Three Secrets of an Organized Academic

in Articles from our Newsletter

Last week I had the good fortune to have lunch with a reader of my newsletter, Nicola Johnson. She is writing her dissertation in Northern Virginia while her husband teaches here and her 15-year old stepdaughter attends high school. They are New Zealanders, and she is getting her Ph.D. in education from Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Nicola had taken my assessment, “Get it Done 101: How Are You Doing on the Basics?” She received the highest score, and the message that I send to all such people:

“You’re an extremely organized person. I would love to interview you for a newsletter — please contact me and let me know if you are interested! “

She did contact me, and the rest is history!

How She Does It

Here is what I learned about how one organized academic operates.

I learned that Nicola has a very organized mother. She was home-schooled in high school, so has had a lot of experience in working on her own. In addition, she has sought out opportunities over the years to write and get feedback on her writing. She has already written her 150-page master’s thesis. Nicola has seen the “red marks” decrease as her writing has improved.

Here, in an organized format, are more details.

1. Planning

She actually enjoys planning.

  • She sets aside time once a week to look at her goals
  • She decides at that point what she wants to accomplish that week
  • She then breaks the weekly tasks into daily tasks
    • Following David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy, she writes her weekly list in her week-at-a-glance style calendar. The daily items are chosen from the list. Finished items are “ticked off” (or “checked,” as we Americans would say.)
    • Daily items that are not finished are placed in the next day.
  • Nicola also keeps a one-year and a four-year plan or goal list.
    • The four-year plan is hanging on the wall behind her computer.
    • She will occasionally hang her list of goals or shorter-term objectives on the wall as a reminder.

2. Analysis and Forgiveness

She analyzes her progress and FORGIVES HERSELF for not meeting her own expectations.

  • If she doesn’t meet a self-imposed deadline, she figures out why.
  • She believes there are always practical reasons for not meeting deadlines.
  • She decides if she had assigned herself too much work, or if there is something else getting in the way of progress.
  • She adjusts her subsequent deadlines and work plans accordingly.

3. Reasonableness and Moderation

While she expects a lot of herself, she is also quite reasonable about it.

  • She works in one-hour increments, and then gives herself a break of about 10 minutes.
  • She is pleased if she manages 4-5 hours a day of work
  • On the other hand, if she has an off day, she might give herself a break from writing for that day.
  • If she feels overwhelmed, she might relax in some way, take a small break, drink a glass of wine, then attempt to break down the task ahead into smaller parts.
  • If an advisor returns some work with a lot of criticism, she recovers quickly from the initial “Oh no!” reaction.
    • She then tries to look for the positive comments
    • She reminds herself that she sees fewer “red marks” than in the past.
    • She then breaks down the comments into action items.
  • She says “no” to extra tasks whenever possible

The Key to Nicola’s Success

Of course, Nicola has the luxury of writing full time, although she knows what it’s like to work and write at the same time. The basic ideas of how she approaches her work can be transferred to any situation, however. In particular, I’d like to emphasize her attitude of self-forgiveness and calmness in the face of failure to live up to her own expectations. I believe that this is the real key to her success.

How Can You Be More Organized?

What one step could you take from Nicola’s example that would help you function better? Could you be less hard on yourself? Could you make a one-year plan and hang it on the wall?

Decide on one small step, and take that step starting today.

Would You Like to Be Interviewed?

If you have achieved something, overcome the odds, had a difficult situation, gotten a job, just written your dissertation, or have some other story that you would like to share with others, please contact me! You could be in the next issue, or written about in my blog or website. Your experience could help so many others. Write me today!


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