The Academic tidy up


Happy new year everyone!

It’s summer here in Australia, where we take a long break. I want to talk about Tidying in this post, but first – some news:

  • ‘How to fix your academic writing trouble’ continues to be a strong seller after 5 years, but Large Language Models (LLM) like Chattie G (Chat GPT) are now part of our lives. We want to do a second edition which shows you how to ethically and usefully integrate LLMs into writing a thesis. Sadly Shaun is no longer available, but I’m excited to be working with Katherine again – if you haven’t checked out her Research Degree Insiders blog yet, you should. Please write to me ([email protected]) if you have any feedback on the first edition or ideas for what you’d like to see in the second edition. If you’re interested in news about the second edition, including (hopefully) a discounted initial offer in due course, you can sign up to the mailing list here
  • Thanks to all the lovely people who have joined the Neurodiversity in the PhD study mailing list, especially to the people who have given me feedback and encouragement. We hope to launch a large scale, international survey of academic work soon (we are just about to enter the ethics approval process – wish us luck!). We’re aiming to survey all academics, not just ND people so we can compare experiences between groups. Survey results will feed into a productivity book for all academics tentatively titled ‘The Distracted Academic’, and a second one, with Autistic researcher Helen Kara, specifically on neurodivergence in the PhD. If you’re interested in the research progress, book news and participating in the study, you can sign up for the mailing list here.

So – back to Tidying.

I’ve long been a fan of Marie Kondo’s ‘Life changing magic of Tidying Up’. I keep a Tidy house along loose Konbari principles, where there is not too much ‘stuff’ and everything has its place. Of course, I often fall short of the ideal, as does Marie herself, but in trying to live by Konbari principles, things do not get too far out of hand. Academic life can also benefit from the Konbari Tidy approach, so I’ve been working on ways to extend my Tidy Home life into my work life.

Stop reading now if the whole Tidy Thing is not for you!

I know a lot of people feel judged by other people’s Tidy. It’s not my intention to shame anyone, or suggest you should be like me. If you are happy how you are now, live free and prosper friend! If, however, you are finding yourself frustrated by your own disorganisation, especially if you think it’s affecting your academic work, then read on.

The Tidy Desk

As I have written about before, there are two types of people in the world: Pilers and Filers. I used to be a piler, where the papers on my desk served as a physical reminder of the work I was doing, but going paperless changed me to a filer, where information is stored for later retrieval. I find I think better if my desk is uncluttered because I’m no longer being distracted by piles of things to do.

(I’m an imperfect, but slowly improving, filer – I’ll get to that soon).

To keep my physical desk tidy I have a lovely, big antique wooden in-tray from the 1960s. I use this to hold paperwork, forms, receipts, stuff that people give me, stuff I pick up from events and so on (not just paper). I simply chuck everything that doesn’t have a home yet into my intray until it is full, then I empty it completely. Here’s a snap of my desk at work, with the wooden tray in the foreground:

I don’t use filing cabinets or keep any paper records at work (although I do keep paper records at home). Your mileage may vary on this, but most universities simply don’t require paper copies of receipts or contracts anymore and will provide secure digital infrastructure to house them. So every piece of paper in my work in-tray eventually gets digitised and filed in Sharepoint/Teams, then recycled or shredded.

Going fully paperless has taken about 10 years. I made the final step when I started at ANU by simply not connecting to a printer at work. I was then forced to read on the screen. People tell me all the time they can’t do this, and I get it: I didn’t love it at first either. The advantages of physical reading are numerous. While I won’t ever give up paper books, there is no need to use paper for other types of academic reading. Printing journal articles, then losing or misfiling them, and printing them out again is both wasteful and inefficient.

Most people can adjust to reading on a screen – and technology exists for the computer to read things to you as well. Distributing is not the problem it used to be either.

I used to have to ask people to print my class handouts or files for committees, so I was only mostly paperless. But the pandemic revival of QR codes means I can fully live the paperless dream. Services like Google Drive or Dropbox provide free options for you to house material for downloads. There are free QR code generators, or you can use a service like Canva (which also has nice hand out templates). I like Linktree as a fall back option, which gives you one, easy to remember URL which you can use to distribute links. Create a Linktree account if you’re worried that people won’t have phones (they will though). You may not even need to go this far: most of my team have moved to Mentimeter, which enables people to see and interact with the presentation on their phones.

My point is: we have the technology. If you are willing to try and eliminate printouts entirely, you can.

If you take going paperless seriously, you need to really get your nerd on about how to store research and reading material – and take notes (I teach a whole class on this at ANU). Everyone needs a range of strategies for managing information. I firmly believe in PKM (personal knowledge management) needs to be individualised, so you have to work out a system to suit yourself. The best way to do this is get interested in other people’s systems (read about my digital reading system here).

You can start designing a PKM by drawing your information handling ‘technology stack’. This is an exercise I do in my classes and it really helps people realise where the gaps might be – here’s a rough sketch to get you started:

The Tidy Computer

So I solved my Piling problem on my desk, which forced me to become a Filer inside my computer. I was really crappy at this until just recently.

When I fist attempted to be paperless, I wanted to reduce the amount of time I spent filing things digitally, so I kept a very flat file structure. Everything work related just got chucked in a folder called ‘ANU’, which I cleared out once a year by simply moving everything into a sub-folder with the year number as the title. Similarly, project files got chucked in a folder with the project name and everything else went in a big folder called ‘life stuff’. I simply relied on search to find things again.

This dilettante filing approach worked ok, but I was treating the inside of my computer like a large laundry basket. As it filled with more and more stuff, the searching became more and more tedious. Last year I read the new book by Tiago Forte called PARA, which is a system for organising your digital files. It’s an excellent system, but like with the Konbari method, being hard core about it is not sustainable. Instead, I try to abide by the general principles rather than stick to it rigourously.

I find that even this minimal effort to be Tidy inside my computer has yielded significant results so, if you are finding the inside of your computer to be full of dirty socks mixed with clean, I encourage you to explore his system for yourself. I talked about it at great length on the On The Reg podcast last year in an episode called ‘Is productivity the new Veganism?’

By the way – I still stand by not bothering to file email. The only things I have folders for is receipts and nice feedback. I actually went to a class on using Outlook and now have mad skills of search – a worthwhile investment of time I promise!

The Tidy Office

The main ‘mess’ in my office is books. Like many academics, I have hundreds and hundreds of them.

Last summer I paid my niece, Abi, to arrange them alphabetically. She did a great job, but I still couldn’t find anything! Alphabetising doesn’t work for me, largely because I often know the contents of the book and forget the author, or I remember the cover and forget everything else. The human brain is not a computer – we remember things relationally and often by feeling, which is why we invented libraries in the first place.

So I turned to libraries for inspiration and started to think about how to implement the Dewey Decimal Classification system in my office. As it turns out, there is an app for that: LibraryThing. I went mad for this app when it first appeared some 15 years ago, catalogued all my home books, then… promptly forgot about it. I’m not sure why I never bothered cataloguing my work books – I guess it just seemed like a huge job that never fit into a working week. I don’t want to spend my down time organising my work books, but that’s where nerdy nieces willing to work for minimum wage come in handy (thanks Abi!).

Although I don’t love outsouring important information to other people’s servers, LibraryThing has stood the test of time. It still looks a bit clunky, but it’s free and works like a dream. Simply enter some details – whole or part of the title, the author or the ISBN and Library Thing creates a full record. You can then see and sort your library by author, title or – bliss! – cover. You can enter in digital books as well, so you have a complete record of everything you own and their details:

Even better – Library Thing auto-magically generates a Dewey Decimal number, add a label maker and you have personal library heaven on a stick! Here’s a pile of my books, with their labels on ready to be filed:

So owning your own library is within reach friends! Also can be a good little summer earner for your favourite smart young person (side note: Abi was amused/annoyed by the academic habit of not removing price tags and says : “it takes less than a minute – just do it!”).

I could go on and on as Tidying is a bit of a fetish of mine, but I’ll stop here. Happy tidying everyone! Love to hear about your tips and techniques by email or on the Socials. I’m mostly hanging out on Threads, but can be found on BlueSky and Mastodon as well. Search @thesiswhisperer and you’ll find me. See you next month