A change of pace this week. Lots of people write about they organize their time to make themselves productive, so I thought I would throw in my 10 cents worth. My working hours are largely interrupt driven. I manage two big projects, the Virtual Astronomical Observatory, and the NASA Star and Exoplanet Database (NStED), and I am involved in doing research on the application of new technologies to astronomy. I am inundated with well over 100 e-mails a day, outside the Spam, and people drop by office with questions and problems.
So how do handle all of this? Well, I have three tools I use – Things, for keeping track of my to do lists; Note Taker, for keeping all my notes for all my projects.; and Papers, for managing documents and publications. I have not listed my e-mail client as a tool. I regard my In-Box as the The Enemy, and my job is to keep it empty. To do that, I tell myself that I need to respond to e-mail, file it or delete it. This mantra is not mine. It comes from Tom Limoncelli’s excellent “Time Management for System Administrators,” written with SA’s in mind but valuable for anyone whose work hours are subject to interruption. Many of my time management techniques derive from this book.
At the start of every day, I check my e-mail to see if anything has happened overnight. If there is anything I need to work on, I send it automatically to Things. Any emergency, I respond to immediately. Any documents that I need to file go into Papers (which manages PDF’s, so I sometimes have to convert). Any information on projects on which I am working go into the relevant NoteTake document. NoteTaker allows you create notebooks which can indexed and cross-referenced. These notebooks can contain text, images, documents, web clippings and so on. I have one for VAO, one for NStED, one for my research. I use these notebooks to organize all the tasks within my projects, whether the information is from e-mail, or from a web search, or a part of a document. I don’t leave information in files scattered on my desktop.
Next stop is to delete the e-mails from my In Box, close e-mail, and don’t come back to it for a few hours. I open up Things, the keeper of my to do list, and prioritize what tasks need to be done for that day. Then I set about doing them. During the day, I may need to reprioritize based on e-mail (which I check generally 3 times a day) and on people dropping by my office.
Once an individual task such is finished, I move the final document to Papers, and I decide what information I gathered for the task I need to keep – generally not much. If I don’t need it, into the Trash it goes.
There are of course many tools for managing time and information. The ones I use work for me. Then best advice I can give to someone on information and interrupt overload is to read Tom Limoncelli’s book, then play with some of these tools to see which ones suit your preferences and workflow. Make them your best friend.