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Megan Poorman completed her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and associate of NIST. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.

I’m a self-admitted cynic about new year’s resolutions (you don’t have to start all new things in January), but it’s hard to deny that January brings a sense of new possibility. The chaos of the holidays is over, and you can hit refresh as you settle back into daily operations. However, in graduate school daily operations can mean a multitude of things. You could be starting new classes, starting up a new long-term experiment, writing your dissertation, or starting the job search. Add to that the constantly-changing priorities, administrative hurdles, and unforeseeable setbacks, your pristine new year can quickly devolve into the same mad hustle that ended the previous year.

This was me at the beginning of last year (2018). My to-do list was long and full of daunting tasks like writing my dissertation, publishing my paper, and finding a job. There were so many moving parts; trying to organize experiments and squeeze in writing time clashed with the schedule of impending conference travel and job interviews. All of this and I still needed to find a time to get five very busy people in the same room for three hours to defend my dissertation. Needless to say, there was no way I could keep all of this straight in my head and remain coherent enough to execute it all in a timely manner.

I needed a solution, a way to get my thoughts out of my head so that I could prioritize and keep myself on track for graduation. Enter a YouTube binge and some intensive Googling on planning, and what I found was a method to the madness that led to me accomplishing all the things on my to-do list and more. It was so effective for me that my 2019 theme is routines, and I plan to use these strategies to help me transition from harried graduate student to capable adult scientist. Planning your year is a simple yet effective way to provide some much-needed structure to your academic life. My approach involves two things, a bullet journal-style notebook and a calendar-accordion monstrosity.

The bullet journal:
A bullet journal is essentially a planner in which you keep track of events, to do lists, schedules, and thoughts. However, it is entirely free-form. You control the layout, which gives you the flexibility to use it for whatever you need, whether that’s journaling your day’s events or keeping track of a habit. If you give it an internet search, you’ll likely find a ton of enviable, masterful artworks of journal pages. There’s a whole community of #bujo lovers on social media and YouTube for inspiration, but don’t be intimidated. An artistic slant is not required to use a bullet journal effectively. Using your journal daily is also not required. A bullet journal is what works for YOU.

There are many possible spreads, or page layouts, you could use. If you enjoy doodling and art many people use bullet journals as a creative outlet. While I do have an artistic side, I found that simple and utilitarian worked best for me and my sometimes scribbly handwriting.

At the beginning of the year I sat down and created a “future log” which is a bit like a master plan. I wrote out a list of all the things I had going on that year and grouped them by month. That included grant report due dates, conference deadlines, birthdays, planned travel, and committee meetings. This helped me see what events were occurring when and as major things got scheduled (like my dissertation defense) I added those to the calendar along the way. This section was a huge help in creating my calendar-accordion, which we’ll discuss later, and seeing what time I had free without scrolling through my online calendar month-by-month. Once I had everything laid out, I would copy it to my online calendar so that I would get phone reminders.  

My next spread was a habit tracker. I started this one on a whim because I was on a bit of a workout streak and wanted to see how long it would last. It turned out to be one of my most referred-to pages. These trackers can get very elaborate, but I opted for a simple grid. I listed the months across the top of a page, the days down the rows, and each day I worked out I would color in the corresponding box. It became fun way to motivate myself to work out because I didn’t want to break the pattern. While this works great for fitness, you can also use it to keep track of work-related things like establishing a writing practice or self-care habits like meditating.

Most of my journal was taken up by weekly spreads. Many people opt for a planner-like schedule where each day has a box for events and notes, but I chose to use it more as a brain dump. Each Monday when I got to my desk, I would take 30 minutes to think about my week. I would simply title the page with “Weekly Plan” and the date and then create some subheadings for each research project, administrative role, or personal task I was working on. I then proceeded to write down every item I had to do in each category and referred to this list throughout the week. Items I didn’t finish by the end of the week would get transferred to next week’s spread. Not only did this set me up well for the week but it allowed me to keep track of all of my projects at once and see where I needed to focus my efforts.

The paper calendar-accordion monstrosity:
While the bullet journal was a daily tool for keeping myself on track, the paper calendar was my way of corralling all the moving parts into one cohesive location. Particularly when your brain is fried and scattered from the too many projects you have going on, this is a great way to put your mind at ease. This tool allowed me to communicate all of the pieces to others so that plans could be made.

I do insist that you use a paper calendar for this. I know there are many awesome digital tools out there for the same purpose but it is difficult to follow someone else’s thought process when they scroll quickly through calendar pages on a computer screen. On a computer you either get a detailed view of a week without any context to the overall timeline or see the whole timeline without any daily detail. A paper calendar allows you do to both at the same time and also prevent accidental swiping battles with mentors on your touch-sensitive computer screen. You can (and should) still maintain a digital calendar for reminders and accessibility but using a paper calendar for initial planning helps get everything out of your head in an organized fashion.

I suggest printing out each month’s calendar on a full 8.5” x 11” page and taping them all together so that you have one (very) long sheet of paper that you can fold up like an accordion for compact transportation. You will probably get weird looks from your office mates when you bring out the tape and stapler but hopefully they are accepting enough to not ask questions. Having the months taped together allows you to see everything at once and assess how many weeks are between certain activities with just a glance. Once you have the calendar printed, you can fill in everything from your bullet journal’s future log into the appropriate days and can begin to see where more nebulous things like a long experiment might fit in. You can pencil these in for future discussion with your advisor.

Once filled out, bring this calendar to meetings, particularly if you are trying to set a date for a something important like a committee meeting. I’ve found having all your events written out in this fashion is an effective way of discussing timelines with advisors and an easy way to keep track of their schedules. It also gives a nice dramatic effect when you unroll it ceremoniously in someone’s office – not that I’ve done that before.

It’s never too late to start planning for what’s ahead. Using a bullet journal and paper calendar completed changed the way I structured my time in graduate school and helped me stay sane when things got crazy. What strategies do you use to stay ahead of your to-do list?

[Image by Flickr user Ariana Escobar and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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