Oberlin Blogs

Being Productive During Winter Term, Part 1

January 16, 2016

Andres Cuervo ’17

Winter Term is a strange time. It's like school, except you're not required to be in any classes. It can be done anywhere, and you still get credit at Oberlin. For my first two Winter Terms I went home. Both times I did projects that involved doing online work, so theoretically I could do these projects "from anywhere," hence going home. But, in reality, being home was simultaneously relaxing and frustrating.

Relaxing because, well, I was home. I had all the comforts of being home: my family, my room, my desk, my dogs. But frustrating for almost the exact same reasons: I could spend time with my family, retreat to my bed, clean my desk, or go walk my dogs. The comfort of being home also meant having to avoid just feeling like I was on an extended vacation there. So, this Winter Term, I decided to try and avoid all that.

This year I came back to Oberlin for Winter Term so I could avoid the distractions of home. My theory went: if I was back at Oberlin, I'd feel more motivated to work like I do during the normal school year. But then I had another problem once I got back to Oberlin, or actually, the same problem: getting work done.

Productivity is a strange thing, and it's something I've been trying to handle for a few years. When I got to Oberlin I discovered something a lot of college students also figure out: so much is going on, you basically have to start keeping a calendar (my calendar of choice is Google Calendar, which I plan on doing a post on ... some day). But a calendar, especially the way I keep my calendar (see picture below) is less helpful in managing unstructured time, for example during Winter Term.


A picture of my calendar with an overwhelming number of events.
A selection of my hectic but functional calendar: the week of November 16th.


During the normal semester I have a lot of structure: reminding myself to eat every day, regularly scheduled class times, weekly meetings. All these things can be set to repeat in my calendar for a few months, and I usually plan my life around this "free time" (which is a phrase I don't generally use because I end up packing my free time with other things to do). But during Winter Term, especially when you're like me (doing an individual project, as opposed to a class or research) there's virtually no imposed structure, so how do you know when to get anything done? Well, it took me a while to find a system that works, but I think I figured something out about getting work done this Winter Term. Before we get there, though, let's look at the productivity tools that didn't lead me there.


My first couple of years at Oberlin I used Wunderlist to keep track of what I had to do. I really like to-do lists and Wunderlist served me well for quite a while, but with a lack of real structure, other than shallow (meaning not nesting) folders for organizing tasks, the giant checklists it left me with stopped being productive for me. When I had school, work, and personal tasks to juggle all at once, there was no convenient way to just focus on what I needed to get done in the next hour, day, or week.


Last year I started using Trello to replace Wunderlist as my goto productivity app. Trello is great because it feels like you're creating sticky notes, but digitally. You can create "cards" that have a title at the very least, and (optionally) checklists, a due date, attachments, links, and much more. You can choose how to set up your Trello "boards" (these are where you keep cards, using different boards for different projects), and for myself I had a "Daily Todos" and a "Homework" board, both of which had "lists" (okay, last Trello concept, I swear: you keep cards in "lists" within boards to keep them organized, it'll become clear with the following example). For example, my daily to-do board contained 4 lists:

  • Long Term - This was used to plan for the future, or just cards with no exact due date.

  • Today - I'd move cards from Long Term to this list to narrow down my tasks for the day.

  • Doing - I'd put only 1 - 3 cards here (2, 3 if they were all related) to really keep myself focused on the task at hand.

  • Done - I'd put cards here after completing a task for the day, and I'd make sure to archive the cards at the end of each day so I could review what I'd done that day.


A picture of my daily Trello board I used in my journey to productivity.
A screenshot of an old Trello board I used for keeping track of daily tasks.


I feel like I'm a visual person, so a setup like Trello seemed to be a natural fit: all the flexibility I could ask for and a visual card-based interface to accompany it. Unfortunately, Trello just didn't end up having enough features for me to feel like it was efficient to use every, single, day. Before moving on to my current productivity tool I tried using automation services like If This Then That (IFTTT) and Zapier, both of which try and link web services up to each other. The killer feature, for my peace of mind, was the ability to see what I'd gotten done each day, so I cobbled together a Zapier service to send a copy of the information in a Trello card to a new row in a productivity worksheet of a Google Spreadsheet if it was moved to a list named "Done." Feeling lost yet? Yeah, my productivity was getting lost in all the complexity too, so I decided that, being too much manual setup (i.e. moving things from list to list or board to board) and not having some of the features I was craving, it was time to move on to a new way to plan my life.


I've been hearing about Todoist for a long time, but it wasn't until a couple days ago that I actually downloaded it and started putting all my tasks in it. It has two features that make even the free version really useful for me. First, unlike Wunderlist, folders (called "projects" in Todoist) can be nested. I don't know if there's a limit to nesting, but I currently have a 3-level nested setup for "School Related" tasks. The entire setup feels intuitive, and the ability to nest folders gives me a lot of hierarchy, freeing up space in my head to thing about what I need to do rather than how I'm going to categorize it. The second reduction to my cognitive load is that, for free, Todoist can email you how many tasks you completed on a given day and what's on tomorrow's agenda. I had to use a few workarounds and third-party solutions to get this functionality in Trello, but with Todoist it's done auto-magically!

Moving Forward

My actual Winter Term project is redesigning the Bonner Scholars' hour log system: the Bonner Web Based Reporting System, or BWBRS for short (pronounced bee-web-ers). It's a project I could have done from home in California, but I chose to come back to Oberlin to try and get my life "together" in the time before the semester begins. Hopefully, with my new productivity app 'in hand' I can motivate myself to get the project done in a timely manner for the last half of Winter Term, as I've been having to start/stop and catch up on work thus far. Part 2 of this post will come at the end of Winter Term. Will I have conquered my Winter Term project? What other accomplishments and hurdles do I have in store? You'll just have to wait and see!

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