Being Digitally Organized


Writing a dissertation or thesis isn’t all about the writing. Academic writing requires a lot of moving parts in order to be successful. Writing is, of course, important (words won’t magically appear for you), but it’s your little habits and practices that will make all the difference in timeliness and completion. Brilliance on its own isn’t enough to get you to your defense date. You’ll need organization to meet your deadlines, avoid unnecessary mistakes, tedious work, and/or a complete disaster (e.g. misplacing key resources, losing research, technical glitches, etc.).

Organization goes beyond the physical collection of papers, books, and research you might collect. In fact, chances are that most of your resources and research will be digital. Most research, even in the humanities, includes online and database research. Undoubtedly, you’ll have on hand dozens (perhaps hundreds) of online articles and statistics in your possession. Moreover, eBooks are finding a new prevalence in serious research and writing. Beyond eBooks and articles are digital newspapers, webpages, blogs, and even social media. Managing physical sources, papers, and books is only half of the battle. You’ll need to think about what to do with all that data you’ll undoubtedly accumulate. And no, leaving it all on your computer’s desktop isn’t an option! You’ll need to develop effective strategies and organizational techniques to manage your digital sources and files.

Thankfully, digital organization is rather simple. It doesn’t require much effort beyond instituting a few commonsense practices that will surely save you time, effort, and frustration. Additionally, there are a number of tools that can help you become a better digital organizer so you can focus on the stuff that matters—like writing!


Say NO to USBs!

Don’t use a USB stick! Please, please let go of those awful USB sticks. They’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s not unusual for writing to be a mobile activity. More likely than not, you’ll need to work somewhere other than your home. That means you’ll have to take your work with you. So, it’s important to plan how you’ll take your work around with you.

While working as a librarian, it wasn’t unusual to find doctoral students using USB sticks to carry work around and save working versions of their dissertation. I’d always advise them to avoid using USB sticks. One, they’re ridiculously easy to lose. Two, they’re easily corruptible. Beyond these reasons however, USB sticks are not great for organization. They make it easy to lose, misplace, or save over important drafts of your work. Furthermore, they add the extra burden (and potential disaster) of moving your work from the USB stick to your main computer. USB sticks invite messiness, adding a unnecessary burden to your writing flow.


Do your work in the cloud

Embrace cloud storage. I love cloud storage. I used it almost extensively while I was writing my dissertation. I’m a huge fan of Google Drive, as I could switch between multiple computers without having to worry about losing my information on whatever I was working on. With dissertation writing, you’re going to need to keep everything organized and safe. You need to have the confidence that some sort of disaster isn’t going to befall you. Cloud storage allows you to work on the same document on any computer. No more losing USB sticks or worrying about losing your information. Moreover, Google’s Backup and Sync operates seamlessly with Windows. No more downloading or uploading because it’ll do it all for you. You can even work on documents offline as Backup and Sync will upload your documents for you once you’re safely back to Wi-Fi.

Can’t I just save everything on my laptop? Yes you can, but you’re also inviting the risk of disaster in case something happens. I always encourage students to use backups. Multiple if necessary. There’s no downside of using cloud storage, especially if it saves a local version of the file on your computer. Cloud storage is also amazing for organizing large groups of files (especially all those article pdfs). You can carry your entire research library with you wherever you go. This is especially helpful if you’re researching on a database



Don’t let your desktop become your own version of Where’s Waldo

For the love of God clean your desktop! Take a look at your desktop. Go ahead and look carefully. Can you see the wallpaper in the background or is it blocked by the clutter of files, pdfs, and shortcuts? If you can’t see your background it’s time to start organizing! Think of your computer as your digital desk. Having everything on the desktop (like papers strewn on a desk) isn’t necessarily helpful. For one, it’s time consuming to continuously scan over your desktop just to find one file. It’s also bound to cause you unnecessary anxiety—where did I put my file again? Yeah, you want to avoid that whenever possible.

Take stock of everything on your desktop. Is everything there necessary? Begin by deleting any old files and shortcuts that you never, ever use. Next look over any pdfs and Word files. Are these relevant to your research? Should they be somewhere else (like a research folder)? Start by creating categorical folders for research (articles, eBooks, papers, etc.). You can even break that down into categories such as those you need to read, important articles, or even by author. There are a variety of ways of breaking down and categorizing information. Think of a system that works for you and stick to it. Make modifications if necessary, but stick to it!


Don’t let this happen to you. 

Scan your articles after reading (Don’t print everything and don’t rely on paper). Some students have a bad habit of printing everything. Yes, it’s sometimes easier to read on paper, but be selective about what you print. Besides killing trees, printing dozens of articles creates an instant mess. Where are you going to store those papers? Will you carry them around with you everywhere? I’ll sometimes see students walk in carrying a mound of papers. It looks physically exhausting and potentially dangerous if you lose them—especially if you write notes to yourself on those articles. Let’s face it, printed articles are messy. Alternatively, try printing out only one or two articles at a time (what you reasonably can read in one or two sittings). Make your notes, highlights, and scribbles like usual. Once you’ve made your notes, scan your article and add it to your cloud drive. This ensures that your scribbles and scrawls are safe, without having to lug everything around. Moreover, you can always reprint the article if you want to add further notes. This is helpful if you just can’t stand reading articles on a computer screen.

Take digital notes. Digital note taking has been around forever. Evernote is the most well known, but there are plenty of choices when it comes to note taking. Some even simulate taking notes on paper (for touch based devices). Apple, Microsoft, and Google all have their own versions of note taking apps and software. Play around with a few and choose one that works well with whatever device you’re using. Some, like Evernote, will even allow you to take a picture of your handwritten notes, allowing you to upload it instantly to the cloud. Digital notes can help you with jotting down ideas and organizing your thoughts.

Above all, be sure to develop a strategy for saving and accessing all the data. Don’t wait to get organized. Start now and make it part of your research routine!


Photos by Brina Blum,  John Schnobrich, Paul Csogi, and Sear Greyson on Unsplash



Staying Organized = Success


Right off the bat, I want to dispel a common myth going around. This is the myth that your messiness and disorganization is a sign of higher intelligence and/or creativity. Now it’s true that some research has shown that messy and untidy individuals typically have a higher IQ and are more creative (though I’m not sure how one rates creativity). Unsurprisingly, this idea has floated all across social media as a justification for being messy. Without a doubt this new idea brought great joy to the droves of disorganized folks across social media. Science has seemingly proved that smart people are untidy! After years of shame, there’s finally scientific evidence to justify one’s messiness! In fact, I wouldn’t put it past some folks to intentionally be more messy and disorganized just to prove they’re smart! After all it’s all a sign of higher intelligence, right? So let’s leave a few more papers around in hopes that it’ll spur our imaginations! Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not how creativity works. Your messy and disorganized desk, work area, and/or computer doesn’t make you a genius. It might only be a sign that you need to straighten up a bit.

Many people find justification for being messy using Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” This sure sounds great, but let’s face it. None of us are Einstein (no matter how messy our desk is). Einstein would’ve been Einstein with or without a messy desk. Moreover, it’s your writing and research habits that you need to worry about. Einstein isn’t going to be writing your dissertation, you are! And just because messiness worked for Einstein doesn’t mean it will work for you. Now it may be true that messiness might be a sign of intelligence and high creativity. However, this doesn’t give you a license to be untidy or to excuse messiness. Moreover, certain types of writing don’t work well in a messy environment. Messiness may not matter so much when writing a novel, but it will definitely hinder progress with a dissertation or thesis. Academic writing (especially when it’s for a professor or committee) often requires more organization than others. Part of this is due to the requirements you’ll need to adhere to for your committee, professor, school, etc. Furthermore, academic writing typically involves strict deadlines. You’ll want to stay on schedule when writing a dissertation (especially if you need to graduate at a certain time). Consequently, disorganization isn’t going to work in your favor. 

Messiness isn’t a virtue, and it definitely won’t help you finish your dissertation. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that your own messiness is somehow special (it’s not). Writing a dissertation necessitates careful organization and planning. It requires the ability to find information and research quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, it requires long-term planning over the course of months and years. You may believe that your organizational “system” of paper stacks, USB drives, and books strewn across the floor is working, but it won’t a year from now. A dissertation requires the use and citing of dozens of articles and books. Depending on your field, you may also have mounds of qualitative and/or quantitative data to sort. As such, it’s imperative that this information remain organized and accessible. Nothing will set you back further than missing qualitative/quantitative data.

None of this means that your desk, writing area, or computer must be spick and span. We all have our own own quirks and methods when it comes to organization. That being said, any organizational system must actually be a coherent and logical system. Therefore, don’t think about it in terms of only remembering where things are. Remembering where you put and/or saved an article isn’t a system. You should instead know where an article, book, or file is because it has a designated space (either physically or virtually). Simply put, you don’t need to waste time remembering where something is. Ultimately your memory will fail you. Rummaging through papers, flipping through books, and checking USB drives for missing information wastes time and is mentally exhausting. Trust me, you’re not going to want to search for that missing article you found a year ago when you’re near the end. You’ll need all that mental and physical energy just to finish (especially when working against the clock—i.e., graduation deadline).

It was always a struggle to keep things organized. But it’s well worth it. Over the next two posts I’ll give you some tips for remaining organized. Today it’s important to remain both digitally and physically organized. Organization is more than just papers and books. It involves a concerted effort to keep your digital files easily accessible and safe. The first post will be on digital organization where I’ll share some tips on how cloud storage and desktop management can help keep you on track. This will be followed by how to keep your old-school papers, articles, and books organized. So stay tuned for more soon!