The To Do List

Last month I wrote a few posts about time, the PhD and habits; while my own habits now are aimed at me being productive in my current work, I can’t help but think back to my PhD – and I wonder if some of the little experiments that I’ve done in the last few months might be of interest to postgrads? Over the next few days I guess we’ll find out!

Making a List…

During most of my PhD I was a to do list devotee. I had one every day. I would load up a sheet of paper at the start of each week with the things that I wanted to do, and each day would choose – like choosing from an a la carte menu. I would write down the people who I needed to correspond with, the outcomes I was aiming for, make a note of specific appointments that I had on each day. It was great to feel so busy, I was doing lots of work.

Except I wasn’t very productive.

Which is crazy, right? I could show you evidence of all of the things that I was doing, and yet I wasn’t actually producing all that much. I was crossing a dozen or more things off my list every day, and yet there were always things left undone, and there were always more tasks coming up. Now you could say that this is all part and parcel of the PhD – and to an extent you would be correct – but still, what was going on? How could I be churning through tasks but producing very little?

Reasons and/or Excuses

  • I didn’t pick my battles well. When I looked at the tasks that were being completed, they were all little things. Email X or Correct Y. Little tasks that were undemanding, which took no more than half an hour or so. I was working on more demanding things, but they were never finished, or not often.
  • I carried things over from day to day. Which is sensible on the face of it; if you didn’t read that paper on Monday, then you would still have to do it on Tuesday. However, when the paper is carried over to Wednesday’s list, then Thursday’s and so on you realise…
  • …I was just letting tasks drift. Until I found a pile of old to do lists one day and realised that there were many of the same non-recurring tasks on them and they were from THREE MONTHS AGO!
  • I was unrealistic. My focus may have been on shallow work rather than deep work, but at this time there was too much of either on my to do lists; there simply weren’t enough hours in a week.

Sound familiar?

I’ve spoken to lots of PGRs over the last few years and on more than a few occasions I’ve heard similar tales. There is lots of advice on the internet about being productive and managing projects – and I’ve shared a bit on this blog already – but over the next few days I want to do something different. I want to tell you about some experiments that I’ve run for my own productivity – in essence, how I’ve tried to hack my own work routine with deliberate interventions – and what happened. I hope that with some ideas of what I’ve done for myself, and how I found out, you might be encouraged to try things for yourself. The important thing is to try something, record how well it worked, and see what you might do differently next time.

See you tomorrow, when I share some ideas about upgrading the to do list!

Thanks for reading šŸ™‚

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

PS ā€“ please take a look at my Patreon campaign for the Viva Survivors Podcast!

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