How to find your planning and project management tools

Eva Lantsoght
Author
Eva Lantsoght
Published
2 Jan '20

January is all about sharpening our saw and getting ready for the action of the year ahead. And if we want to get in on the action, we need to make sure we have the right tools for the action.

Everybody is different in the tools that work best for them. Some people prefer to have everything digital or everything analog. Most people, however do best with a mix of tools for different purposes. I've gone from all digital back to parts analog (I prefer physically ticking off things and I prefer reflection based on longhand writing).

With so many software applications out there and planners in all forms and shapes possible, how do we select the right tools? Of course, there's no direct solution to this. My own project management and planning tools change as my needs change, or as I learn how to work better - and yours will change as well.

To get started with the basic parts, however, let's have a look at your needs in different categories and the possible solutions.

1. Day planning

What are the most important things you need to get done on a day? And what are all the small things you need to get done on a day? How much time will this take? How will you lay out your day?

Your tools here are: lists (digital or analog) and calendar (digital or analog).

What I use is: a planning in my Google Calendar for the day, a list of my most important tasks for the day in my notebook, and a list with all small things I need to do (which I process together during a timeslot at the end of the day) in a cloud-based service (I use ToDoist).

2. Week planning

How do you like laying out your week? Do you have a weekly template that you use and that may be easy to repeat? Do people put meetings last-minute on your calendar or do you have more freedom over your time?

Your tools here are: lists (digital or analog) and calendar (digital or analog).

What I use is: a planning in my Google Calendar based on my weekly template for the semester to fit in the major tasks in all categories, as well as a list with my priorities for the week in the categories Work (subdivided into Writing, Research, Teaching, Service, Admin), Self, and Relationships.

3. Monthly planning

What needs to get done this month? Which major events do you have? Which work from last month did you not finish? Do you have holidays coming up, or smaller things such as trips outside the city?

Your tools here are: lists (digital or analog) and calendar (digital or analog).

What I use is: my notebook and calendar: I have a look at the month ahead and note down on one page the days of the month and any major events associated with these dates, and on the other side, I write down what I should be working on in the categories Work, Self, and Relationships.

4. Semester planning

If you teach in a semester system, your schedule may change depending on your teaching load per semester. Therefore, I tend to plan per semester rather than per year. So what teaching responsibilities do you have? Which other major deadlines (milestones or deliverables) are coming up? Do you have other responsibilities that need to be taken care of?

Your tools here are: lists (digital or analog) and calendar (digital or analog).

What I use is: my notebook and calendar: I list down all projects that I have in a semester. I use the following categories of what I need to be working on in a given semester: projects, papers to write, service tasks, teaching, conferences. Then, I make a separate list of priorities in the categories Work, Self, and Relationships. After identifying things I want to do with my family (such as four trips outside the city), I put them on the calendar. I also make seasonal fun lists with activities to do with my daughter according to the season.

5. Year planning

What do you need to do this year, and what do you want to do? Do you have a list with dreams? If so, select a number of items from your list of dreams and list them as your goals for the year. Are there habits you want to improve? If so, make a list, and then plan the order in which you will work on these.

Your tools here are: lists (digital or analog) and calendar (digital or analog).

What I use is: my notebook and calendar: I take a number of things from my list of 100 dreams and see when I can put them on my calendar. I also identify themes for the months in terms of habits or things I want to focus on.

6. Time tracking

Do you find planning difficult? Do you have a hard time figuring out where your time goes? Then track your time. I have found time tracking one of the most helpful tools in being able to realistically plan: when you know how much time something takes you, you can plan for the next time accordingly and not take on tasks when you don't have the time for them.

Your tools here are: time tracking software or a notebook

What I use is: time tracking software. I track my work time. I've also done some time tracking experiments in the past where I track everything (168 hours), and I use such experiments every now and then to learn how my priorities shift in life, but I am not motivated to do this constantly.

7. Reminders

How do you remind yourself to follow up with somebody after you sent them an email? How do you remember deadlines? How do you remember to make a dentist appointment six months into the future? You need a system of automatic reminders.

Your tools here are: agenda or digital reminder system

What I use is: the same cloud-based ToDoist app as what I use for my daily lists. I put everything I need to remember in ToDoist and it will pop up on my daily list on the right day. Very nice is the feature of repeat tasks, so that you can tick of reminders every day, or -say- every Thursday.

8. Reflection

Do you make time to reflect on your progress? Do you make time to reflect on your tools? How do you identify what works for you and what not?

Your tools here are: notetaking sofware or a notebook

What I use is: a "month in review" page in my notebook. I review every month (and at the end of every year) what I've done, what I didn't do, what went well and what didn't go well. Based on my insights, I correct my course for the next month.

9. Storing information

How do you find information back quickly? Where do you store insights you came across on the internet? Where do you store the papers you read?

Your tools here are: software to store information or a system of binders

What I use is: I use Evernote for storing meeting notes, and random things from the internet. I use Endnote for my papers. I use a notebook per project that holds all my hand calculations and meeting notes.

What do you use? If you need some further information, you can read some of my planning and project management posts, or the How I Work series.

About Eva Lantsoght

Eva started writing about doing a PhD while studying concrete structures at TU Delft and since then blogs about the non-scientific skills you need during a PhD and life as a PhD.