Wednesday, 28 October 2015

5 Ways to Conquer Your To-Do List

(Again, this is another post in response to the prompts from #survivephd15 run by Dr. Inger Mewburn. This week's topic was confusion and we were challenged to write a guide to something that used to confuse us. Since I'm so frequently confused, I wasn't sure what to write about. Until I recalled a twitter exchange I had with Guiliana about the perils of to do lists a few weeks ago. Ta-da.)

I feel as though every article, listicle, podcast, TEDtalk and book about time management suggests writing a to-do list. But I feel as though very few suggest approaches to writing a to-do list because they don't acknowledge that sometimes, just the act of writing down everything you have to do can make you feel more stressed and less capable.
I don't know nearly as much about to-do lists as the producers of those various media. But I do know I get distracted and disheartened easily, and I also know that I am not good at remembering what I'm supposed to be doing. So, here is my attempt to clear up the confusion.

1) I keep the to-do list in accesible, organised place.
I find I need to get my day off to a good start to work productively. Do you know what's not a good start to the day? Trying to locate and then decipher a vague to-do list you made a few days before. This is why having a set means of making a list (as well as a place to make it) is very helpful.

For me, a notebook works best: it lives on my desk and I scribble extra notes as I need to. You may prefer to use a diary; you might prefer a digital tool like todoist.
2) I don't just plan for one day, I plan for at least the next few days.
Most advice I've seen suggests a daily list. Perhaps this works well in daily life, or in a task-focused job. But for my research, I find it helpful to plan out my to-dos for the three or so days I'm in the office. I find it helpful because it means that I can pace myself over those days, and also that tasks can be moved between days if need be. I find it also minimises the time each day I spend writing the list.

3) I make each entry SMART. (But most importantly, I keep it realistic).
Again, I feel like most advice about self-improvement or time-management includes advice for you to set SMART goals. But bear with me.

So much progress in writing, reading and editing is slow and incremental: especially with writing, there is an extent to which the writing dictates its own pace.With this in mind, there's no sense in setting goals like 'write chapter 2/journal article.' For me, this sort of goal is very unlikely to happen because I don't write that quickly. By setting a goal like this, I'm just setting myself up to feel demoralised.

I feel much better if I overachieve on more timid goals, like: 'write 1000 words of my chapter/journal article.' Is this cheating? Perhaps. But it's certainly motivating.

4) I alternate the types of task.
I'm talking specifically about alternating the length of task, but also the energy the task requires of me. Alternating short and long tasks means that I feel more like I'm making progress. If my to-do list just consists of reading article after article, my concentration starts to falter. If I do too many short tasks, I feel like I haven't 'really' achieved anything.

Alternating low-energy and high-energy tasks enables me to pace myself. I find sending emails very draining because I'll agonise over what to write. I find scanning and filing notes require very little energy on my part. Depending on the book, it might be very draining (hi, theology) or energising (hi, gender). 

5) I review my progress. Honestly. 
Despite all this, there are days when items on my to-do list remain unticked. Which makes me feel ticked off. This is the time for brutal honesty. What happened? Was I too ambitious? Was I not feeling it today? Was there some obstacle/block in my thinking? Can I overcome it, or is that just the way it is? 

Only by being brutally honest about why I didn't achieve something does this exercise in writing a to-do list have any value. By noting that reason and making my next list accordingly, I am able to feel like I'm still making progress.

Are there any other list-makers out there? I'd love to hear other people's advice or tips on how they make to-do lists. 

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