Organization – One of the Keys to Reaching Goals


You know, I can’t count the number of times I’ve ended up in the position in this cartoon.  In the case of graduate school, this can be both detrimental and helpful.  Helpful, because when you are in classes it can mean that your homework and class projects get done on time.  Detrimental, because that little thing called your thesis can end up getting pushed off because it’s at the bottom of the pile.  So the key here is how do you effectively organize yourself so you can get things done? 

From my view, this actually is harder than someone might think.  We live now in the age of Facebook, and Twitter, with smartphones, tablets, and cloud computing where we get information and really need to be on top of something at a moments notice.  That by itself is a challenge as we want to respond immediately when there is an opportunity (particularly when those chances for grants come up at the last moment), or when a colleague, supervisor, or advisor needs something done.  Each of us thinks and works differently, and as a result how each of us wants our workspaces and schedules organized is also different from everyone else.  While I have ended up in the position in the cartoon before, it doesn’t work for me (I lose track of things that way really fast).  However, for my father who was a district manager in charge of other managers and truck drivers, his desk was always cluttered but he always knew where everything was.  He never lost track of anything.

For me, I’ve had to become a lot more organized particularly with the Downscaling Synthesis Project I wrote on previously.  That project has now moved into a phase that while I’m writing up a review paper, I’m also trying to plan a workshop my office will host here at NCSU in May.  It’s been double trouble for me on top of Ph.D. work, but it did force me to confront my own clutter.  From my experiences of the last few weeks, let me offer some thoughts on things that can help all of us stay organized.

  1. Reminders, Reminders! – Winslow put in a good word about setting reasonable goals some time previously.  Part of being able to meet those goals is staying organized and, for me at least, nothing works better than having many reminders of when things are due along the way.  Why many reminders? It’s easy to blow off one reminder, so set yourself many!  It’s like when you used to be nagged as a teenager by your parents to do something.  Nag yourself and make use of the calendar!
  2. Remember to see the forest through the trees – I mentioned a moment ago the issue with the age of instant computing.  One of the problems with that is that we tend to focus on the details, or on each tree, rather than how to get to the end goal.  It’s easy to get lost when there are so many trees that you can focus on or are very interesting.  Organize yourself and set your reminders on which of those trees will get you through to see the whole forest.  Otherwise, if you get stuck on one tree, then the rest of the forest will change around you, and you’ll never meet the end goal.
  3. Enough already! – This is a challenge.  Your advisor / supervisor asks you to do something and you want to do it, but you already have enough things you are working on.  What do you do?  As much as all of us want more projects, and more publications, sometimes you have to say that you can’t do it.  A challenge, after all this is your advisor or whomever is paying your stipend.  However, bear in mind that if an additional project will limit your ability to do work that is a good quality on your highest priorities (because you are worried about if you can keep track of this additional thing being thrown your way), then it comes time to tell your advisor “no” and explain why you can’t do that to them.
  4. Be flexible – In some cases, there are instances where those extra things thrown at you by your advisor fits right in to what you want for your thesis.  In those cases, it may be something extra, but you need to be flexible to change when in you will hit the details and how quick you see all of the forest.  That is, be flexible to things which may be helpful to reach your end goal.  If something comes up, be willing and able to change your reminders and what your steps will be along the way.

From all this you can see that organization and setting goals go hand in hand.  My point in writing this today was not to tell anyone how to get organized, because what works for me won’t work for someone else.  My point today was to offer some general thoughts on organization which can help anyone keep their head above water as the push toward that goal, whether it is a thesis or a publication or something else.  Keep yourself organized in the way that is best for you, and maybe keep these humble thoughts of mine in mind.  That’s one of the keys to reaching the goals of graduate school and your career.

This post originally appeared in February 2013 and is part of our throwback series.

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