Category Archives: Productivity

Spotlight on Productivity: 5 Productivity Tricks for Researchers/Evaluators/Graduate Students

This is the sixth and final post  of the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

5. Mise en place

Everything Ready
(via Flickr, wickenden,

Mise en place is French for ‘put in place’. It describes a practice by chefs preparing all the necessary ingredients in advance of service. All ingredients are prepared for use, organize, and within reach. Taken to the context of productivity, it means  gaining as much clarity around the nature of the problem you’re solving, the tasks that need to be performed, and having the necessary pieces to execute a task. Execution is not the time to fumble around with getting things ready. Because knowledge work is often emergent,  take  preparation as far as you can.

4. Workflow

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom presents a workflow-based solution to photographers. (via Flickr, devar,

Professional photographers rely on a well-rehearsed workflow to maximize  productivity. (After all, any time not spent behind a camera is time wasted not making money.) A workflow refers to the general sequence of tasks that need to be performed for any projects. Associated with each step of a workflow are inputs, processing, and outputs.

For research projects, chances are you need to: 1) define the scope and context of a study, 2) design the study, 3) apply for ethics clearance, 4) collect data, 5) analyze data, 6) interpret data, 7) write-up the data, and 8) disseminate the findings. That constitutes a generalized workflow for researching/evaluating. Practicing and adhering to a workflow means less thinking and planning. The GTD workflow I wrote about here is another example.

3.  Define your top 3 tasks to complete for each day.


Identify and limit your day to completing only 3 tasks. Do them when your are mentally charged and refreshed (i.e. soon after you wake up).

2. Pomodoro

Italiano: Autore: Francesco Cirillo rilasciata...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pomodoro is a timing technique for maximizing productivity.  Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and the technique makes reference to those manual kitchen 30-minute timers. ///CHECK To use the pomodoro technique, simply work in bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Each 30-minute burst consistute a pomodoro.  During each pomodoro, avoid any distraction and work ONLY on your task. Pomodoro aficionados would tell you to do 4 pomodoros, totalling 2 hours, and take a longer break.

1. Apply OHIO — only handle it once — to your e-mails.

For each piece of correspondence, only handle it once. Act on it immediately. Then file it, or delete it. Apply David’s GTD workflow.  (via FastCompany,
There you have it. I hope you found this series helpful in enhancing your productivity!

Spotlight on Productivity – Tracking projects with David Seah’s Task Progress Tracker

This is the fourth post  in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

I previously characterized knowledge work as centering around projects. Projects are time-bound, and involves a series of tasks. They often require coordination between individual. Often than not, knowledge-work projects requires a degree of creative; it’s hard to replicate the same steps for every project. Being flexible in coping with the demands of each project is key to maintaining momentum.

When doing any projects, it’s often helpful to:

  • break down the project into sub-tasks
  • Estimate and track time spent on the project
  • Maintain a log of tasks performed
  • Track the status of any projects.
  • Remember what’s been done after a project has been dormant for  some time.

In David Seah’s work, I found a solution. A graphics designer by trade, Seah has been producing a line of paper-based productivity tools since the mid-2000’s.

What’s Wrong with To-Do Lists

Prior to discovering Seah’s Task Progress Tracker, I used to create to-do lists. But this isn’t the best approach according to Seah.

To-do lists have their place as pre-flight lists and reminders. They are also workable for tasks that you know how to complete. When tackling something new, creative, or unknown, I don’t think they don’t work as well; they are like the untrained boss who bugs you every five minutes for results, without caring about how you get them. It’s oppressive!

Seah’s solution is to track the time spent on each task.

The TPT is designed to provide an overview of a project and its subcomponent steps, focusing on problem solving rather than mechanical task completion. It does this by tracking time spent, not tasks completed. This allows you to be mindful at the “intention” level as you work toward solving your problem, which is appropriate when pioneering new processes or doing fundamental research. So long as you’re working, that’s great.

At the heart of the TPT is the “Tracker Bar”.

TPT Line (via

How You Use TPT

1. Start a new sheet for each project. Note the Project Name and the Start Date. I staple the TPT to the front of a folder.

Example of TPT in action. (via David Seah,
Example of TPT in action. (via David Seah,

2. List any tasks down the left that you already know has to be done. Add to the list as new tasks emerge.

3. Optional: Estimate the time it takes to complete each task via tick marks.

4. As you tackle each task, pencil in the time you spent in 15-min chunks.

5. Once you finish a task, add up the time spent, and tick off the line.

It’s been about two months since I started using the TPT to track my projects. There’s something gratifying in filling those bubbles. I also feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Better yet, I now have a betters sense of where my time is going.

The best part? Task Progress Tracker sheets are available for free for self-printing. They come in B/W or colour. Or, you can buy them pre-printed on his site. Give it a try, and let me know how it’s working out for you!

Spotlight on Productivity: 5 Steps on Managing your Projects Kanban Style

This post is number three in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

In the first post of this series, I characterized academic / knowledge work as having to juggle multiple project. In the second, I argued that the cognitive toll on managing productivity can be alleviated through relegating planning to a productivity system. This is where I introduced David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system. GTD is useful to shortcut decision-making on tasks. Today, we look at how to manage decision-making with projects.

(By decision-making with projects, I don’t mean project management. Project management has more to do with a set of technical skills involved in managing within projects. My focus here is simply how to juggle between multiple projects.)

Kanban Style

Kanban is a process originating from Toyota manufacturing that now sees adaptation and application to software development and personal productivity. Kanban, Japanese for “billboard” or “signboard”, is a visual method for managing logistics. The way Toyota uses it goes like this: Suppose you’re assembling dashboards for cars. To assemble this dashboard, you need various components that are already pre-assembled upstream: odometer, RPM meters, clocks, car audio panels, navigation systems, etc. As each dashboard gets assembled, components get used up. This drop in component level triggers a signal to upstream manufacturers to manufacture more components just in time for use in the next round of manufacturing. How this differs from typical manufacturing processes is avoiding having large batches of inventory sitting around. By keeping track of the rate at which components are used up, the quality of the components, you benefit from improved product quality and increased productivity through working in small batches, hence “just in time”.

Applying Kanban to Personal Productivity

What we can take away from Kanban are two principles. The first principle is the importance of visualizing productivity. By visualizing productivity, you have a more powerful way of understanding the complexity and demands of your work. Here are five steps to jumpstart the process.

1. Make a list of all the project you are involved in.

2. Make a list of all the publications you are currently working on. Identify the status of each of these writing projects (e.g. conceptualization, initial drafting, waiting for review, editing, copy-editing, submission to journal, revision, etc… )

3. Identify which of the projects/publications are inactive at the moment. (In GTD language, this is your Someday-Maybe/Waiting list.)

4. Identify tasks within each project.

5. (optional) Flag tasks with impending deadlines.

Mapping out your projects this way give you a high-level view of that various projects you’re involved in, and the complexity of the tasks involved.

Here is the second principle. According to Personal Kanban, a site dedicated to applying kanban to personal productivity, it is also important to limit ‘work in progress’. Their reasoning is simple. You can only do so much in a day.

Here is my own Kanban Board that I have been using for some time to help visualize my projects. Here’s a link to a PDF that you can print and use on your own.

personal kanban

In the next post of this series, we’ll complete this personal kanban process by identifying tasks for work-in-progress. We’ll do this through looking at David Seah‘s incredibly useful tool, Emergent Task Planner. Stay tuned. 🙂

Spotlight on Productivity: Getting things done with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system

Before diving into the specifics of productivity challenges, we should start with the concept of ” Getting Things Done“.

For me getting things done is a mindset to approaching productivity. By relegating the decision-making associated with each piece of task to the GTD system, we can move through our work more efficiently.

David Allen is the celebrated productivity guru whose book on productivity–Getting Things Done– revolutionizes how we think and about productivity.

There are LOTS of primer and discussions on GTD… so I’ll only highlight a few of the key principles.

GTD boils down to this according to Gina Trapani on Lifehacker: Make three lists. Revise them daily and weekly. (She’s referring to a to-do list, project list, and a someday-maybe list).

GTD is premised on the idea that the brain is best for high-level cognitive activities, as far as productivity is concerned. Brain resources are not meant for and should not be wasted on low-level tasks. But what do we typically do?  We clutter our mind with having to remember what needs to be done. By freeing up cognitive resources through prioritizing, we can work faster, better, and with less effort.

GTD has several key concepts and key activities to it.

1)  For every task that enters your work-queue (GTD calls it an inbox), decide on what to do about it. Is it actionable? Is it Best tip: Act immediately on whatever task that can be completed in 2 minutes. Here’s a flow-chart cheat-sheet.


2) Scour your office/home and collect all that needs to be processed and acted upon. Loose pieces of paper. Receipts. Papers to be filed.  Make a big list of all the things you have to do. These tasks now form your work queue.

3) Also, empty and unclutter your mind of all the things you want to accomplish in the next while. That project idea you have lingering at the back of your mind. That paper you want to write “when you have time”.

4) Finally, tackle your work queue systematically. Realize that some items receive immediate attentions, while others don’t. Create a “Someday/Maybe” for projects and tasks that you don’t need to attend to immediately.

If this post on Getting Things Done piques your interests, the GTD Cheatsheet series at gives as an excellent overview to the system.

These four steps form the basis of the GTD system. While some adhere strictly to the system, you could also see it more as a guiding framework. I find it more helpful to adapt it to the nature of knowledge work —- which is what I’ll be discussing in the upcoming posts.

Thanks for reading!


What does your personal GTD system look like? Do you have experience with using Allen’s GTD system?  Let me know.



Spotlight on Productivity: A discussion on productivity challenges among grad students/researchers/evaluators/academics

Graduate students, researchers, evaluators, and academics (“knowledge workers“) encounter productivity challenges unlike other fields. Productivity strategies that work for most often do not transfer well for us. One primary reason is because knowledge workers are expected to contribute original knowledge. Lots of it. Boosting productivity means learning how to do more of it, in the least amount of time possible. By gaining greater clarity  into the nature of knowledge work and principles of productivity, and insights into one’s productivity habits, you can expect to produce more at a high quality, reclaim lost time, while keeping  stress down.

Knowledge work requires one to digest a high volume of information, and increasingly, requires close collaboration. Complicating matter is that knowledge work is time-bound: a few months for a project, 2 years  for a masters, 4 years for a Phd; 5 years until tenure review for asst. profs…  The pressure to produce is real.

At the most basic level, engaging in knowledge work requires one to do three things:  Reading + Thinking + Writing.

Productivity matters because performance is hinged upon successes in executing tasks (both in quantity and quality). Grad students are increasingly expected to publish in today’s competitive climate. Tenure decisions are made based on producing a substantial body of works. And of course, for starving grad students,  pay is dependent on productivity

Doing more in less time, while maintaining a high quality is not enough. Knowledge work also requires a high degree of creativity and integrative thinkingBeing able to free the mind to think in novel ways is as important as being able to play to the rules.

Having finished four years of graduate studies and working in the roles of researcher/evaluator, what have I learned about the nature and demands of productivity?

1. Project work

I’ve learned that much of knowledge work is project-based. Projects have definite start-dates, end-dates, and key deliverables. Some projects are low-stakes (e.g. class assignments), some are medium stakes (RA work), and some are high stakes (e.g. scholarship/grants). It’s important to be able to deliver quality work in all situations.

To be high functioning, we must be able to juggle between multiple projects at once.  This requires high-level planning to keep track of project statuses. This means being able to switch between projects. This means recognizing the rhythm to when things tend to get busy in a project, and when things tend to slow down. This means recognizing project bottle-necks.

2. Substantial time horizon

Many of our projects span some significant time. And projects are often put in waiting patterns, like when planes are queuing up to land. Developing a tolerance for waiting is key. Know when to follow-up on projects to give it that little nudge to move things along.

3. Thinking is hard work. 

Thinking is a crucial, and obligatory part of our work, but rarely do we give it enough attention.   It occurred to me some time ago that there are different kinds of task and each require a different level of engagement.

  • Repetitive tasks  require little cognitive demand, but demands high accuracy. Tasks like data entry, processing e-mails, searching for literature are of this type.
  • Intellectual tasks require some creativity. They  usually require some integration or synthesis of information. Most acts of writing are of this type. Qualitative coding is also another example.
  • Finally, creative tasks are those that require a high level of creativity, high level of integrative thinking, and high engagement on task. Theming qualitative data, planning writing pieces, and synthesizing literature are examples of creative tasks.

Now, why do we care about these distinctions?  We care because creative tasks are those that  matter most in knowledge work, but that’s those are the tasks that are most draining. It’s really hard to sustain creative bouts. We  have about two hours of golden productivity each day—- allocate these time towards creative tasks!

4. Balancing obligations

Complicating productivity are those obligations that get in the way. Groceries, car troubles, emails, administrative paperwork, etc… Balancing obligations requires one to be mindful about what really counts and what can wait.  There’s increasing pushback against checking e-mails first thing in the morning. Create time intentionally to allow you to do tasks that really matter. For grad students and academics, that usually means one thing: publications.

5. Tracking success

Finally, I’ve found that tracking productivity successes to be one of the most important, but least obvious ways of boosting productivity. Tracking successes require us to clarify what success looks like. When we being to track success, we can begin to assess how we actually spent time, how much work got done, and how better to optimize our work. At the simplest level,  checking off  to-do lists is one way to track success. But what about higher-level success tracking? Productivity tools are really good at planning, but not at evaluating successes. One of the tools that I’ll be introducing tackles this problem.

Now that I have laid the foundation to how I understand productivity, in the posts that follow, I’ll look at how we can tackle each of these challenges. I’ll be introducing some tools and concepts that I have found to have transformed how I work. 

How are you finding this article? What productivity challenges are you experiencing? Does any of this resonate with you? Share below. I would love to hear from you. 

Spotlight on Productivity

Theming qualitative data
Theming qualitative data.

It’s been a week since I posted on this blog. During this time I have made significant progress on several projects. I analyzed data, wrote up findings, and planted seeds for new projects. Needless to say, I haven’t had the time and space to think about my evaluation and design! Since I have committed to posting once every workday (my 5×52 project), I’m going to be doing a bit of catch up in the next few days. Before returning to discussing evaluation, let’s turn to the topic of productivity.

The next series of post will feature  productivity tools that works well for those of us leading the researcher/evaluator lifestyle.

(List will be updated with links when content becomes available.)

Post 1) Productivity challenges among grad students, researchers, and evaluators

Update. Post 1.5) Getting Things Done: Mindset and Approaches

Post 2) Project Dashboard: Kanban Style

Post 3) How to: Track your time and progress using Task Progress Tracker

Post 4) Day Planning: Emergent Time Planning

Post 5) 5 principles to jumpstarting productivity