Organization Apps as a Life Hack! Balancing Teaching with Research in Graduate School

06 Apr 2016 3:39 PM | Anonymous

By Anna Schwartz

It has gotten to the point where I cannot remember things without referring to a list. Even when complaining about my workload, I cannot name all the projects I need to keep track of. I have tried a whole host of list-making software and techniques, but as the tasks build up faster than I can eliminate them, I quickly give up looking at them. I even stopped taking attendance in class last semester because of the 20 minutes it would take to enter it after class (in a 90 hour work week, 40 extra minutes matter). But my number of urgent tasks has ballooned up, not down, and the average urgency has changed from “that is a nice idea, someday” to “deadline: tomorrow.”

Finally I started using a life-hack type of solution. I would use my google calendar, already indispensable, to plot out how much I can accomplish in a day. I had seen a colleague do this in excel. The extra advantage with google calendar is I could use the service to set up alerts for important due dates. This has been a great improvement in my life, but without careful naming protocols, I found it hard to search through the deadlines or organize and visualize my tasks by project. This was working for me, but then a few apps came across my door which have actually made significant improvements on the google-cal life-hack solution.

I wish they would pay me for this advertising, but I still feel like I should share what I have learned.

Here are the winners:

GradeBook Pro

Last semester when I was observed teaching, my observer told me she uses an app to record attendance. After investigating a lot of free options, I decided it was worth investing 20 bucks for lifetime access to an extra 40 minutes of sleep a week. This app not only allows me to record attendance but to note whether it was excused or unexcused, mark late, keep track of who has done assignments etc.  I can check summaries of a student's performance from my phone when they email me, and make an informed, rather than gut, decision about their requests and complaints (and do so from my phone, making my transit time more productive). But the coolest thing about this is I can take a picture of each student with the app and study their names with picture next to them. Not only did I cut down on paperwork, but improved teacher-student rapport (using the app inadvertently helped me to learn all of their names and look more responsible in general).

DOWNSIDE: May only be available on iphones.


At the APA convention last summer, McMinn (2015) gave me this tip: keep track of every minute you spend, especially on unpaid, unscheduled work that supports others in your department.  All of those minutes you spend on reading a peer's paper, helping someone run stats, or proofing a survey. You weren't playing candy crush, and you should track that, so when your advisor comes to you and says "here's some more work" you can break it down with a graph on the spot. Not that anyone has asked yet, but the point of the advice is that when you are in a tenure track position, your chair may come to you and say: why haven't you gotten more grants or published more papers? You need to be able to show them all the good work you do that hasn’t quite turned into a line on your CV. The special benefit here for teaching is that I can actually log all the time I spend on my classes. I sit down to respond to student emails and I hit "start clock" and then "stop clock" when I finish. Tracking the time helps me spend enough time but not too much time on my students and my own work, and to make that decision based on numbers rather than emotions.

DOWNSIDE: May only be available for iphones.


Remember the life-hack of using my calendar to block out how much time I need for all my tasks and therefore to help me decide when to accept new projects or not? Google Calendar is great, but the app is not strong enough on a phone, AND I cannot integrate all my school emails into it. I have 9 email accounts I need to keep track of and Sunrise can link to them all. It is cross-platform, so you can use it on your computer, your iphone, your android, whatever. It allows you to access your calendar while writing a text message, click times you are available, and allow someone else to “accept” one of those times, which ends up directly in your calendar as a scheduled event. The real strength of this app is this: when looking at my calendar ON MY PHONE, it can pull from outlook, from google calendar, and can rapidly toggle between week view and a combination of month/daily detail view. You can access all of the normal features directly from the app on your phone, like reminders, notifications, sharing events etc.  This app has the least direct impact on my teaching, apart from the ease with which I can schedule office hours appointments with students, but it is helpful for maintaining general work-life balance.

DOWNSIDE: None yet.


This one is the absolutely best of the bunch. A technophile friend has been pushing me to use it for months and I finally caved. I took two hours to learn how to use it, and I have become a fanatical convert. There are MANY todo list apps, and I have tried LOTS of them. This one goes beyond a task list, beyond even an intuitive organizational app. It is on every platform. It has plugins so you can click a button in gmail to send a task to your list. It syncs with your calendars. You can set repeating due dates with notifications, you can drag and drop to rearrange projects or tasks. You can email notifications to others, and assign tasks to teammates.  You can sort your tasks and projects by due date, but also by "filters" and "labels" so it can accommodate different organizational styles. Best of all, you can set your "Karma" to give you reinforcing feedback as you proceed on your tasks and can measure your productivity on any given day. Once I adjusted my settings nice and low I got all the positive feedback I could desire. You can also just turn it off. While this helps my research a lot, it also helps me to keep track of the things I promise to do on the fly in class. I can also set reminders, deadlines, and even link a document to a task or assign it to a TA by inviting them to the project (named after my class).

DOWNSIDES: No automatic built in visualization of your calendar, although you can import/export from your calendar.

​I understand that some of you will say I am app-happy, but I am actually quite picky.  While I was an early-adopter of dropbox, and a big advocate of it, I am only enthusiastic about great products. I also admit I invested a few dollars in the pro versions of some of these (the only times I have ever done so). I have never regretted a penny. These are life savers that are an absolute bargain for the amount of benefit I have gotten out of them.

Looking forward to hearing everyone else's tips!

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software