The Pipeline and How to Swing it

Getting everything done would be easy if we had very little to do or unlimited time in which to do it. Sadly, by the time you stack up what your students need you to be, your school or faculty needs you to do, the parts of you required for your colleagues and your family, it gets hard to get things done. That’s where good pipeline management gives you a bit of help in encouraging you to prioritise in a way that lets you maximise your use of your own time.

Some things cannot be handled in advance. You can’t mark an assignment until the students have returned it, you can’t publish the exam results until all of the marking and any adjustments have been taken into account. Some things have to be dealt with by you being there and dealing with the events as they happen. To be good at learning and teaching requires a lot of your time, there’s no disputing it, but trying to do it all at the same time will crush you. Some of things that we need to do can be reorganised in terms of their importance, amount of preparation time and deadline, and this is where your pipeline comes from. If you currently have a to-do list, but you don’t do any real longer-term forecasting, then this post is probably for you.

If you’re not good at breaking things into manageable tasks, like me, then go and grab one of the many good books that can help you. I have had a lot of great use of a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. You may want to start by looking at a website called 43 Folders. If that appeals then you might want to replace your existing paper to-do list (or e-mail notes, or sticky notes) with some task management software. I use OmniFocus on iPad and Mac for task tracking and Merlin for project management. Whatever you use isn’t important but what you need to be able to do is to work out:

  1. What you want to do
  2. How it breaks into components (and you should know the order of these) – you must be able to identify the FIRST STEP. This will lead to the second.
  3. When it is due (set this wherever you need to in order to finish on time)
  4. How long each component will take
  5. Who else is involved
  6. What other resources you have

Then, armed with a list of all of the projects that you have to achieve, and a list of the first steps in each one, you can work out which has to be be tackled first. Something not due for a month? How long will it take? A month? Start now! A week? Get it to pop up in two weeks time. Maybe you can handle it early and go on to something else.

A to-do list is a great start but it’s only as good as the bigger list of projects that feeds it new to-do items. A good to-do item can be achieved in 15 minutes, maybe an hour. Why so short? Because then you can tick it off and move on to the next task. If you spend a day working and you tick nothing off your list, how much will you feel like you’ve achieved? If your to-do items, for writing an exam say, were “review last year’s exams”,”copy LaTeX template to repository and check security and backups”,”Write question 1 on underwater knitting” you can look at your work at the end of the day and, if you’ve got to Question 2, you can tick off three things. Doing things this way also gives you some checkpointing and rollback if you get interrupted, or distracted, or come down with a cold. Short tasks are also easier to interleave and it may help if you set up your pipeline so that short high-reward jobs get bumped up the queue occasionally to give you some needed endorphins for the longer haul projects such as grant writing or course re-design.

I wrote a 36 lecture course late last year and the pleasure in ticking off 36 individual ‘complete lecture x’ items was much greater than waiting two months to tick off ‘write lectures’. Apart from anything else, a good, concise task description will remind you what you were thinking and get you back into work more quickly – your ability to context switch will improve.

How you refill your list is up to you but, given how busy we all are now, it’s better to have the list showing you what you’ve achieved but listing what you could do next than to let you think that there’s nothing you have to do. If you want to take a breather, schedule it into your calendar or your list and stick to it. Got 15 minutes paper review time? Print the paper, leave your office, sit down somewhere else and read, if you can. One very good suggestion is that you take a break every hour to rest your aching back, get your eyes away from the computer and refresh. That’s harder sometimes than others but always be open to taking a brief , refreshing pause that will let you finish your work, get home, enjoy dinner and sleep.

And, if you actually know all of your deadlines, and what has to happen and when, you will worry less about what you’re missing and, with any luck, the sleep you have will be deeper and better. Sometimes, yes, it’s going to be a mad rush to completion but doing that all the time will burn you out. Use some of the excellent references and technology to do what you have to do and what you want to do in a timeframe that makes everyone happy and keeps you sane.

Happy pipelining!


One Comment on “The Pipeline and How to Swing it”

  1. […] finding that I ran out of time because I never really knew what to do next. I referred before to the joys of the pipeline and admitted that I’m naturally not good at this. But that leads me to point […]

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