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.

 Conclusions

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

@Shawpsych

 

 

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How Not to Suck When You Don’t Want to Work

“Writer’s block is another word for laziness” — Elmore Leonard.

All respect to the late, great Elmore Leonard, but dial it back a little. We all have those days. The to-do list is long, you are sleep deprived, you have put in too many consecutive 12 hour days, and there is no end in sight. You drink your coffee and open the computer, yet the blinking cursor does nothing but mock you. You have the time to write, the ideas are well outlined, and deadlines are approaching. However, your mind is blank. Meanwhile, dishes need to be done, the dog wants to play, emails continued to pile up and there are several television shows on your DVR that demand to be watched. There are other appealing options such as day drinking, inviting a friend for lunch, and the ever popular going back to bed. Yet, you say to yourself, “This is my sacred writing time. I must work on this manuscript (or grant proposal or book chapter or report). Come on words. Start flowing.” But nothing happens. Dominating your thoughts are increasing frustration, questioning your career choices, and worrying that you will never ever be able to write another word again. These are the basics of writer’s block. Sometimes you have time, ideas, motivation, and deadlines; but you just are not in the mood to work.

First, the basics. Prevention is one of the best ways to prevent holes in productivity during inevitable ebb times. Developing a habit of writing every single day creates a situation analogous to building muscle memory. So even on days that you do not feel like writing, it is still automatic to sit down at the computer and begin work. On the worst days words will begin to flow so that some semblance of productivity can be achieved. Yet, most scholars have so many activities such as meetings, administration, teaching, supervision of students, grading, budget preparation, and other professional obligations that developing a daily writing habit can be challenging. This uneven schedule puts an enormous amount of pressure to produce during those precious time periods protected and set aside for written productivity. For me, I write every day even if I can only fit 20 minutes into my schedule and produce 100 words. It keeps the habit going and words flowing.

Second, identification of the exact nature of the problem is the most important step of any problem-solving process. Putting off writing to address pressing unmet basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, time with friends and loved ones, and other acute self-care activities is often a quality investment that will lead to improved long-term writing productivity. So do it. Moreover, there must be the self-awareness to determine if the problem is burnout or depression. These are extremely serious situations that often require significant external supports from professionals and should not be underestimated, ignored, or simply worked through. Unless burnout and depression are successfully addressed there are short and long-term career consequences; and far more importantly major ramifications for health and quality of life. Identifying other internal short-term states that take away motivation such as waves of anxiety, situational stress, unresolved conflicts, self-doubt and many other factors also interfere and need to be addressed. Once you have ruled out or addressed all of these potentially severe causes of not wanting to work, there remain some times when you just don’t feel like it.

Third, you may not be in the mood to write because deep down you know that your project is not a good one. All scientist and writers tend to be self delusional to some degree. We frequently talk ourselves into believing that our mediocre ideas are valuable ideas. Having a discussion with an honest and forthright co-author, colleague, or other knowledgeable and supportive person might help you to reconsider and revise the outline or thesis of your paper. Sometimes not being in the mood is an excellent indicator that your thinking needs to change. Easy writing usually equals high-quality thinking (or, cynically, your level of self-delusion is extraordinarily high).

Most serious writers have rituals. My preference is for the least restrictive environment. This means I simply walk up to my computer and get to it. My only slightly unusual habits are that about 75% of my writing time is at a standing desk. I use the Pomodoro system where I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes and take an enforced five-minute break no matter where I am in the writing process. This allows me to be fresh and sharp for an entire day without working to exhaustion. Frequently, I use dictation software when I am tired of being at the keyboard. Dictation software has the advantage of speed (140 wpm dictation v. 55 wpm typing), posture (I frequently dictate with my eyes closed while lying on the couch and scratching my dog), and sometimes changing up the mode of written output can be a refreshing change. When the words are still not flowing at all I have a several part ritual: 1) turn off the Wi-Fi radio [no Internet] on my computer; 2) put earphones on and listen to a metronome that is timed to my resting heartbeat [about 52 bpm]; and 3) dim or turn off the lights. These activities allow for overcoming difficulties with focus. But sometimes the problems are not about the focus, they are about avoiding aversive and difficult work.

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because the project is especially difficult or challenging. I write all manuscripts and grants from a prepared outline with completed tables and figures. Usually this gives me a structure to write the prose in at least a semi-organized fashion during the first draft. Because of the advanced organization of the outline and detailed preliminary thinking about the paper, once I write the first word usually everything begins to flow. When it does not flow, then I go through the outline and write the topic sentence for every paragraph within each section. The next step is to write the closing sentence for each paragraph. Then supporting details can be filled in. This process is laborious and much more like unskilled labour than scientific communication or creative writing. As Henry Miller said, “On the days that you cannot create, you can work.”

Most typically I write using the ubiquitous word processing program, Word. But when I have an especially long, challenging to organize, or difficult project; or the words are simply not coming at all, I use the Scrivener program. This program has an especially easy to use corkboard function where you can move paragraphs and topics around in an intuitive manner. This replaces the less efficient note card approach. There is also an excellent outlining system that can be quite effective. When things are really difficult I switch to the full-page view that I have set up with a black background with blue lettering. Sometimes such a jarring change of perspective can loosen some creative juices.

Most experienced academics are experienced writers, if not born writers. True writers can’t not write. They are called to write as if it is an addiction and even when they are not in the mood. Most graduate students have yet to be afflicted with this addiction. Many scientists eschew writing as much as possible and delegate the tasks to science writers or graduate students. Personally, I enjoy and cultivate this addiction. My retirement goal is to become an unsuccessful novelist and garlic farmer. Despite my addiction and retirement plans there are still days that I just don’t want to write. It may be laziness. It may be Netflix calling. But I will buckle down and try to reestablish equilibrium in my role as a scholar.

Or I could work on my blog.

S. R. Shaw

The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School

I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride that are actually signs of an inefficient worker.

“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”

–No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

“I am not a detail person. I am an idea person.”

–Ideas that are well-researched, communicated in detail, completely thought out, and effectively implemented are useful. All others tend to be vague dreams that borderline on hallucinations. Everyone is a dreamer, but the truly useful person works hard and uses detail to convert dreams into reality.

“I am a perfectionist.”

–This is not a positive trait. Trying to pursue perfection is a useless activity that is harmful to well-being and productivity. Being conscientious, detail focused, and striving for excellence are laudable characteristics. Perfectionism is maladaptive.

When I hear people tell me that they are a perfectionist, I feel the need to assess further to determine if we simply are defining perfectionism differently or if their behavior is maladaptive. Usually people mean that they are detail focused and striving for excellence with undertones of anxiety. This is typically a good set of characteristics for grad students. But when they mention the need to be perfect, then we are into a zone where anxiety may be maladaptive. Seeking excellence is good. Seeking perfection is a neurotic waste of time.

“I edit while I write.”

–This is a guaranteed method of getting nothing finished or severely limiting your productivity. Get all of your ideas out on paper. Only edit when you have completed a document or at least a substantial portion. Editing while writing is slow, makes for choppy prose, reduced flow and creativity, and increases anxiety. People with this habit also tend to be perfectionists and have learned this habit while doing last minute work. Take the time to complete a full draft and then edit.

“I don’t want to show this to you until it is ready.”

–I understand this secrecy problem. Some supervisors are extremely judgmental and even hostile to unfinished work. Submitting any work is aversive under these conditions. The best approach is to have students submit work on a timed basis, even if it is raw. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is deadlines. Working to a deadline is more important than achieving the mythic ideal paper. I also find that when students wait to submit their ideal paper that they are crushed when substantial revisions are to be made. The supervisor can make suggestions, edits, improve the paper and move on without judgment. The goal is to develop a relationship that produces a large amount of scholarly material in an efficient manner. Trust between a student and supervisor is the best way to make this happen. When the secrecy issue is fostered we are teaching grad students to be perfectionists and adding anxiety to their lives.

“I’m a multi-tasker.”

–You are not. You can only attend to one task at a time. Many folks have developed a sophisticated skill set where they actively shift attention from one task to another. You attend to the television for a few minutes and then back to your book—you cannot do both at the same time. That counts for radio or music as well. You can focus on music or focus on your work, not both. What we tend to do is shift attentional focus. If you are listening to music and you know what was playing and enjoyed it, then you are shifting focus. Once you are in an activity where you are shifting focus between two things, then your efficiency is being robbed. There is some evidence that music with a constant beat and no lyrics can actually aid in concentration and focus. Classical music is an example. When I am at my most scattered, I listen to a metronome to help with focus. But no one is truly multitasking, you are rapidly shifting attention and reducing efficiency. This is not necessarily bad, but inefficient and needs to be used sparingly.

My wife works from home with the TV on.  She says that she likes the noise while she works. However, when I ask her what she is watching on television, she has no idea. She is certainly losing some focus, but not as much as she would if she was at all attending to the TV. I watch television while working only on weekends. I am mostly watching TV, but get a little work done at commercials. Not efficient and focused work, but better than nothing.

White noise can be a better idea than music or TV. White noise can be ideal for folks who like a level of sound to mask the often jarring ambient noise of your real environment such as construction, lawn maintenance, and loud neighbors. There are several white noise generators available online such as http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/whiteNoiseGenerator.php and http://simplynoise.com/ . One of my favourite websites and apps is http://www.coffitivity.com/. This site plays the ambient noise from a coffee shop. You can even select the type of coffee shop noise from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” to “university undertones.” This style of white noise is also helpful for the folks who actually prefer to do creative work in coffee shops, but cannot get there. I do not understand how people do this as my attention flits to the homeless guy, the hostile person in a long line, and the sounds of coffee slurpers; nonetheless many people do their creative work in coffee shops. The white noise from coffitivity is associated with a place of creativity, which can put you in the mood to work. The secret of white noise is that there is no content in the noise to draw attention away from your work.

Once I learned the skill of unitasking, I became at least twice as efficient as before. Now I do one thing fully focused until completed and then turn my attention to the next task. Not only is my work completed at a faster pace as a unitasker; I enjoy movies, TV, and music much more. And as an extra bonus, there are not the nagging feelings of guilt that go along with such multitasking.

We all develop work habits and there are many ways to be a productive worker. But as grad students and professors have increased pressures to produce the limits of our work habits are often reached and exceeded. What worked as an undergrad no longer works and now falls under the heading of a maladaptive habit. There is a constant need to hone work habits and remove of the productivity robbing myths and habits from your work.