My work life as a freelancer/adjunct isn’t all that different from when I was a grad student – I’m juggling a bunch of different projects and types of work on any given day, my responsibilities range from ten-minute tasks to long-term projects, multiple unrelated people are depending on me to finish things on time, and I’m mostly able to set my own work hours. (The pay is better, though!) All of this means that 1) I need ways to keep track of a variety of things all at once, and 2) the productivity tools out there don’t understand me.
I’m currently using Amazing Marvin for my daily to-do lists, which solves a number of the frustrations I’ve had with other apps (and it’s super flexible, so when I inevitably get frustrated again, I should be able to solve the problem without jumping ship!). But I also need something to show me how I’m doing with my weekly goals and progress toward deadlines. In particular, I need a way to visualize the relative time commitment of each thing I have to do – it’s one thing to know that Project A will take about two hours and Project B will take about ten hours, but if they both look the same on my list, I’m probably not going to do a great job of prioritizing my time.
For the past year and a half, my solution has been to use a spreadsheet based on the weekly to-do lists I made in my first few years of grad school, which looked something like this (but much longer!):
- Grade essays ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜ ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
- Do seminar readings ⬜⬜⬜⬜
- Draft fellowship application ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
I would write up my list at the beginning of each week and put blank squares after each item (this was more than a decade ago, so they were Wingdings squares, not emojis) roughly corresponding to how long I expected it to take me and/or how much I was dreading it (extra points for scary emails!). After printing it out, I would use a different colored pencil each day of the week to fill in the squares for the progress I made:
- Grade essays 🟥🟥🟦🟪🟪 🟪⬜⬜⬜⬜
Do seminar readings🟦🟦🟦🟦
- Draft fellowship application 🟥⬜⬜⬜⬜
When I came back to this concept in 2020, I decided to adapt it into an Excel spreadsheet – to save paper, yes, but mainly to make it easier to add new things in the middle of the week, since my week never turns out the way it looks on Sunday morning.
Each week, I start out by copying the blank template to a new sheet in the same Excel file and renaming it with the starting date.
The template is set up to do all the counting and color-coding. For the cells in the columns numbered 1 through 20, which is where I assign points for each project and check them off as I make progress, I used the Conditional Formatting tool to apply the following rules:
- If a cell has an x in it, it’s gray (the template starts out with an x in each cell)
- If a cell is empty, it’s white
- If a cell has a number from 1 through 7 in it (representing the days of the week), it’s the color assigned to that number
For the list of projects on the left, the cells are purple if it’s incomplete (“Steps remaining” > 0) and gray if it’s complete (“Steps remaining” = 0).
To enter a project, I fill in the description and start/end dates, then specify what counts as one step – this isn’t an exact science, but I try to make each one represent around 20-40 minutes of work, so it might say something like 1 paper for grading papers, 3pp for a copyediting project, 30′ for something I need to spend time on that either can’t be broken down into steps or has a separate list of tasks elsewhere, or x for something that will happen all at once (like a Zoom meeting) or that can’t be measured easily. This is a project tracker, not a to-do list, so I don’t go into any more detail than that about what needs to be done (at least not here), and I don’t include individual small tasks like emails or sending invoices.
I then enter the number of steps and clear that number of cells on the right, which turns them from gray to white. The “Steps remaining” column counts the number of blank cells in that row – because it’s more than zero, this makes the cells to the left purple to mark it as an incomplete project.
As I make progress throughout the week, I enter the number for that day (Sunday = 1, Monday = 2, etc.) in a cell to check it off. By the end of the week, if I’ve managed to stay more or less on top of things, the sheet looks something like this:
There’s also a section next to this that automatically counts how many points I get each day and how many I have left for the week:
If this sounds useful, you can get a copy of the blank template page on Google Sheets by clicking the button below:
I’m making it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, meaning you’re free to adapt and share this however you want, as long as you give appropriate credit and don’t use it for commercial purposes. (Feel free to change the color scheme, for instance – I used purples, blues, and pinks because those are my favorite colors and I have to look at it every day, but that won’t work for everyone.) It should work equally well in either Excel or Google Sheets.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me or connect with me on Twitter (@MaherEK)!