It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of planning, scheduling and journaling. It’s the main way I tackle executive dysfunctioning and has become a crucial part of my life as a scientist and researcher. Getting the balance between organization and leaving room for flexibility, which is vital for researchers, can be a challenge. I often get asked to share the details of my planning system and how I am such an organized PhD student, so I thought it was about time I wrote a blog post on it!
In this post I’ll try to detail the ways I plan my time, set goals, reflect on my progress, facilitate growth through learning, and build my self-esteem. This system has been developed slowly over time and I’m sure it will continue to change as I learn and grow. I think that’s an important thing to remember: your planning system doesn’t have to be static. It can be moulded to suit your needs at that particular time in your life. Equally, what works for me might not work for you, so I’d recommend trying to experiment with different ways of planning and journaling to discover what suits you and how your brain works. There are plenty of resources online for inspiration! Hopefully, this post can be another resource to help those who might also benefit from the way I do planning, scheduling and journaling.
My organization system is essentially broken up into two sections: scheduling and journalling. I find a mixture of the two works best as scheduling gives me much-needed structure and journalling allows me to be more flexible and free-form.
When I first started my PhD I tried doing all of my planning in a bullet journal, but this ended up not being very sustainable for me as I often didn’t have the energy to layout monthly and weekly spreads ahead of time and the future log wasn’t working for me. So, I decided I’d get a planner that already has the monthly and weekly spreads with time slots I could block out. I find it really useful to see time blocks visually and take my planner with me everywhere so that I can jot down any future appointments and events even when I don’t have internet access. I use a passion planner at the moment but any planner with time slots should work just as well.
In my planner, I use what I like to call a ‘skeleton routine’. Here’s how the skeleton routine works: I have a set of recurring events that happen every weekday (and some continue during the weekend). These include morning and evening reflections in my journal, checking my emails twice a day, an hour-long lunch break from 12-1, and going through new paper alerts. Around these daily repeating tasks, I also have some weekly repeating tasks like a block of time on Monday morning especially for reviewing theory, meetings with my specialist mentor, progress meetings and journal club with my supervisor (these last two alternate week to week but are at the same time). Sometimes the meetings with other people have to change last minute or maybe I am unable to attend, but I know that there will always be those key tasks that are purely in my control to keep me anchored throughout the week. The great thing about the skeleton routine is that I can do these tasks wherever I am, including if I am away at a conference.
This leaves me with quite a lot of free time blocks which can be filled with the priorities for that day and anything that comes up last minute. I find that this balance of structure and flexibility has really helped me work to the best of my ability. It helps reduce some of the unpredictability of PhD life and giving me the comfort of a routine, while also leaving room for that all-important flexibility.
My schedule in my physical planner is coupled with my outlook calendar so at the end of the working day I make sure to transfer any new events I’ve put in my planner into my outlook calendar. This way anyone who I have shared my calendar with (such as my supervisor) can see when I am busy and schedule meetings around that.
While my planner keeps my time semi-structured, it’s my journal that keeps me grounded and focused on my values and goals. It’s also the place where I get my thoughts out of my head and onto a page so they’re not cluttering up my brain and I know I can always refer back to them in my journal. The beauty of the bullet journal system is how it can be adapted to suit any needs, but here I’ll share the way I use the system at the moment.
At the beginning of each month, I sit down to reflect on the previous month and plan out the coming month. This generally consists of a title page, monthly tasks list, monthly inventory, monthly overview, and my priority tasks and deadlines:
The title page is mostly just to mark the new month. I tend to pick a colour palette for the month and attempt to do some brush lettering. It’s a place to get a bit creative!
The monthly task list is something of a new addition to my system. It’s basically a place to put the bigger tasks that are never going to be done in one day or even a week. This way I’m not having to constantly migrate these bigger tasks but I can refer to them when I make my weekly pages and create some sub-tasks to achieve those monthly tasks. I add to this page throughout the month and sometimes these get migrated to the next month and that’s okay! It’s just a place to keep bigger tasks in mind without being constantly faced with them as daily tasks.
I think it’s the monthly inventory that makes the biggest difference to me at the beginning of the month. You can do this on a separate piece of paper as Ryder Carroll suggests in his book ‘The Bullet Journal Method’ but I prefer to just keep it as a page in the journal itself. It’s here where I just dump all the tasks/projects I am currently working on, should be working on, and want to be working on. The exercise is just to get everything out of your head and onto the page. I do a lot of flicking back through the previous month to see what open tasks I have during this process! Once I’ve written all the tasks I can think of, I read back through them and mark a few priorities from each column. The inventory is primarily a place for me to reflect both on what I’ve achieved the previous month and on what I most want to focus on in the coming month.
I just use a super simple monthly overview where I put down any events that I want to remember. This overview couples with my 3-4 priority tasks and any deadlines for the month which just keeps me on track. If I write them down I can’t pretend they don’t exist so I’m more likely to meet the deadlines!
At the beginning of each week, I spend some time thinking about the week ahead and what I want to achieve. My process for weekly bullet journal planning is kind of a mini version of the monthly pages:
The first weekly page contains a focus for each day, list of events and three priority tasks for the week. This is where I have to think really hard about where I want to be focusing my energy for the week in order to achieve my goals!
After this, I do a big braindump. This is something like a more detail-oriented version of the monthly inventory. It’s a big list of all the open tasks I can think of and it’s these that I pull from into my daily pages.
For me, it’s the daily spreads that’s where the magic really happens. Dailies are the pages where I get the most inspired! I start off by doing a morning reflection which is usually just me writing out any thoughts, anxieties and feelings that I’m having to clear my mind. I then write out a daily affirmation. This always feels a little silly but since I started doing daily affirmations I think that I’m actually starting to believe myself which is helping with my self-esteem.
After this, I’ll make a list of the events for that day and any tasks I want to complete. These can be directly pulled from the weekly brain dump or sometimes I break one of those into smaller, more manageable tasks in my daily. I also sometimes write notes and thoughts throughout the day in the daily log if they’re things I want to remember or return to!
In the evening I take some time to sit down and reflect on my day. I check my daily tasks and mark off all those that are completed (if I haven’t done so already!). I also take some time to look at unfinished tasks and ask myself why I am doing this task and whether it is worth my time. If it isn’t I strike it out. If it is, it’ll get migrated onto the next daily to-do list the next morning. After this, I tend to write a little summary of my day focusing on what I learned that day and what I’d like to achieve the next day. I finish off by writing down something I’m grateful for which often gets me into a better headspace before I start to unwind for the evening.
A key part of the bullet journal system for me is making collections. Collections are pages where you gather ideas together under a theme. I like to use them for all sorts of lists and I often return to them to add more notes. Here are some examples of collections I keep:
- Ideas for new experiments/potential papers to write
- Research pipeline
- Big long-term goals (things like ‘getting my PhD’ and ‘buying a house’)
- Morning and evening reflection prompts
- Blog post ideas
- Places I’d like to pitch a story to
- Youtube video ideas
Morning and evening prompts collection, research pipeline, writing and youtube video ideas collection
You can make a collection about anything and the beauty is that they can be returned to again and again to expand your ideas.
Here are some resources that have been useful to me when developing my planning and journaling system:
- https://bulletjournal.com/ – the bullet journal website is a great place to learn about the system and get inspired.
- https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Bullet-Journal-Method-by-Ryder-Carroll-author/9780008261375 – Ryder Carroll’s book ‘The Bullet Journal Method’ is a fantastic overview of bullet journaling as a system and personal philosophy.
- https://dailystoic.com/journaling/ – A great (and extensive) article on journaling from Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic. Particularly useful if you’re new to journaling and interested in the philosophical side of it.
- https://medium.com/thrive-global/start-journaling-54ea2edb104 – ‘The Life-Changing Habit of Journaling (Why Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Many More Great Minds Recommend it)’ is a nice medium article and is shorter than the piece on the Daily Stoic if you want a quicker overview of the benefits of journaling.
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6 thoughts on “How I stay organized as a PhD student”
Hi Daysi, I've been working on this recently! I organized my schedules on trello, but I want to buy a journal.I read about Stoicism and it help me so much. I'm doing my PhD too (work with biogeography).Thaks for sharing! 😊
Hi Patricia! I like to use a combination of physical and digital tools which works well. Trello is great, especially for collaboration. Hope your PhD is going well!
Thanks so so much for sharing your organization system in such a thorough, detailed manner. The photos help a lot.I have to say, I'm intrigued by the concept of "Research Pipeline" and would love for you to expand on it in another blog post. In fact, it's the first time I've encountered this phrase. So thanks for introducing me to the concept.I love it when I discover the vocabulary for concepts and ideas in my head that I have not yet fully managed to connect and integrate.Great work!
The research pipeline is a concept I came across a while ago and I find it to be really useful. Here's a blog post I found on it if you want to know more: https://www.nicole-brown.co.uk/research-pipeline
Hi Daisy! Just came accross your blog and this article. After spending most of my life trying to find the best way to plan I ended up planning more than actually doing the work! I will give your method a go for my PhD work!Julien (from the applied optics group in Kent)
Hi Julien! I can totally relate to that. Good luck finding a method that works for you.