Feeling disorganised? You are not alone

…in her office there were such quantities of lecture notes, letters and other documents lying around that it was like standing amidst a flood of paper. On the desk, which was both the origin and the focal point of this amazing profusion of paper, a virtual paper landscape had come into being in the course of time, with mountains and valleys. Like a glacier when it reaches the sea, it had broken off at the edges and established new deposits all around on the floor…”

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn.

Gosh, this academic’s office could be mine. I photographed my desk this morning for you, showcasing my immensely efficient filing system. It is called Put It In A Big Pile And Deal With It Later. This well-known approach has some advantages: it is quick to store papers (simply plonk them on top), and is relatively neat (until the pile topples over and cascades ruthlessly all over the floor). Sadly, I admit to a major disadvantage: I always have an itchy feeling I know just where a particular paper is, but never manage to find it. So, I tell myself I am going to become more organised. I am going to be a better academic. Most importantly, I am going to write papers rather than spend all my day searching for them. And it turns out I am not alone: when I emailed colleagues to ask what systems they had to organise themselves, all but three emailed back to say they were completely disorganised and couldn’t help.

So, I started with the basics. Eisenhower’s matrix for prioritising tasks, in fact. This was popularised by Stephen Covey (author of books like First things First and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, neither of which I’ve read obviously). The matrix is pretty good. Tasks are assigned to a quadrant on the basis of their urgency and their importance. The general idea is to organise yourself so you are mostly working in the “Important but not urgent” quadrant (or as Covey terms it, the “Quadrant of Quality and Personal Leadership”. Inspiring sounding, isn’t it?). Obviously, things will always come up which are urgent. But are they important and urgent (like dealing with queries from research participants) or are they unimportant and urgent (like interruptions from email and twitter)?


Historically, my filing has found itself in the Quadrant of Waste (not important/not urgent). I now see the error of my ways. It is in fact the foundation stone of my Quadrant of Quality and Leadership. Get on top of your stuff and you will know your stuff. I am hastily making room for filing in my daily routine rather than saving it up until the last day before the Christmas holidays. I resolve to do it every day, in that post-lunch slump when I am feeling a bit low on intellectual oomph and rather fancying some chocolate. Same with papers. Writing them frantically in a week as a deadline looms is never great. Blocking out time in my diary in advance and packing myself off to the library: the new way forward.

There are loads of useful blogs out there that talk you through the minutiae of getting organised such as writing to-do lists, prioritisation, working at the most effective time. I’ve put links to some of them at the end. But talking to colleagues more organised then me, two things stand out. Firstly, little and often is the way. Build those organisational strategies into your daily routine and they not only become second nature, they actually get done. Secondly, choose systems which suit your particular way of working, making sure you get familiar with and make good use of technology. Helpful hints and tips included:

  • Use a good reference management system that suits you. There was particular support for Mendeley for its flexibility and multi-platform access, as well as its ‘Mendeley Suggests’ folder which auto-populates with papers that may be of interest (more papers to read, eek!)
  • Set up a variety of alerts to keep you up-to-date. Use RSS feeds or TOCs via email from journals to quickly scan relevant new papers: email alerts can be filtered directly into a folder of “Things to Read”. Google alerts can be used to search for phrases of particular interest (one colleague has searches set up for all the survey instruments she works with) or new publications from relevant authors.
  • Set up a good electronic filing system as well as a paper one. Keep it consistent across applications and computers. And actually put stuff into it (this is my most important failing).
  • If you have a presentation or paper that is far away, set aside time to write 10 words or one slide each day. Minor rather than major goals are the way to go.
  • Keep all your to-do lists and time management stuff in one place: a dedicated notebook or something like OneNote is useful here.
  • Slightly key for those of us with families: always add your children’s childcare arrangements to your work calendar.
  • And finally, sounding like a dreadful management guru here, time invested in these systems is, as we all know deep down, time saved in the future.

Good luck!

Links on Getting Organised

More details about the urgency/important matrix and how to use it can be found at MindTools and of course good old Wikipedia: both these have lots of extra information about getting your act together. For academic-to-academic advice on planning your time, US sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza is one terrifyingly organised researcher. Finally, if you’re feeling a bit new-agey, go read the zenhabits blog on getting organised. Take a deep breath. Lovely.


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