Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, is well underway now, so I thought I’d write a post about task management for those who might be struggling. To me, learning how to master your tasks – that is, to set yourself targets and meet them – is a core component of AcWriMo. It is both a key ingredient of success and a delicious and useful output.
It’s all too easy with long academic projects, particularly PhDs, to become overwhelmed with everything you have to do. It can feel like there is an infinite amount of potential work. This can be very destructive to your feelings of productivity – if there is an infinite amount to do, then you will never finish. Nothing you do will ever be enough.
An excellent way to combat this feeling is to keep track of what you plan to do and whether you do it. I’ve written some posts on how to identify, schedule, and review your tasks, but, just to recap…
- Think about the things you have to do, in the reasonably short term, and break these things down into small, easy-to-manage, chunks. These chunks are your tasks.
Then, each week:
- Schedule your tasks into your upcoming week, and…
- Review the previous week’s tasks
To aid this recipe for success, here are some tips with examples:
1. Make your tasks as specific as possible, and include a measure for success
EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading”
This task isn’t specific enough. Do you really know where you’re going to start? Probably not. Do you know where you’re going to stop? Definitely not.
EXAMPLE TASK: “Do some reading on <TOPIC>”
This task is better, but there’s still really no way to know when you’ve succeeded. That task could refer to one abstract or thirty full papers – there’s no way to tell how much is enough.
EXAMPLE TASKS: “Do a search on <DATABASE> for <SEARCH TERMS>” (replace these with whatever is relevant to you); “From top ten search results, read the abstracts of those which look relevant, and select which still appear relevant”
With these tasks, it is much easier to know where to start, and when to stop. You will be more likely to know whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve
2. Make your tasks challenging but reasonable
It can be difficult to judge how challenging to make your AcWriMo targets. Arguably, the point of AcWriMo is to do more than you would otherwise. But setting targets that you are unlikely to reach is bad for your self-esteem and could very well result in you achieving even less.
It’s hard to give examples for this, because everyone works in different ways and I don’t want to work with the ideas of “not enough” or “too much”. But what I’ll say is this:
DO set yourself targets that will challenge you, that you will have to work hard to reach.
DO take into consideration the other things that you will have to do in the month.
DON’T set yourself targets that you will be unable to achieve without compromising your health. AcWriMo is a time for prioritising your academic writing, but never above your health.
3. Review your tasks and modify them accordingly
Last year, I saw a lot of tweets written by people lamenting their lack of progress, and their hope that they would catch up. Indeed, part of AcWriMo is setting targets and sticking to them. But if you find that you’re not reaching your targets, don’t feel like you’ve failed. Think about why those targets aren’t working for you. I’m not saying you should automatically give up on your targets if you haven’t met them for a little while. But I am saying that AcWriMo is a brilliant time to set targets for yourself, try to do your best to keep them, and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. If something doesn’t work for you in AcWriMo, a month you have decided to dedicate to your academic work, it’s worth reviewing and adapting your task management practice.
Are you doing AcWriMo this year? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments…