My Low-Key System for Managing Academic Projects

As promised in my summer planning post, here is a description of the method I use to track my various projects. This method was originally inspired by two academic Gantt chart enthusiasts (one, two). However, I found that the traditional way of setting up a gantt chart (with the projects on the left and “steps” for each project on top) to be too restrictive. Not all my projects have the same steps – even similar projects (like publishing an academic article) might have different steps depending on what kind of article it is and/or how I came to be writing/publishing it. Additionally, I quickly abandoned the paper version of this idea because, as much as I love to plan on paper, I could not deal with the variability of my system using something as fixed as paper.

Screenshot of project spreadsheet with list of projects down the left side and dates in week increments on the top. Each field has notes about the status of the project and relevant due dates.
Screenshot of my project spreadsheet with this week highlighted. Yet another voyeuristic look into my life!

Enter: the project spreadsheet. Now, I know that productive academics use all kinds of software to manage projects (Asana, Omnifocus, Trello, and now Notion). In fact, I have used Trello in the past. But I am sticking with the spreadsheet for now because a) I don’t have the bandwidth to learn a new program right now and b) I like that it lives where I already am for a lot of my living/working (googledrive specifically). I also have a lot of control over how it looks and functions because it is just a blank spreadsheet. Who knows? I might try out a more robust platform some day, but for now, this works just fine.

How it Works

Along the left-hand side of the spreadsheet is a list of projects divided by type to include Conference Presentations, Grants, Writing, and Public-Facing. These categories have evolved over the past year and may continue to change, but the goal is to have all my ongoing projects in one place so I can quickly check their status instead of keeping it in my head. The top of the spreadsheet lists dates in weekly increments as well as a row of important events to keep in mind as I plan how to move a given project forward. For instance, right now I am teaching summer classes and my husband’s 40th birthday is coming up. Having these notes on top of the dates helps me think through my likely energy levels for a particular week so I can manage my own expectations better. I chose weekly increments because, this is not designed to be a daily task manager, but rather a project status/goal manager. For each week and each project, I input relevant deadlines or due dates, plan how I might move the project forward, and update the status as needed. The way that it does function like a gantt chart is when I forward-plan for a specific project. In the screenshot above you can see the two major writing projects that I forward planned for the summer. I don’t do this for every project, but it is working well so far for longer-term projects like publishing articles or my book proposal. For the other projects, I input when I make progress and/or signal if I’m waiting on someone or something to take the next action. This really helps take a mental load off and keeps me from having to hunt down where I left off for a given project.

Unlike a project management tool like Trello, this spreadsheet doesn’t hold documents, images, or emails associated with a project. For a given project, I collect documents, images, and save emails as PDFs (something you should start doing if you aren’t already to reduce your dependence on email for doing deep work). I then organize them using Dropbox – my preferred platform for cloud storage. Remind me to tell you how I recently decluttered my digital files (going back 10 years) inside of Dropbox.

What system do you use to track your projects? Also, would any of you be interested in learning more about how I actually go about research and writing? I’m thinking about starting a biweekly newsletter with a link round up and regular research/writing updates. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d subscribe to.

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).   

3 thoughts on “My Low-Key System for Managing Academic Projects

  1. Pingback: Summertiming: Planning Your Academic Summer | Tawnya Azar

  2. Pingback: Academic Writing Month | Tawnya Azar

  3. Pingback: Research Pipeline | Tawnya Azar

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