Academic To Do List Development and Management: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

There are an endless number of variations on how to develop and manage a to do list for maximum work efficiency. Books, workshops, motivational speakers, and efficiency gurus propose what they say are the best methods of using the tried-and-true to do list. There is no one best type of to do list. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, being mindful in selecting the appropriate methods for developing and managing a to do list is a major factor in how effective they can be for you. Like most people, I have tried multiple different forms of the ubiquitous lists with mixed degrees of success. Here are some ideas and factors that have proved important for making the list useful for me.

Whatever the form of the to do list takes, there are six variables that make this tool helpful:

Deadlines. The first items to be entered onto your to do list are those with fixed deadlines. These are hard deadlines where there is no opportunity to put off the project because you are not in the mood. These are grant deadlines, contractual deadlines, class assignments, end of fiscal year budgets, examinations, tax returns, and other externally imposed drop dead dates. Because these activities are not negotiable they serve as the bones of your list. Self-imposed deadlines do not fit into this category. You may wish to complete a chapter by May 1, but there are no immediate consequences if the assignment is completed a week later, a month later, or year later. Deadlines are must dos and must dos by a certain date.

Stages, Phases, and Steps. One of the real challenges of developing a productive to do list is to estimate accurately how long each item will take to complete. Most of us are pretty poor at this form of estimation. Some items on the to do list can be completed in 10 minutes while others require 80 to 100 hours and significant resources to finish. My preference is to make a sub entry for every four hours of estimated work. Given that many items on my to do list are writing projects and I know that I can typically write about 1600 words in a four hour stretch, I can begin to make estimations. For example, the to do list entry might be “complete chapter 1.” And let’s say I know that chapter 1 requires 7500 words. So under the heading of “complete chapter 1” there will be subheadings: a) pages 1-6, b) pages 7-12, c) pages 13-18, d) pages 19-24, e) pages 25-completion. In this fashion, at least one subheading can be checked off each day. Crossing off an item from the to do list is reinforcing. Working for an entire day on an item, yet not be able to eliminate that item from the to do list is discouraging. Breaking down large tasks into small projects that can be completed in the available time is a major factor in using this tool to allocate your energies.

Importance. Importance is independent of deadlines or urgency. These are the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to achieve your long-term professional goals. For academics, writing and editing of manuscripts are common items of importance. The items that get lost in the allocation of your time and energy are typically those of high importance, but without deadlines and with no particular urgency. Completing and submitting that article has no deadline and no one will get particularly upset if it is not completed by a certain date. However, a successful academic career depends on submitting that article and many more like it. Time needs to be carved out of each day to complete items of importance that are at risk of being forgotten or long delayed.

Delegation. Many items on to do list are team projects or require the input and cooperation of others. The biggest mistake that we make is to cross an item off the to do list that looks something like, “negotiate with Jane concerning writing of the methodology section.” This often means there was a meeting and an agreement that Jane will complete some work. A common mistake is that frequently once the item is checked off the to do list, the delegated task is out of sight and out of mind. Any time a team or cooperative task is delegated to another person, there needs to be an additional entry concerning checking or following up on the delegated task in order to ensure completion.

Making effective meetings. Preparing for and following up is about 80% of the value of any meeting. However, most often only the meeting time is in our calendar. Preparing for meetings and following up on the results of the meeting is efficient, but also time-consuming. Meetings can only be successful if time is allotted for preparation and follow up. For many people, unless an item has room on the calendar or to do list these activities do not take place in meetings become a waste of time.

Non-work life. My to do list does not only have academic and business items, I have personal items on there as well. Things like, “buy chocolate for Joyce,” “call Dad,” “remember Karen’s birthday,” and “do not forget to ask Isabel about her preparation for an upcoming math exam.” I know that it would be nice to be able to spontaneously remember to engage in self-care, attention to your family, and to make thoughtful gestures. However, I can be absent-minded and overly focused on work related activites. When I write it down, I can be assured that it gets done.

 Maintenance and Management of the List

Writing items on your to do list is necessary but not sufficient to make the list an effective productivity tool. The list must be maintained, managed, and acted upon. For me, this is a daily activity. I am fortunate to have about 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon to commute on a train. I spend that morning reviewing my daily time commitments and then allotting items from the to do list into the remaining space. I always give special attention to items labelled as important, because these are the items that so easily fall in the cracks of the schedule. On the return commute I review completed items, items that were not completed, and urgent tasks that may require evening work.

Each week receives the same treatment. Sunday evening or Monday morning means that the items for the week are reviewed and time is allocated for each. Items will not get completed unless there is time dedicated to them. Friday afternoon is the time to review the week, determine which items fell through the cracks and did not get completed, and exactly how much work versus play will be accomplished on the weekend. At the end of the week, I also pay special attention to list items in which there has not been sufficient progress. Sometimes, items need to be put in the long term bin. This bin is for items that may be important in the long term, but you are not able to get to them at all within a week. Be sure to check the long-term bin each week to determine if that item can be shifted from a long-term task to an active task. A major mistake is taking important long-term items, placing them in the bin, and then forgetting them. At this point the long term bin has become the garbage bin.

What Not to Put on the List

Knowing what not to put on the to do list is equally as important as what is put on the list. It is not efficient to use the list as a repository for activities that you are putting off until a later time. There are two well-known rules that I take seriously. The two-minute rule means that any item that requires less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. Never put a two-minute item on your to do list. A related rule is the never-touch-paper-twice rule. Any piece of paper or memo that comes across your desk is most effectively addressed immediately. This is not always possible as some memos require a great deal of time, multiple steps, or require delegation. But if possible address such tasks as quickly as possible.

Repeated items also do not need to be put on the to do list. Working out, answering emails, teaching class, office hours, and so on are not tasks; but scheduled activities. These items go into your calendar along with meetings.


Beware of the to do list as the product. If “managing your to do list” is on your to do list, then the list no longer functions as a tool but is a productivity thief. I know people who spend hours colour coding, revamping, and giving loving care to every aspect of the functionality and aesthetic of their to do list. The perfect stationery, font, background colour, or pen used to complete your absolutely perfect to do list is procrastination. Finding something that works well for you may be a good investment of time. However, daily functionality with little maintenance is the goal. Whether you use a highly sophisticated piece of software from the latest management guru or a series of post-its affixed to your wall does not really matter. Make your to do list work for your goals and methods of getting tasks completed. Do not lose track of the goal of the to do list: a systematic approach to increasing efficiency, minimizing problems with follow through and forgotten tasks, and keeping perspective about how you should use your valuable time.

SR Shaw





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