This is the third installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.
Last week I wrote about grading and GTD. I noted that grading is kind of a poor fit in traditional GTD. A prof can grade anywhere, so the idea of contexts fits awkwardly; and grading “tasks” are usually projects, although we think of them as tasks and although the next actions contained in those projects are usually nothing more than smaller projects. GTD wasn’t really made for the academic profession, and so the staple activities of academics don’t often fit well.
Another area similar to grading in its relatively poor fit within the canonical GTD philosophy is research, or more generally scholarship. By “scholarship” I am including not only the usual pure research that most profs do (at least while they are getting their terminal degrees) but also any significant creative activity based on one’s expertise that contributes to a discipline or the application of a discipline. This is Boyer’s model of scholarship, and it is finding increasing purchase at colleges and universities all over. So, for example, an applied mathematician who contributes her skill by consulting “on the side” for some external project is scholarship; so would be research that she does on the teaching of applied mathematics or using her expertise to do a math workshop with a bunch of elementary school kids.
Scholarship is hard for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that original creative work is amorphous. When I was working on my dissertation, the hardest aspect of that work was that at any given point in the process, although I could always measure how much work I’d done, I had no way to tell how much more work I needed to do, what course of action was really the best next action, or even if my previous work was going to remain or be wiped out by the discovery of a mistake or a more elegant and general theorem. It wasn’t like reading a book, where you knew not only how far you’d read but also how far you had left to go and which page was next, and you had a reasonable assurance that the pages you’d read wouldn’t disappear from the book once you’d read them.
Even now, I have all these scholarly projects I want to finish (or start), and I struggle to GTD-ize them. For example, I’m currently working through this book on probability as a self-study course. Some parts of this project are pretty linear and predictable and therefore have clearly-defined next actions — “Read and work through examples in section 1.2”, for instance. But then the nonlinearity hits. I will eventually read through all of Chapter 1 and will need to work through the exercises. Do I do them all in order, or do I skip around? Would it be fair to lump exercises 1-5 together as a single task, or is that another project? Is even a single exercise a task, or a project, and how can you know in advance? Academic or intellectual work is a black box — you have no idea how long it’s going to take, what resources you will need, whether it is properly thought of as a task or a project, or indeed even if David Allen’s idea of a “task” (a single physical action) is even appropriate at any level.
Scholarship is highly nonlinear, which makes it much different from the business tasks for which GTD was originally created. But it’s what also makes scholarship fun and rewarding, and it’s why most of us eggheads went and got PhD’s in the first place. So, what’s a scholarship-enthused, GTD-powered prof to do in order to bring this important aspect of his work under the GTD framework? Here are some thoughts.
1. Use the review process — all six levels — to craft a coherent and realistic scholarship plan. The heart of GTD is the weekly review, but don’t forget the other kinds of review that Allen talks about in the book. Specifically, Allen gives a six-level model for review in terms of altitude: 50000+, 40000, 30000, 20000, 10000 feet and “runway”. The weekly review often tends to stay on the runway — which, if your work looks like mine, resembles the runways at O’Hare around Christmas — but those higher-level reviews are important. Scholarly directions change rapidly and often at the discretion of the individual. In the business world, you don’t often get the opportunity to change the fundamental direction of your work on your own initiative. But in academia, every day has the potential for such change. If I decided tomorrow to stop studying cryptology and start doing mathematical finance, I could do that. That ability is liberating but also a recipe for stagnation. It’s important to see your scholarship, regularly, not only in terms of current projects and areas of responsibility but also in terms of where you want it all to head in the next year, the next two years, and so on. The tenure and promotion process at an institution, if that process is well-designed, will help profs to think in these terms, but only once a year or (post-tenure) every five years. GTD, done with these higher altitudes in mind, would say to think about the big picture a lot more regularly so that your overall plan is more coherent.
2. As much as possible, concretize your research agenda. Since scholarship is amorphous, once you get down to the level of 10000 feet and lower, some superimposition of structure on scholarship is necessary. It doesn’t always fit well, like a nice suit on an unruly young boy. But it’s still important to break the scholarship plan you’ve created down into manageable projects with a list of concrete next actions. Having “Write a paper” as a project will lead nowhere; most scholarly activities are projects within projects, and at bottom you find one project that can finally be broken down into discrete next actions, each of which has a well-defined context. The challenge is to get to that point. (This is a major similarity with grading.)
3. Don’t be bothered if the plan changes. The nature of research puts all scholarship-oriented action lists into an automatic state of flux. That nice, tidy list of actions under the “Prove the twin prime conjecture” project stands a good chance of being brutally rearranged if, say, you discover a journal article that shows your main theorem so far (which you thought you proved 3-4 next actions ago) to be false, or somebody proves it first, or if you get an unexpected opportunity to work on something else which requires dropping or postponing the project. We all know that research and scholarship are highly volatile areas. But one of the strengths of GTD as a workflow management system is that GTD assumes that tactical decisions will change fluidly and constantly, and that’s OK. The system doesn’t fall apart if things change; you just adjust your next actions and move on.
4. Subdivide your Read/Review folder and make it more like an inbox. Read/Review means something very different to an academic than it does to a business person. The entire life of an academic could be summed up by the term “Read/Review”. So I think Allen’s conception of the Read/Review file needs to be expanded for academics. In my system, I’ve got three Read/Review folders for physical stuff and three for electronic stuff — the three folders in each medium being Teaching/Service (articles about the profession, articles about GTD, articles about pedagogy, etc.), Research (traditional research papers from journals), and Popular (math-related but not from journals; sometimes ed tech items make it in here). I treat these folders like inboxes in the sense that I make them part of my weekly review. Sometimes I gather articles that look good at the time, and I do intend to read them, but they get crowded out by something more urgent. I find that I need to go through Read/Review at least 2-3 times a week to process stuff. Expanding on the Read/Review idea helps keep fresh ideas coming onto your radar screen and into your brain.
5. Stick to your guns with GTD on everything else besides scholarship. Being a prof involves wearing lots of hats — we teach, we serve on committees, we grade, we mentor and advise students and colleagues, and many other things. In order to have the time and flexibility to carry out these amorphous, nonlinear scholarship projects, we have to exercise discipline in getting things done that are “morphous” and linear — stuff like grading, prepping courses, working on committee proposals, and so on. If a person can use GTD to get those tasks and projects under strict discipline and control, then there will (for the most part) be time and space in our schedules to do scholarship. But if the manageable stuff is running all over us, then we can forget about research, unless you are one of the tiny minority of professors who do research and basically nothing else.
I think there’s a great deal of connection between being happy in your academic work and being balanced. The more we enable ourselves not only to be excellent teachers but also active scholars, the more we benefit and so do our students and institutions. I think GTD can help in that regard.
Have a productive week!