter at @throughthe_veil.

When asked about how you're doing on your academic work, does your heart race, adrenaline spike, or do you just go numb? If you answered, “yes” to any of these questions, you are in “triage” mode, just trying to stem the bleeding of your time and energy enough to complete your tasks and (hopefully) get a few hours of sleep. However, you probably want more out of your life and work than this.

Now that we’ve nearly reached the end of the semester and are looking forward to a break in our usual schedules, it’s a great time to reflect on our work habits and perhaps make a few changes.

I’ll skip the usual recommendations (which are all good and should be heeded), such as getting enough sleep, healthy eating, and maintaining a workout routine.  We all know we need to do these things, but what else might bring some sanity to our work lives and therefore to our lives in general?

The Lean Sigma “5S” process, adapted to academic life, offers a basic procedure to simplify our workspace and workflow.  By eliminating wasted time searching for what you need and creating an organized space with visual cues for the work you need to do, you’re able to focus on your priorities and work more efficiently to accomplish tasks faster with less stress.

1.    Sort: Remove clutter to see how a process is really working (or not)

  • Only keep what you need in your workspace to perform the work you need to do.
  • If you won’t need it in the near future, don’t keep it in your area
  • In some cases, consider removing everything and starting over

Example: Take stock of your desk and/or your electronic filing system. Can you quickly find the files and materials you need to do your work?  If not, it's time to decide what is most important to keep handy and what can be moved or removed. (Note: This can also be applied to other rooms, closets, and cupboards in your home too!)

2.    Set in Order: Organize your materials

  • Simplify the work by putting things in places where they are needed to reduce unnecessary movement and searching
  • Consider creating a map of your work space to determine the best placement for your books and equipment
  • Start with the large items (desk, bookshelves, printer, computer, etc.)

Example: If you find yourself constantly reaching for certain reference materials, keep them on or near your desk. Are necessary notes buried in layers of folders? If so, consider how you might reorganize them to make them easier to find and access.

3.     Shine: Clean and maintain your “stuff”

  • As you clean, look for problems or potential problems, especially with your technology
  • Keep things in top condition so they are ready to use when you need them
  • Inspect => detect => fix or prevent problems

Example: Do you need more ink or paper? Is a piece of equipment not running properly?

4.    Standardize: Develop a process and stick to it.

  • Create a structured approach to your note-taking, research, lesson planning, and stick to it.
  • Create checklists to help you remember your routine.
  • Color code your binders of notes or your computer files to make them easy to find and identify at a glance
  • If you’re managing a large project, create a timeline with benchmarks and put it in a visible place. (See Kaitlin Gallagher’s article on project management for more details.)

Example: Every time you pick up a new secondary source, enter it into your bibliographic reference software, whether that be Zotero or another, and include a summary of the author’s argument and evidence. Create a system for writing, storing, and tagging your notes.

5.     Sustain: Periodically reflect on your practices

  • Establish a system of accountability through writing groups or other peer-support groups
  • Reflect on your progress toward goals and benchmarks daily, weekly, and monthly.  Is there anything you need to change to meet your goals?
  • Maintain contact with your adviser and committee
  • Go back to “Sort” and look for and remove wasteful practices that do not add value to your work.

Finally, have a plan in place for times when you are unable to meet your goals. How will you recognize that you’re off track? Who will you contact if you need help? What steps will you take to move forward?

For more information on Lean Sigma principles and tools, check out:

What do you do to restore order when your life feels out of control?

 [Special thanks to continuous improvement consultant Mike Wiersma for the tutorial in Lean Sigma principles!]