Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

We usually think of the development of scholars from their undergraduate days to tenured professor as a journey of continuously increasing content specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. We also think of scholars evolving increasing independence from relying on experienced professionals to becoming supervisors and innovators. These are normal processes that are formally or informally supported through mentorship. However, the ability to cope with increasing demands of productivity may be one of the most important skills that scholars develop and is frequently one of the most ignored in supervision and mentorship.

This is not to say that undergraduate or graduate students do not work hard. My experience is that they work incredibly hard and ridiculously long hours to master their craft. Ultimately, undergraduate and graduate students do not produce as much new material as experienced professors. In addition, my experience is that older professors, with sufficient motivation, can produce more high quality new findings than a younger professor. With experience comes practice and expertise. I have concluded that I can produce much more quality writing and thinking with less stress than ever before. I figure that just about the time I have total mastery of the process, it will be time to retire.

As is typical of this blog, I have no data on this process and this is only my experience. But here are some mechanisms that new researchers can use to systematically train themselves for increased quantity, quality, and ease of producing original thinking and written products.

I am sure there are a lot of readers who do not accept my initial assumption that more experienced professors can write more than highly energetic and motivated postdocs or tenure track academics. Certainly, full professors have fewer monetary or career goals for producing a lot of work. As such, many, if not most, full professors begin to slow down in terms of their productivity on their own volition. For me, I have the feeling that I still have a lot to say and study, but not that many years left to produce. So my productivity is increasing each year and I am finding the increased productivity far easier than when I first started in academia. However, this does not happen by accident.

There are two variables that simply are a function of time in the profession. First, you become extremely knowledgeable of all the literature in the field through accumulation of reading. Students need to learn the literature of the field from the ground up, having to grow from seminal articles up to current studies. Advanced professionals have the theories and important research findings as part of their routine vocabulary. This makes identification of important research topics and questions easier. Second, is simply practice. The writing, revising, editing, publishing, and persistence of publishing papers is now second nature. Most of us have found relatively effective habits. Yet, waiting to get old is not a particularly good strategy for advancing quickly.

Training Analogy

The best analogy I can think of concerning gaining the ability to produce a lot are sports requiring long-term intensive training. Teenagers and young adults have incredible physical energy and strength. However, most of the best marathoners are older — in their late 20s up to 40 years of age. Powerlifters are often older than that. Even amateur marathoners and powerlifters find that they achieve their personal best times or weights at an advanced age for an athlete, most often in their late 30s to mid 40s. They have learned to overcome injury, setbacks, life events, and many other disruptions to advance and improve their performance with consistent and disciplined training. A lifetime accumulation of training and advancement is required to get to the highest levels of competition.

Goal setting. I tell my students that the most effective way to be productive is to be consistent and persistent in production. I tell them that their goals are to write 1000 words on research and publishable tasks and read 100 pages five days per week. Most of them cannot do it. There are distractions, class work, other professional responsibilities and tasks, personal life, mental energy, and other factors they keep new students from this reasonable production goal. No one can run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds on their first day of training. You need to set a training schedule that allows you to work toward goals.

Assessment and initial goals. The first challenge is to determine exactly what your levels of productivity are now. Keep track of exactly how many pages you read that advance your knowledge for purposes of research productivity and how many words are written in a week. Assess over a three-week period exactly how many words were written and how many pages read that are directly relevant to research and this serves as the baseline. I would argue in the initial stages that there should be relatively more reading than writing, because students often are at a deficit of knowledge in terms of full understanding of the literature. A reasonable baseline might be writing 100 words and reading 80 pages per day.

Consistency. Inconsistent performance is quite common. I have students who write zero words for two or three consecutive weeks and then write 8000 words over the next week. I would argue that this is an extremely stressful approach and that typically this inconsistent pattern is due to writing only when there are deadlines approaching. Smooth the work periods into short, consistent, and feasible daily work. Being consistent is the first step towards being disciplined and mindful. The best way to train for a marathon or powerlifting is to have a consistent training schedule with appropriate amounts of rest and recovery scheduled.

Discipline. Inspiration is perfectly fine, but the discipline of reading and writing habits is more effective for achieving your long-term objectives. Schedule writing periods and reading periods. I place 30 minute Pomodoro writing segments into my schedule. I check my schedule, see that there is a writing segment on the agenda, set the Pomodoro timer and go. Also, on my schedule is rest time. Turning your brain off, having fun, and spending time with other people is required to have a quality life, rest, and recover. My own experience is that when the non-academic parts of your life are ignored, large disruptions in your home and work life are sure to follow; just like overtraining can lead to injury and burnout in an athlete. Making long-term gains if you only work when there is a deadline or when you are in the mood is not possible. Over the long term, discipline with appropriate rest and recharging is superior to inspiration in terms of quality and quantity of work.

Improvement. To move forward from your baseline, consistency and discipline are necessary but not sufficient. A reasonable approach is to create a writing and reading diary such as that suggested in Paul Silvia’s fine book entitled, “How to Write a Lot.“ Divide the writing diary into one-week segments. The goal is to achieve your quota of words written and pages read for the week. The following week, the goal is simply to write more words and read more pages. Even if it is one more word and one more page, that is successfully advancing your goals. Nearly every week needs to be a personal best until the goals are achieved. Cumulative gains happen faster than you think if gains are pursued with consistency and discipline.

Advanced goals. In any form of training or long-term preparation, there will be setbacks, discipline will fail, and motivation will be hard to find. Falling into a rut is inevitable. The first thing to do is to make sure that you have had enough rest, energy and attention have been given to the non-academic parts of your life, and you have determined that the line of work you are pursuing is rewarding and exactly what you wish to do. Even if these things are addressed, ruts will occur. In the case of athletes, they often change up their training. So a marathon runner may train using swimming, jump rope, cycling, soccer, or spirited games of tag for a change. Powerlifters may engage in gymnastics, strongman activities, or kettle bell work. The purpose is to change things up and to have fun. If you have been disciplined, consistent, and improving for a long period using the same mechanisms, then you will find that any change is rewarding and fun. The key is to keep moving forward in a positive manner. For a scholar working on reading and writing productivity some excellent activities are to form a journal club, create writing circles, or engage in timed writing sprints. I am constantly in search of methods to improve my efficiency and quality of work. Currently, I use voice-to-text recognition and try different patterns of work. The voice-to-text recognition is something I will probably continue. I find that I can write much faster than typing. I also find that my fingers get sore quickly as I age–so there is an accommodation for the physical limitations of aging. I also found that I was in a bit of a rut with some of my thinking. Therefore, I am now in a heavy load period of production: I wanted to try eight weeks of producing 10,000 words per week. This is now week three: 9987 words for week one and 7985 words for week two. My plan is to reduce back down to 5000 words per week at the end of this heavy load period. Change things up and avoid the rut.


Effective writing cannot be reduced entirely to work count. Obsession with word count could lead to an unfortunate Jack Torrance situation. Writing is a proxy variable for prolific and creative thought. One cannot write a lot without reading a lot of background information, experimenting, collecting and analysing data, outlining and organizing thoughts, and having an approach to contributing to the knowledge base of your field. The written word is solely the visible part of the iceberg. By pushing reading and writing productivity, you are pushing thinking and experimenting.

Relentlessly seeking improved performance is a fundamental trait of high achievers in any field. Nearly everyone I know in academia is a high achiever. And nearly everyone I know gets stuck at one time or another. By keeping the goals of completing a marathon or achieving a personal best lift, training has a reinforcing goal at the end of the journey. Likewise, academics train for managing increasingly heavy productivity loads that will last throughout your career.

SR Shaw

What to Do When You Are Overwhelmed with Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Ambitious graduate students and academics inevitably run into a big problem, being overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of work. This happens to nearly everybody. Becoming overwhelmed will happen, even if you are the most disciplined, organized, meticulous, strategic, and well prioritized scholar. Efficiency is a useful characteristic, but it does not make one immune from being overwhelmed. The ability to say no frequently is another useful characteristic, yet becoming overwhelmed is still inevitable. It happens to everybody. The question is, what do we do when the sheer volume of work surrounds and suffocates.

Most academics are wise enough to adhere to the Linus Pauling adage, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That is, important and productive researchers have multiple projects ongoing at all times. There are additional papers and projects that are somewhere in the publication pipeline and require energy and time. All researchers working at universities also have time requirements for teaching, administration, university governance, and other supervisory or training with students. In addition, there are professional responsibilities such as journal editorship, engagement with professional organizations, reviewing papers, and evaluating grant proposals. The projects resemble a Jenga tower of precariously stacked projects that grow taller and taller. At some point the tower becomes too tall and collapses due to its inherent instability or the presentation of some external event (e.g., illness, a surprise or last-minute project, personal problems). The careful balance of multiple ideas and projects then becomes an incoherent mess of pieces that have buried you in a massive disorganized and chaotic jumble. The purpose served by balancing multiple projects and ideas is lost when the tower collapses.

Once your fragile tower of ideas collapses around you, it is time to rebuild. Even the most organized and disciplined scholar finds themselves in a cycle of building careful to-do lists and series of projects, which is followed by a collapse. Symptoms of the collapse include missed deadlines, the feeling of being spread so thin that nothing is done with high quality, there is no time to reflect and think about scholarly products and process, your day has become entirely about work, relationships and health again to suffer, and feelings of hopelessness and high anxiety are the norm. Rebuilding your tower mindlessly will result in repeating the process of building and collapse until there is burnout and intense frustration.

Step Back

The first instinct for most professionals when they become overwhelmed (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to grab the first task available and begin working on it. Working extra hours, reducing sleep, sacrificing friends and family, and giving up exercise are frequent consequences of immediately beginning to work on a task. There are two major problems with this hard-working approach: one is that as you are working on a task, new tasks are accumulating and re-filling the bucket; and two is that there is an increased feeling of hopelessness as you work harder and harder while falling further and further behind.

The better first move (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to step back and take stock of the situation. A mindful and well-organized plan of attack for reorganizing the to-do list and establishing a realistic timeframe for each task is required. Also consider what were the planning errors or events that created the circumstances for the overwhelming breakdown to have occurred in the first place. These are to be addressed if at all possible. Even when it comes to the overwhelming collapse of the to-do list, a thoughtful and mindful approach is more effective than haphazard busyness. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Long Term Planning

Because there is so much to do, most conscientious scientist will begin working on tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a mistake. This is the ideal moment for long-term planning. Assess exactly what your one-year and five-year personal and professional goals are. Then review all of the pieces of the to-do list in order to determine if all tasks are consistent with professional goals. Items on the to-do list that are not consistent with professional goals need to be eliminated or given low priority.

The purpose of the long-term planning exercise just at the moment that things are most overwhelming is to ensure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply working harder and longer without a goal or purpose can be discouraging, frustrating, and eventually self-defeating. By occasionally reconsidering whether the to-do list matches with long-term goals helps to avoid the cycle of massive to-do lists followed by inability to meet deadlines. The best time to audit your to-do list is when things become the most chaotic and you feel most overwhelmed.


As you survey the rubble of high priority tasks and try to figure out how to reestablish an orderly method of completing your work, you will need to prioritize tasks. The two primary methods of prioritizing tasks are by urgency and by importance. Urgent tasks tend to have rapidly approaching timelines or an expectation of rapid turnaround (e.g., emails, grading). The tendency is to immediately work on urgent tasks first. Timelines are to be respected, but tasks deemed to be most important in your long-term planning exercise must also receive immediate attention. In the most efficient approaches to addressing to-do lists there is always a tension between important task and urgent tasks. No matter how busy, it is always a good investment of time to allocate 20% of your energies towards tasks that are considered important, but not urgent.

Considering your priorities and long-term planning are also essential when it comes to considering which new tasks that you should say yes to and which opportunities need to be politely declined. Declining, then missing out on new opportunities is a common victim of the overwhelmed scholar. There is nothing wrong with taking on new tasks even when overwhelmed, but make sure that these task are consistent with your highest priorities and your long-term planning.


The overwhelming collapse of the to-do list is something like a financial bankruptcy. In order to get out from under the avalanche of impossible-to-complete tasks some sacrifices may need to be made. Tasks with hard deadlines (e.g., grant proposals and conference deadlines), may need to be sacrificed if they are not of highest importance. Semi-firm deadlines such as manuscript reviews, agreed-upon delivery of work with co-authors, grading, and other tasks can often be renegotiated to a later time. The major mistake is to hide from overdue work. Stand up and address each person you owe work to and negotiate a new deadline. Clearly, this is not an activity that you want to do often and it is not fun at all. Negotiating a new deadline date with a research partner, student, or journal editor is far more professional than being late with no warning. In addition, tasks that do not have a formal deadline are often ignored. These tasks, such as submission of journal manuscripts, can be extraordinarily important. Ignoring this writing because your to-do list is too full will result in minimizing your research productivity and will affect the trajectory of your research program.

What Not to Do

There is nothing wrong with increasing work rate. However, all nighters, skipping meals, avoiding exercise, and working with high levels of anxiety are recipes for burnout. Effective self-care is impossible when extra work replaces normal life and this becomes a permanent state of being. There is nothing wrong with high intensity long and hard work. There is a problem when work is no longer productive for achieving goals and work is a never-ending hamster wheel of busyness.

A Couple of Pointers

Even after stepping back, creating long-term plans, prioritizing, renegotiating, and avoiding maladaptive practices; there is still a lot of work to do. Quite often the avalanche of work is due to a personal problem, illness, or some other event that has made work difficult to complete. Moving from no work to full speed work can be a challenge. An exercise to get back into the habits and rituals that are necessary to be most productive can be valuable. It is not too difficult for frequent readers to determine that this is the purpose of my blog posts. A blog post does not take full and intense concentration like a manuscript for publication in refereed journal, but it requires the discipline and productivity skills necessary to jumpstart efficient work habits. So a brief and manageable task is often enough to get you back on track. The second pointer is to create only a mild increase in time spent working on to-do list tasks. Rarely do you ever want to increase the time spent on your to do tasks by more than 25%. Multiple all nighters and marathon sessions usually result in poor quality work and quality of life problems. The last pointer is to fully complete your first couple of tasks in one sitting. Completing a task and checking it off of the list is reinforcing and launches your reboot of the to-do list in a positive direction.


Far too many academics despair when the to-do list becomes overwhelming and collapses into a disorganized and insurmountable mess. This happens to everyone who is making every effort to take advantage of all the opportunities to become a productive scholar no matter how organized they may be. The mistake happens when becoming overwhelmed leads to panic and mindless busyness. This form of work crisis is an opportunity to reestablish priorities and to work most efficiently on the projects that are of highest importance. Taking the time to step back and be mindful about how you conduct your daily tasks goes a long way towards sustainable productivity.

SR Shaw

How not to Suck at Graduate School: Creating a Productivity Schedule

There are many ways for academics and graduate students to increase their efficiency and productivity. Because individual circumstances, both personally and professionally, change it is necessary to be able to adapt your methods to your current realities. Nearly every semester involves a new strategic plan to increase quality of work. Because no matter what the realities of life are, the goal is continuous improvement.

For me, this should be a high productivity academic year in terms of scholarly papers and ideas. I have a favorable teaching schedule, a research lab of motivated-to-produce graduate students, pent-up ideas that did not get written last year, invited papers and a book contract, and a solid base of data to use. I have also decided not to go after writing major grant proposals this year because these activities require a large amount of work with a low probability of success. The plan is to have a strong publication year now that will increase the probability of grant funding for next year. I also have a lot of motivation to keep up with my younger, smarter, an extremely productive peers; and move to a full professor status. Although this strategy may not work for everyone, even for me in previous terms, this is what I am using for a potentially high productivity year.

The first assumption is that a to-do list is simply fantasy unless time is allocated to complete each item. So at the least your to-do list must sync with your calendar (I use Priority Matrix, but there are many excellent to-do lists available). It also helps that I have enough experience to know how quickly I can work and therefore am a little bit stronger at estimating the time to complete a task than I once was. Here are the steps that I use:

  • Fill your schedule with nonnegotiable items. This includes your classroom teaching schedule, scheduled meetings, office hours, classroom planning, and other regular meetings that you cannot escape.
  • For every one-hour of meeting time, schedule at least 30 extra minutes to prepare for the meeting or to follow up. Meetings without preparation or follow-up are a complete waste of time.
  • Fill your schedule with items that are critical to your life. I know it sounds silly, but schedule time for lunch, time with friends, family time, exercise, sleep, shopping, time with significant other, rest and downtime, hobbies, volunteer work, etc. Your work is a marathon and not a sprint. Take care of yourself and your relationships. It is easy to become obsessed with work at the expense of living a decent life. Once these items are put into your schedule, they are also nonnegotiable.
  • Estimate at least two hours per day for flex time. These are for impromptu student meetings, hallway consultations, answering emails, bathroom breaks, taking deep breaths, office naps, and other work (e.g., reviewing manuscripts and reading).
  • I tend to keep a seven-day schedule. However, it is extremely rare for me to do more than four hours of work per day on the weekends. Many academics like to keep a five or six-day schedule.
  • I do not seem to have the mental stamina that I once did. So I cannot write for hours at a stretch anymore. Therefore, I use the Pomodoro system of 25 minutes of full work with five minutes of rest (this is when I usually send out Tweets of frustration @Shawpsych). Then Pomodoros are added to the calendar. I typically have 20 Pomodoro units (10 hours) scheduled per week.
  • From experience, I know that I write approximately 300 to 350 words per Pomodoro. That does not sound like much, but there is much variability. Sometimes I can write 2000 words in one Pomodoro and other times writing comes slowly or the session is spent editing and revising. Nonetheless, the goal for me is to have 6000 to 7000 words written per week. Sometimes Pomodoros are used for data collection, outlining, planning, or data analysis.
  • Now go to your projects. A project is any paper, chapter, book, grant proposal, report, or work that requires dedicated time to complete. I have a gross list of all projects that are on my agenda. There are usually 10-12 that are in my brain at any one time. Many of these are co-authored. I keep all of this information on a spreadsheet.
  • All projects with firm deadlines such as grant proposals, contracted work, invited papers or reports with deadlines, and the like are scheduled first. If possible, I like to give extra time on projects. For example, if a paper will be approximately 7000 words (or 28 APA-style pages) in length. I schedule one week to write a first draft, one week to revise and edit, and one week to let it rest or for unforeseen problems.
  • Well thought-out papers and papers with complete data take about 3 weeks to prepare for submission. Papers that are not fully baked can take forever. Spend Pomodoro time developing your ideas, completing analyses, and making detailed outlines so that writing will go smoothly. I have individual meetings with all of my students. Usually, this meeting time is where our projects are thought out and outlined.
  • Projects without firm deadlines are the hardest to complete and probably the most important for your career. See #getyourmanuscriptout for Twitter inspiration on this issue. Most often we work from deadline to deadline and those papers with no firm deadline can be put off for months or years. But typically this is your most creative work that sets the tone for who you are as a scholar. Place these papers into your calendar of Pomodoros. I typically place one project paper without a deadline into my schedule at a time. When that paper is submitted, then I move on to the next paper and schedule that.

All fields are different in relative demands for project completion. In general, 12 projects per year is a reasonable goal with this model of work. As we all know, some projects are massive and some are simple. I am a no-drama advocate. Consistency and scheduling time for high quality work is preferred to a lot of down time followed by high intensity panicky writing.

A critical factor to remember is that Pomodoros are not free time. When someone asks you if you have time available, consider a Pomodoro to be a meeting with yourself that cannot be cancelled. In a pinch, you may be able to move a Pomodoro to a different time, but do this rarely and never cancel.

This also helps you to understand which requests you can say yes to. If there is no time available to complete a task, then the answer is no. It is always easier to say no, if there is a larger yes on your schedule.

The hardest part of this schedule for many is the insta-author aspect of this form of schedule. If I have a random 30-minute period between meetings, then I can instantly get into focus and write for 25 minutes—and then move to the next meeting. I have always been able to do this. Many folks need to get in the mood and do not bother to work unless they can string together 2 or 3 consecutive hours. That’s okay—I just like to pick up the scheduling crumbs of the day and make them useful.

Sometimes, I do extra. We all know that there will be interruptions, disruptions, emergencies, lack of motivation, anxiety, depression, and other things that will interfere with the productivity schedule. It is going to happen. The calendar and productivity schedule is aspirational. If I am writing and on a roll, then I will keep going beyond the scheduled Pomodoro, if possible. I consider extra writing to be productivity insurance for the inevitable disruption of regularly scheduled writing tasks.

I have made the case many times that the best strategic plan is to have a plan. There are so many techniques and strategies available that the above described idea is probably not the best for most readers. Pick and choose the parts that work for you. Or develop a completely different plan. Have a plan. I know that many people fly by the seat of their pants, work all night, sleep for days, every project is completed one minute before the deadline, and move organically (or haphazardly) from project to project—and many of these people are successful. But these folks are often hard to collaborate with, have challenges in their personal lives, do not sleep well, experience burnout, and have a host of other difficulties. Have a plan. Your sustainable productivity and overall quality of life will improve.



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




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 and . One of my favourite websites and apps is 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.