We are all busy, so how can some academic surgeons balance their clinical work and remain academically productive? While I don’t have all of the answers, I have some suggestions on building a productivity framework and tools that I find helpful. In full disclosure, I am a Mac user, and several of the programs that I use are Mac-specific, so they will not work for everyone. As academic surgeons we manage personal, research, clinical, administrative, and various other tasks and it is imperative to have an organizational system that addresses all of our complex activities. From a 50,000 foot view, I have found that I need an organizational system for personal tasks, group projects, digital files, references, and word processing.
As I was preparing to write my doctoral thesis, I asked a professor who had recently finished his Ph.D. if he had any tips for approaching a dissertation. He recommended a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen with the comment that if he had read it before writing his dissertation, he would have finished in half the time. I figured it was worth reading the book to help me finish my dissertation faster, so I went for it. The “Getting Things Done” (GTD) philosophy is to clear your mind of all the projects and tasks you need to do by writing them down, organizing them by context, and setting only hard deadlines. I decided to give this system a try and have been using it ever since that time, going on 13 years. I utilize Omnifocus as a task management software to manage my GTD system. It lets me set up projects with a series of subsequent actions, deadlines, and contexts so that if I am, for example, working through emails, I can use the email context to knock out all of the actions that I need email for. There are many different frameworks for personal productivity and software programs to support these frameworks. My recommendation is to pick one system, find software the works for you and make sure that you keep your tasks up to date.
After listening to Dr. Ankush Gosain’s talk at the Academic Surgical Congress in 2020, I added a project manager to my productivity armamentarium, allowing me to create a 50,000-foot view of research projects for all team members based on the Kanban methodology. A Kanban board categorizes each project by where it is in the process, which can be as simple as “To Do, Doing, and Done,” allowing teams to visualize what things need to be done and identify where hang-ups occur and determine how to bring projects to completion. The project manager I use is Trello, which lets you create a card for each project and categorize it by the stage (e.g., idea, progress, write, review, submitted). I tried to find a way to use just Trello or Omnifocus and realized that each has its unique functionality: Omnifocus is great for personal task management, while Trello is great for team project overviews. In addition, I can link the projects to each other between Trello and Omnifocus, so I know what personal action items I have related to each of the bigger projects in Trello.
In addition, I have found a handful of other essential tools that I need for academic productivity. I use Devonthink as a “super-finder” for file organization rather than relying on the native file management of the computer. The advantage of this program is that it is searchable by both file names and the contents of files. You can also add links to Devonthink files and folders to Trello and Omnifocus so that you can link to the files you need to work on when you pull up a project. The interface for Devonthink allows me to organize all of the files that I need to keep either for reference or subsequent actions so that I have a full overview in a side window, allowing me to find what I need quickly. For journal articles that I frequently reference and read, I use Papers, a literature reference library that stores PDFs of articles for quick reference, and links to Microsoft Word for article citation management. It is similar to EndNote, which is a more commonly used reference manager. I started using papers in graduate school because it had PDF filing capability, which EndNote did not have at the time, but now both programs have similar functionality. I have also tried various word processors and ultimately settled on Word because it is the most commonly used and, therefore, the easiest for file sharing among a group. It also works with both Papers and Endnote reference managers. Finally, for literature reviews, I use Scrivener to create notes on virtual flashcards that can be moved around to develop a paper outline with annotated references, a similar process to what many of us learned to do on paper flashcards. The programs mentioned are definitely not essential for productivity, but it helps me organize my paper outlines and have all of the references readily accessible.
|Organizational element||Useful Characteristics||Software example(s)|
|Personal Task Manager||– Checklist functionality that is shared between devices
– Ability to assign due dates to action items
– Categorization by project and context
|Group Project Manager||– Group sharing and editing capabilities
– Easy visual overview of all projects and stages
– Simple movement of projects between stages
– Accessible on multiple devices
|File Manager||– Search capability of both file title and contents
– Interface that allows easy access to reference and action files
|Reference Manager||– Links to PDF files
– Allows folder creation for PDF organization
– Can export citations to word processor
|Word Processor||– Can import citations from the reference manager
– Documents are easily sharable with team members