Ladder 1 Rung 1: Identifying tasks

Last month, I published a blog post on how I’ve been trying to make my PhD more like a video game. Since the beginning of Academic Writing Month (November 2012), I’ve been trying some techniques to achieve this goal. I’ve decided to blog about each technique I try, and about the steps involved in each technique. To minimise confusion over the difference between techniques and steps, I’m branding the techniques as ‘ladders’ and the steps as ‘rungs’. This reminds me of the ladders in early Donkey Kong, and in Zelda, so it fits with the video game theme. I’m planning to write one blog post per rung (or step). Several posts will make one ladder (technique)

In Ladder 1, I’ll be talking about how I’ve worked on identifying tasks, scheduling them, and reviewing my progress. It sounds like a standard part of self-directed work, but it’s not one I’ve perfected yet. It’s easy to pretend that tasks will identify and schedule themselves, and that everything will fall into place. However, allowing that to happen means that you never get the satisfaction of completing a task or achieving a goal, because you never really specified one in the first place.

There will be 3 rungs in ladder 1:

Rung 1 – Identifying tasks

Rung 2 – Scheduling tasks

Rung 3 – Reviewing progress

You might notice that there’s no rung for actually completing the task. For now, I’ll leave that to you. This ladder is more about setting things up so that you have prepared a situation where it’s possible, maybe even fun, to complete the tasks.

Today, we’re working on Rung 1 – Identifying tasks (and increasing the likelihood that you’ll do them). I’m using the word “task” to mean something you can do, rather than “goal” which suggests a more abstract intention.

For this, I usually use Scrivener (which I’ve already blogged about very briefly), but you can use anything that allows you to write words (including a pad of paper and a pen).

This part is less like a video game, because the tasks/achievements are often decided for you in a video game. Identifying tasks can take different forms for different people. For me, it’s a mixture of free writing and to-do lists. After reviewing my first week or two of tasks (which will be covered in Rung 3), identifying new ones became much easier.

I use Scrivener because 1) It’s where I do most of my writing, 2) I can tag things and I can use keywords. It’s pretty great for that, and 3) I can keep track of word count and set targets (although I can also keep track of my word count on the PhDometer, which I’m using just now).

Here’s a few ways you can identify tasks:

1) Free write using pen/paper, Scrivener, or another word processor

Write about what you need to do next. Write about what you’re worried about. Write about your unanswered questions. Those things which are niggling at the back of your mind. And either as you go, mark out things which will become tasks. With paper, you can highlight.

With a word processor, like Scrivener, you can bold or underline. I’ll bold and underline, prefaced by the word TASK. So it’ll look something like this:

I’m a bit worried about my study because I really want to check this one thing and I think Alex might know but I’m not really sure and I should prbably just ask him really (there are usually lots of typos in my free writing, so I’m keeping it authentic. This is a reminder not to self-edit during free writing).

TASK: Email Alex about the thing

That’s easy to find within the document. I can either search for “task:”, or I can come back and just scan the page.

Another way to identify a task is to:

2) Write a to do list

You can do this again on pen/paper/a task management app/a computer somewhere else. I’m going to talk about task management apps in Rung 2, so for now I’ll stick to a writing approach, whether it be on paper or on a word processor. I’ll be using Scrivener.

To do lists are like shopping lists – just because you put something on there doesn’t mean you’ll actually do it. You might have written “a pony” on your parents list when you were younger, but that doesn’t mean they’d buy one for you on their weekly shopping trip.

So write your to do list. And then pick from there what you really think you can get done in a week. You’ll get better at this with practise (which is why practising is such a good idea!).

Once you’ve identified your tasks, have a look at them. How specific are they? How will you know whether you’ve completed them? When I write up my tasks for the coming week (before or after scheduling them, it doesn’t matter), there are a few things I like to include:

Name of the task: i.e.Write a draft for a blog post on identifying tasks

The name is pretty important. Make it as specific as possible.

Dependencies: None

It’s good to know if this task is dependent on another task. If it is, make sure that task is listed and prioritised.

Measure for success: 1000 saved as draft on WordPress or written on Scrivener on the subject of identifying tasks.

This is my favourite one. I started using it when doing one of my weekly reviews (to be covered in Rung 3). I’d realised my tasks weren’t specific enough, and I needed a way to improve that. My tasks were along the lines of “check literature for info on X”. There was no way to tell if I’d succeeded. In that case, I’d looked on Google, and at articles, for an hour or so but hadn’t found anything useful. So technically, I had succeeded. But I didn’t feel like I had. So instead, I needed to know what success would look like: “Spend 30 minutes on a search engine looking for X”, or “identify 5 articles that cover X”, although the latter is still a bit ambiguous. This is something I’m still working on. It’s more challenging than I thought it would be…

And this is where the next (and final) item comes in:

Backup plan: 100 words written about main message of next blog post (as above)

This is the thing you want to have done, even if you didn’t have time to do the full task, or it wasn’t possible, or it wasn’t specific enough. In this case, it might be (if 5 articles can’t be identified): “Email <insert name of someone who might know>”, or “Look at 5 staff profiles in <insert name of university department> and identify those with experience in X”, or “ask supervisor”, or “identify search terms to use later”, or “read one article and find refs from that”. Make it small and doable. This is your safety net. Mine still need to be more specific.

So, if you’ve done this, you’ll have a list of tasks, with headings for dependencies, measures for success, and contingencies. Make the list as long as you think you can/need to do in a week. Part of this process is learning how much you can get done, and how much you can ask yourself to do while maintaining your health and a life outside academia.

Next time – Rung 2 – scheduling these tasks.

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