Michael Ekstrand

The Wall — Tracking the Pipeline

Published on 27 Feb 2017 and tagged with productivity.

Earlier, I wrote about the notebook I use for planning and tracking my daily and weekly work. It's great for the low-level tactical aspects of productivity, but is not very good at long-term planning. I've tried to use it for that — semester planning pages and similar ideas — but it has not been very effective.

To manage the birds-eye view of my work, I use a Kanban-style board made of Post-It notes and painter's marking tape on the wall of my office.


This idea was inspired by one of my fellow new professors at Texas State. In one of our ‘how to be a new professor’ workshop, we were sharing ideas for managing and moving forward in our work, and she shared the advice to ‘always have something in every stage of the pipeline’: planning, analysis, writing, under review, etc. As I thought about how I might implement that advice, and more importantly see whether I did have my pipeline properly filled, I was reminded of Trello and the Scrum board we had at GroupLens for one of our development projects. So I adapted the idea to the academic pipeline.

My board consists of the following columns:

Ideas : Staging ground for future project ideas. Occasionally I garbage collect these.

Planning / Waiting : Tasks that are in the early concept stages, or are waiting to be activated. Grant ideas that I'm starting to think about but haven't started building out the actual proposal for, projects in the early experimental design phase, future course preps I'm collecting ideas for, etc.

Prep / Dev : Projects in active development. Research projects where we are writing the code or building the experimental apparatus, grants where I'm working on developing the actual set of ideas in preparation for writing, current course preps, and such go here.

Running : Mostly experiments or courses that are running and we're waiting for results, or other projects with a similar stage (such as books I am studying or classes in progress).

Writing : We are actively writing the paper or proposal.

Under Review : Submitted and awaiting review by the relevant parties.

Done : Projects that are finished and in press or otherwise completed. I garbage collect this each year.

Standing Respons. : Things that are standing responsibilities (committee obligations, etc.), but that don't have discrete phases.

Projects bounce around a bit; for example, an accepted paper will usually drop back to Writing before moving to Done as we prepare the camera-ready version.

I find this system helpful for seeing if part of my pipeline is stalling, feeling like I am making forward progress, and thinking about priorities. It is also a helpful tool for thinking about project activation — when things move to Done, I can think about bringing new projects forward, and can get some sense of how many things I currently have on my plate.

It it always interesting to see the reactions of my colleagues when they first see the wall. It's also something that comes up from time to time in conversation. I'm convinced from these comments that it would not work for everyone.

I have thought about managing this in a Trello board, particularly so that I can access it remotely. I might still do that some day, but for now I like its physical nature. Moving sticky notes from column to column is remarkably satisfying.