So, part of the reason that I have not been blogging much lately is that I’ve been trying to refocus myself on what I’m really doing with my dissertation project.  It’s amazing how easy it is to literally forget what you’re doing, what the whole darn thing is actually supposed to be about!  In such a large project, with so many sub-projects and sub-sub-projects, hundreds of sources, and as many issues to follow and sort out…well, it’s easy to lose site of the forest for the trees.  I’ve been trying to get reacquainted with my forest lately.

Part of that effort has been an attempt to get myself organized.  I realized that I have a great system for managing my research, including Reference Manager for managing bibliographic information, with a corresponding online backup/citation sharing service at CiteULike, a custom database application built with FileMaker for managing annotations, quotes, people, organizations, events, etc., as well as online collection tools including Furl and and Del.icio.us.  I was even able to write a Reference Manager import filter for Furl.  I can now clip articles from the web, save a personal copy, and export the citation to Reference Manager.

So, when I’m diligent about using it all in the right order and in the right way, that all works great.  But I realized that I did not have a similar system for the project management aspect of the dissertation.  I had no way of figuring out what needed to get done, when, to track tasks, relate them to higher-level goals, etc.  Consequently, I’ve read a lot and cut a lot of quotes (45 sources and 175 quotes in the database so far, with 200 more cut and ready to go in), but still haven’t made a lot of progress towards getting any one chapter off the ground.

I decided to do something I don’t normally do: Pick up one of those annoying, self-helpy, pseudo-psychobabble, business management books.  Of course, first I Googled for information on project management, related software, etc.  I found that a lot of people were mentioning GTD.  What the heck is GTD?  It stands for Getting Things Done, which is also the title of a famous book by a guy named David Allen.  So, I went and bought the book.  I have to say, it’s been helpful so far.  Some books like this are so general and abstract, so touchy-feely, that it all sounds great and might make you feel better, but does not give you any concrete advice about what to do.  Other books like this are so specific to business, or a particular technology (e.g. MS Outlook), that they are equally unhelpful.  Allen’s book is a great mix of general and specific.  His method is general enough that it can apply to business, academic, and other professions.  It does not rely on any particular technology.  In fact, it can be implemented in a very low-tech way, and he actually encourages that.  But, he walks you through the steps of his method in a very specific, directed, step-by-step way.

Even though the GTD method does not require the use of any type of software, because I do so much work on the computer, I immediately began looking for free, open source applications that could help me implement GTD.  I settled on two applications.  One is an extension for the Firefox browser that allows you to implement GTD in Gmail.  It is called GTDGmail.  While it would be possible to fully implement GTD within Gmail with this extension, I did not like the fact that it would force me to have an Internet connection to check my "Next Actions" and figure out what to do next.  So, I’m just using GTDGmail to help keep my emails more organized.  For my general GTD I am using a brilliantly simple little application called MonkeyGTD.  It is an adaptation of TiddlyWiki, a personal, wiki-style notebook application that runs all in one HTML file.  It’s just a file.  That’s it.  All the code that makes it run is embedded within the file itself.  That means that it can run in any web browser, from a memory stick, on any computer with a USB port.  It is brilliantly simple to use and offers a great "dashboard" feature which allows you to see all the "Next Actions" required for all "Contexts" and "Projects".  It has a nifty little reminders feature and a calendar as well.

GTD, GTDGmail, and MonkeyGTD have all been very helpful in the last couple weeks.  I’ll continue to provide updates here about their usefulness in managing long-term, academic research projects.  Heck, since MonkeyGTD is just an HTML file, maybe I’ll even post a copy of my schedule to the web for readers to check out!

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