In early 2019, I was invited to give a talk at the Young Researcher’s Meetings of the Department of Statistics at University of Warwick (the place I work). The Young Researchers’ meeting is a weekly seminar for postgraduate students and postdocs to discuss research and exchange ideas.
My immediate thought was to talk about one of my current and exciting research projects. Of course, I know from experience that the talks I have given on research projects I am excited about are not necessarily equally exciting for the audience. I also knew that I would be speaking to a group of brilliant and promising young researchers in Data Science (we take pride for our high standards for PhD admissions and for attracting high-quality PostDocs). That is an audience of individuals working on stuff that are most probably more exciting and to more people than mine, and that are more likely to impact Data Science in a more fundamental way than my current research projects (note: this is a sign of a healthy PhD programme).
So, in the end, I decided to speak about something that i) is not so “researchy”; ii) I care a lot about; and iii) I think, everybody in academia has, at least once, wondered about: workflows and task management. Yes, you got this right: I am borderline obsessed, ever since I remember my professional self, on how to best organise tasks and keep track of progress and self-development, especially for jobs where the borders between work and hobby are not clear (like academics).
I have my own workflow system (see picture below), which I developed over the years, by listening to colleagues, friends and other professionals who spoke to me and by reading to authors who wrote about workflows and task management. Several of the ideas and concepts I used are described in the links at “Org mode and task management systems”. Also, David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity” is worth taking a look.
I have implemented the workflow system I currently use on emacs because I can leverage on the capabilities of the fantastic Org mode. Emacs is also where I do the majority of my work (programming, authoring, email, calendar, and other stuff ), so it was an entirely familiar environment to me. But how I implemented the system and how I do stuff in emacs are topics I plan to speak more about of in future blog-posts.
In this post, I just want to say that I ended up giving a talk that was provocatively titled
The title reflects two things: i) that I present a workflow that is most probably very different from what the other people in the room do, and, importantly; that ii) modern tools and ecosystems tend to over-prescribe particular workflows (e.g. Office 365, Google apps and so on), and people end up using workflows that aren’t theirs or are not best for them.
I was more stressed before giving this talk than I am typically before my talks, but I am pleased I did. It sparked an interesting discussion, and it was well-received, I think.
I also want to share the slides in case they are useful to anyone else. You can download the slides by clicking either here or on the title above.
There is a disclaimer though. Nothing in this deck of slides is prescriptive, even if it reads so. My aim was to have my younger colleagues think about how they do stuff and motivate them to adopt principles that suit them, instead of telling them what to do. As a result, and due to time constraints, I only covered basic workflow/task management principles in this deck of slides, but I presented a slide with some generic advice
I will follow up with more detailed posts soon, I hope (it’s in my someday bucket).