Lyn’s research hacks: Managing your to do list

Lyn LaveryWhen you’re trying to complete a research project, keeping a to do list becomes a necessity as you frantically try and keep track of the various tasks involved. However, for many of us our to do lists are viewed as a source of stress and overwhelm, with so many items on the list that we fear they will never get done. Here are some of my favourite tips for keeping your to do list manageable – you’ll be done in no time!

Hack #1: Keep it short

Don’t crowd your daily to do list with too many tasks – you’ll just feel overwhelmed and end up not achieving anything. Aim to have one major task and a few medium-sized tasks each day, along with some quicker jobs that can be easily achieved (I call these my “quick wins”). One method for ensuring that you reduce the number of tasks on your daily to do list is to keep multiple lists – I have a daily, this week and back burner list to help with this. Other people keep a master list of all their tasks and then move items from this onto their daily list. It doesn’t matter how you approach it – the key thing is to find a system that works for you to ensure your daily to do list doesn’t have hundreds of items on it!

Hack #2: Be realistic

Ensure the tasks on your list can be realistically achieved, and when you’re considering how long a task will take, keep in mind that it will always take longer than you think it will! Also keep in mind that life has a habit of getting in the way of us completing our to do lists. If you’ve crammed your list with too many tasks, all of which will take a significant amount of time to complete, you’ll end up pretty stressed when your manager requests an urgent meeting or a student turns up at your door desperately needing assistance.

Hack #3: Know your priorities

Ensure your to do list has some indication of priority – ideally you’ll be prioritising tasks that are important to you, rather than reacting to urgent tasks. Urgency is important – if something has to be done by the end of the day and there will be consequences for not doing so, then it needs to be a priority. But there’s a definite difference between a task that’s urgent and a something that’s important. An important task is one that’s aligned with the research goals that you’ve set yourself – you need to spend time completing these as they will move you forward. If you’re worried about when you’ll be able to complete the urgent tasks, firstly assess how urgent they really are. They may appear urgent on the surface, but often tasks such as this can wait. Secondly, you may just find you have time for both – completing tasks that move you forward towards something that you value is incredibly energising.

Whatever your main priority for the day is, aim to complete this first thing in the morning (or at least before lunchtime). This avoids any panic occurring later in the day if something unexpected comes up. If you have a job where you tend to get constantly interrupted – if possible, go into work a little later in the day and aim to have your first priority complete before you leave the house.

Hack #4: Keep it simple

Ensure that you have a single place to store all your to do items, rather than having some jotted on notes, some in your inbox, and some in a to do app. Whether you decide to use pen and paper or an app is entirely a matter of personal preference. When it comes down to it, whether you use a fancy app or a good old-fashioned notebook is much less important than the systems and time management principles you use to manage the list.

I use Trello to keep track of my tasks – advantages of this for me are that I can see multiple lists in a single place, easily add due dates and labels to indicate different types of tasks, and can move completed tasks into a “done” list so that I have a record of what I’ve achieved. I also like that I can access Trello on my mobile devices, so it’s convenient to add tasks to the list as they occur to me. This of course is just my personal preference though, and I work with a number of researchers who work very effectively with pen and paper lists.

Hack #5: It’s not all about work

You’ll be more productive with your research if you get some time away from it, so make sure you include something on your task list each day that will help recharge you. Head to the gym, go for an energising walk, meditate or catch up with a friend for a healthy lunch – whatever works for you personally. Just make sure it’s on your task list so that you can cross it off when it’s done!

If your to do list is spiralling out of control despite the above suggestions, you might like to register for our upcoming virtual event Research Accelerator 2021. We'll be covering research productivity, Trello, note-taking, reference management and more!