Keeping track of your research projects with Kanban

Following up on the post about organizing student projects, I wanted to explain a bit about how I keep track of my own projects on a slightly higher level of abstraction.

When I started doing research, I was working on one, maybe two projects at a time. But as time went by, this number can increase quite quickly. I get easily excited about new ideas and starting projects (the “shiny object syndrome”), as well as joining projects by others. Over time this led to several situations where I had more projects than I could handle, leading to delays or abandoning the project altogether (see these 9 ways to fail a project for more on this!).

My solution has been to “just” limit the number of current projects. In this post I explain the tools I use to keep track of my projects effectively.

Visual overview of all projects

The tool that I’ve found the most helpful, is to use a Kanban board. The idea behind Kanban is to “manage work by balancing demands with available capacity” (Wikipedia) – sounds exactly like what everyone needs, right?

Here is how the Kanban board in my office looks like. A card is a project/paper, and it can belong to these categories: Idea, Incubator, Doing, Preprint/Revise, Under Review, Published.

Here is how I use the categories:

  • Ideas are just that – ideas. Perhaps I read a few papers on a topic and thought “I should do something about this”. Ideas can be good for starting student projects, since I probably won’t have time to get to this topic myself.
  • Incubator is a category for projects that are a bit further than ideas (for example, there is a preliminary experiment), but that I do not want to focus my attention on just yet.
  • Doing is a category for current projects, that you want to advance every day or week. There should be as few as possible projects in here!
  • Preprint/revise is for “mostly done” projects, but that still need a bit of time investment to complete
  • Under review are papers under review, that might return to the “Preprint/revise” category in a few months
  • Published are accepted papers!
  • (Bonus) Graveyard is for projects I decided NOT to continue, you can see it in the bottom left of the board. I thought “graveyard” sounded more dignified than “abandoned” but am open to other suggestions.

Next to these categories, I use the color of the card to indicate the type of project. Green are research papers, yellow are education projects (such as my portfolio), and red are grants. You don’t see any red right now, because this is already after I decided to leave my tenure track position :). I do not include various recurrent responsibilities on this board, but you could decide to do so.

Finally, I have a horizontal divider between projects that I’m leading, and projects I’m participating in. Overall, this gives a nice overview of all research projects I’m involved in! If you want to do the same with the board in your office, you might want to get some dry-erase magnetic cards, such as:

Project overview in apps

Although most of my systems are digital, I like this visual overview in my office (or at least, before the pandemic). But this is just one way to organize things, and it might not be sufficient for you if you get distracted easily.

Fortunately, there are various ways to implement the same idea in different apps. You can have the same type of Kanban board in apps like Trello or Notion. But even apps which are not organized like a board, are suitable.

Here is an example for Todoist which I use for getting things done. Here you can group projects under other, top-level projects. If you call your top-level projects “Idea”, “Incubator” etc, you can easily see how many projects you are handling at any one time. Similar to my board, you can use the color of the project to indicate research, education etc.

But for example, even in Overleaf assigning a tag to a paper can help you achieve the same. Here’s mine, with slightly different categories.

You can see that the board and the Overleaf are not 1-to-1, because some projects can have multiple Overleaf documents, and because I’m bad at updating tags 🙂 But, at least I’ve succeeded at not putting everything in “Doing”!

Verdict

I’m happy with this system overall, and imagine I will continue using it both for work and personal projects.

A feature I am still missing, is to have an indicator of time commitment per project, and for “what’s already there” on your calendar. For example, I could imagine having actual “slots” in the Doing category, and having larger projects take up multiple slots. And when you already have many things on your calendar, the number of slots decreases. So if you hear of an app like this, let me know 🙂

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