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GTD and Faculty Productivity: Notes from a small pilot project

One area that's always been interesting to me is self improvement (the focus of this blog), and especially education. Thus, one focus of my personal productivity practice is academia (there's a reason I sometimes call it WorkFlow 101). Following is a brief report on a project in this area that's just finished up.


I recently completed a small pilot funded by the office of new faculty development at a large university. I approached the director to see if there was interest, and to figure out a way to test the effectiveness of the Getting Things Done methodology for new faculty. We came up with an informal program in which I would work with three self-selected early faculty members, coach them in the method, and hopefully give the director enough information to decide if the results merited a larger follow-on effort.

(Background: It was my opinion, going in, that there is direct and complete transferability of the concepts to the type of work new faculty perform, but my approach was to do the best coaching I could and let the results speak for themselves. The results were definitely satisfying - read on.)

The faculty were professors from three very different departments - Nursing, Japanese, and Communication Disorders - and each had different styles in how they managed themselves at their work. One thing they all shared, however, were the common challenges facing new faculty, who essentially act as entrepreneurs. For example, they have to:
  • Obtain grants for research,
  • Plan and perform original research,
  • Advise and guide students,
  • Teach classes (prep, grading, etc),
  • Provide service to the community, etc.
  • all the while working to get tenure (there's a reason it's called the "tenure track")
In this application (and in general), my perspective is that self-management is crucial, but never taught. (I believe this is true of nearly all professions.) As Robert Boice puts it in The New Faculty Member: Supporting and Fostering Professional Development:
... much critical information about professorial success is tacit knowledge ... usually untaught but critical to thriving ... We are apparently unaccustomed to studying or teaching the practical intelligence that contributes to success and happiness in academic careers.


I started by providing an introductory course to my three clients that covered the pilot's goals, format, and timing, then gave them an introduction to the concepts (about an hour of content). After that I worked one-on-one with each professor at her desk, taking her through my two day intensive. Finally, I supported them over four weeks with visits, phone calls, and email, until they were each happy with their level of implementation and understanding.

(Note: Along the way I developed some nice materials, including an academic-specific trigger list, and a small booklet of notes summarizing the ideas, and provide details. The latter is now what I give out to my workshop participants.)

Results and future

The participants' experiences were very positive (one of my favorite quotes: "Do you know how much psychic time that saved!?"), enough to convince the director to consider an expanded version (great news!) Some of the recommendations that came from this work:
  • Timing: The participants suggested starting at the end of the faculty member’s first year, but not right away (i.e., don’t offer in the first year). Also, they felt strongly that participants start before the semester begins. (I've seen this elsewhere: Adopting this work is challenging enough in the "normal" operational intensity.)
  • Thoroughness: While it's less expensive to offer workshops, my experience is that many people need some amount of desk-side coaching to make the ideas real. But budgets are tight, so I recommended a combination of 3-6 group sessions (a minimum of one hour each), followed by individualized workflow coaching (a minimum of four hours each).
  • The stigma of asking for help: In my coaching I'm careful to not judge people on their current self-management practices, or the state of clutter in their offices. The truth is we're simply not taught effective tools for personal productivity (something I'm out to change). Thus I recommended using care in promoting follow-on efforts, and focusing on the proactive nature of the work.
  • Finally, because faculty often work at multiple offices (esp. home and campus), I recommended we support the possibility of one-on-one coaching at both locations. It's hard to keep everything out of your head when only half your life's been captured and clarified...
Beyond the pilot, my larger goal is to build a community of practice around self-management. To that end, I recommended the university create a means for new practitioners to interact with more experienced ones, either in person or electronically (e.g., discussion groups, newsletters, etc.)

More on this as it develops!


Reader Comments (11)

I love the work you've done here. Great pilot project!

It made me wonder, [ why dont law firms teach their young lawyers about GTD? | http://www.legalandrew.com/2006/12/16/law-firms-should-teach-associates-gtd/ ]

Keep up the awesome work!

December 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey, Andrew - thanks! I love your post. Though I have to say you gave me an idea I hadn't thought of: You mentioned profession-specific contexts (a great idea), where I talked about profession-specific trigger lists. :-)

Thanks for reading.

December 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great stuff, Matt. I'm a junior faculty person at another university about to celebrate my 1 year GTD anniversary on Jan 1. This has been the most productive year of my life. I'm still not blackbelt, but I'm moving up the ranks and lots of people have commented that they see a difference. I'm so glad you are working on this.

December 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTony P

Hey Tony, thanks very much. I'd love to hear about your experiences in adopting GTD to your work, and your life.

December 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I love hearing about this project. I'm an academic scientist in a sink-or-swim 5-year position, struggling to balance a crushing teaching load with my own research (which for better or worse is in a new-to-me field). I can't wait to see what you learn in the process.

December 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thanks for your comment, Amy - You give a concise description of the challenges, plus some of the emotional feel of the job. I'll keep you updated.

And I'd love to hear any insights you have to share.

December 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Congrats on the positive responses you have gotten in your new endeavors Matt!

St. Paul, MN

December 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks, erik.

December 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt, this is great stuff, and very encouraging. I'm a communications manager in the Australian federal government, and I couldn't get by without GTD -- but it's depressing to see many of my colleagues struggling with non-GTD disorganisation!

I've started writing up my GTD experiences at http://organisedlife.com/, and I've been wondering for a while what the reaction would be to introducing some of the GTD concepts more formally at work. It's great to hear about the success you've had; I look forward to reading more!

January 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Mackay

Thanks for reading, David. Your blog looks great - I enjoyed your articles on the Filofax. I use my paper planner in much the same way. Best of luck!

January 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Office Supplies are pretty boring, but what about organization, productivity, office humor and annoying your coworkers? http://blog.officenmore.com

[ Click Here To Visit | http://blog.officenmore.com ]

April 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTee Zee

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