Overly Ambitious To-Do Lists

Happy New Year!

Last week, I sat down and took stock of my dissertation proposal and data analysis for another major project. I read each section of my draft, considered what the other report required, and made notes about what needed to be completed, added, or revised. I then sat down with my calendar and mapped out what days I’d tackle each task.

Every day, I have been chipping away at my list, but it is going much slower than I anticipated. In the past, this type of realization led to frustration and paralysis. This time, it’s been more positive. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Be realistic about how long you can sustain focus. Writing and analysis are both demanding…fun, but demanding. I thought about what constituted an 8-hour workday, but over-estimated how long I could do writing or analysis well. Honestly, I can manage about 4 hours before I feel D-O-N-E, done.
  2. Sprinkle less-demanding tasks in between more intense work periods. For me, this looks like responding to work e-mails, looking up data online, formatting, gathering resources, and organizing data. Yesterday, I broke up my writing with creating a few tables. I poked around two websites for the data, but it was much less taxing than what I was doing earlier.
  3. Enough sleep is essential. Shocker, I know! Being well-rested means I can focus for longer, even if it’s not as long as my initial ambitions.
  4. Revisit what you have accomplished at the end of the day. At first, I was discouraged by how much slower I was progressing through the list than I’d planned. When I stepped back, however, I realized that I had still made significant headway in my work. Consistent effort makes a difference. Surpise! By looking at my progress instead of beating myself up over “falling short” of my goal, I have been able to stay motivated.
  5. Schedule one big session early in the day, if possible. Real talk: Things happen in the course of the day that can derail your plans. Your child gets sent home from school with a fever, the washing machine floods the laundry room, your boss e-mails with a “drop everything” request that had not been part of the agenda. If you’ve done a chunk of work early on, you may accomplish more than if you’d run errands or responded to e-mails for the first hour or so.
  6. Use the daily list to say no. Recently, I have been experimenting with “Remember the Milk,” an online task-manager/app. One feature includes creating a time estimate for each task. Other programs also include this option (e.g., OmniFocus), and you can do this on paper, of course. One thing I appreciated is that RtM is that when I look at the day’s list, it tells me how many hours I have estimated for the all my tasks. Illuminating! As a result, I have been using the estimates to force myself to be more realistic AND to take some items off my plate.

I went back to the list yesterday and adjusted it based on what I’ve learned in the last week or so. Although it almost doubled the projected time frame I’ll be working on these two projects, I’m more productive than I’ve been in a while.


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