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My whiteboard project-tracker

One of my favourite tools in my home office is my whiteboard. My partner bought it for me as a present–which shows he understands me very well indeed! It’s a two-sided board, which means I can use one side for a permanent layout that keeps track of my projects; and then use the other for brainstorming, planning, or teaching. The board is on casters, which allows me to move it out of the way when the room is being used for house guests or yoga practice, or to have it as a professional-looking background for meetings. People often asked ‘are you on campus?’ in Zoom calls with the whiteboard in the background, even though I was actually in my spare room!

Today, though, I want to talk about how I use a whiteboard to keep track of writing projects. This is not in any way prescriptive, but I was inspired by reading about how Raul Pacheco Vega uses a whiteboard in his productivity process, and I then riffed on it for a while to find something that works for me personally at this stage of my career.

When I started this process, I had a huge whiteboard in my campus office. I made a column for each project, and then mapped out the main tasks ahead to get the project completed. This strategy got messy very fast, as I had too many projects for my whiteboard and the tasks and timelines were too messy.

For example, in this photo that I took below in August 2017, you can see ‘Ac Wri Probs Stage 1’ ‘Combine drafts 1 Sept’, has a single tiny box on the left hand side, where as a speculative idea about an article about metaphors for the doctoral journey (‘decide if it’s a thing’) has an entire column. And yet, Academic Writing Trouble was a whole book that actually got published, whereas I decided that the metaphors article was not after all ‘a thing’ and it’s never happened.

Actually, all three projects in the left-hand column got published, each of which had only one box, and only one task and deadline… and that got me thinking that maybe I didn’t need columns.

And so now I have a different strategy. I can’t show you a whole photo of my board because it has too much confidential stuff on it! But I can show you a block and how I use it. (Thanks to my co-author for his permission to share our work in progress!)

Each project, big or small, gets a square on the board. I have a 4×4 grid, so 16 squares. 11 of those currently have a project in them, some at ‘completely finished and waiting to publish’ and some at ‘decide if this is a thing’. 11 is too many, I usually prefer to have a pipeline with a couple of potential projects, a couple of live projects, and a couple of projects where we’re just waiting for the publication date.

I also have currently have squares for:

  • teaching dates that are coming up;
  • freelance invoices that need to be sent or are waiting for funds to arrive;
  • projects that are probably never going to happen but haven’t been formally cancelled yet;
  • blog maintenance (an exciting upgrade is on its way!);
  • and a free square.

I like to have more free squares, and sometimes I write ‘this square is intentionally left blank’ when I need to remind myself not to add any new projects!

In the writing project squares, I always have the following information:

  • the title of the book, article, chapter or poem;
  • whether it is something I’m working on now or on hold so we wait;
  • the current step in the process (write, edit, wait for reviews, approve proofs, sign contract etc);
  • a deadline;
  • the name of the target publisher or journal.

As you can see from the example, it’s a messy process. The different pen colours don’t really mean anything, it’s just the result of updating the box multiple times over many months. Luther and the Arts is a co-authored book that I’m working on now, I have a final section to edit before handing the draft over to my co-author, and I promised I’d get it done this month.

But it’s also quite clean and neat, because it’s so focussed. When I am not sure what I need to do next, I can go and look at the board and be absolutely clear about my next step.

And then, when I’ve done the task, I erase it, and write in the next task.

Why does this process work for me?

First of all, I have a lot of projects on the go and always worry I’ll forget about one. Having every project on the board means I keep an eye on all the plates I have spinning away at any one time.

Because my writing work is mostly freelance, I don’t need to write comprehensive reports on the projects or keep a big research team on task. I need to be able to update my co-authors, editors etc on where I’m up to at any time, which this board does.
If I were working on a project where I needed to regularly report to grant bodies, a manager, or a team, I’d use a strategy like these ones from another whiteboard post by Raul: ‘Managing a research pipeline‘.

I like to work on a single project at a time, when I have the chance. So being able to look at everything that might be coming up, pick one, and zoom straight into the next task is super helpful for me.
Raul calls this Work on One Project Each Day (WOPED). He prefers to Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED), and if you agree with him, you should check out his post: ‘Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) vs Work on One Project Each Day (WOPED)’.

Because writing projects tend to have a similar pathway, I don’t find I need to map out every stage of the process on the white board. I know that copy edits always come before page proofs. Publication projects are pretty predictable.
If there were more uncertainty about the whole picture pipeline, I’d probably want to add information about possible next steps.

Also, as I have previously reflected, I hate to micro-manage myself. So this board keeps things at a high level. I know where in the document I’m starting work, what stage of the writing cycle or publishing process I am in, and my deadline. Where, what, when… then I’m good to go.
If you like more detail in your planning, you might want to try out some of the strategies like Gantt charts in this Thesis Whisperer blog post.

Will this process work for you?

No idea! Maybe? Or maybe one of the other linked posts will inspire you as they did me.

The thing I like best about a whiteboard is that it is endlessly customisable. Start with any configuration and play around with it until it works for you. Even if you don’t mean to, you’ll probably find that you organically adjust how you use it over time.

If you would like to try it out for yourself, here’s some details of my set-up (Australian links, but many brands will be available globally).

  • I have a freestanding 1200×900 whiteboard, by J Burrows at Officeworks. My partner and co-author has a much smaller 450×600 board that he can tuck away, which might be a good first step if you want to experiment with a much cheaper option that takes up hardly any space!
  • Finally, absolutely invest in a magnetic whiteboard eraser. I personally have this one, but any new-ish eraser that sticks to the board will be ideal.
    I haven’t needed to use a spray cleaner on my board yet, and I’ve been using it for a few years, so I wouldn’t count it as part of the starter kit.

I hope you find this deep dive into my process helpful and interesting! People have been telling me to write this post for ages, so I hope it delivered!

As always, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter @researchinsider about your favourite whiteboard products, how you use whiteboards to plan and track your projects, or what you prefer instead of whiteboards!

***

Bibliography:

In case any of the projects on any of these boards were of interest to you, here is where the projects that got published went!

Academic Writing Trouble: Why it happens and how to fix it, Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth and Sean Lehmann (London: Open University Press, 2019).

‘Martin Luther’s “Mighty Fortress”’, A. Loewe and K. Firth, Lutheran Quarterly 32 (2) (June 2018), 125-145.

‘“The way to learn the music of verse is to listen to it”: Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos and the “Sequence of the Musical Phrase”’, in Musical Modernism: Essays on Language and Music in Modernist Literature, ed. Katherine O’Callaghan (London: Routledge, 2018), 159-172.

‘Southern Cantata’.
Composed Andrew Schultz, commissioned St John’s Southgate Bach Cantata Program 20th anniversary, first performed by Choir of St John’s Southgate and Bach Orchestra, December 2017.
Full broadcast, Melbourne in Concert, 3MBS radio, Cond. Graham Lieschke (May 2018).

Growing Researchers Online (GRO), La Trobe University RED team, ‘GRO Academic Writing’; ‘GRO Progress and Candidature’

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