In this “ladder” (or series) of blog posts, I’m talking about how I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game. I have always responded well to structured, achievable tasks, and the lack of these has been really difficult for me during my PhD so far.
This ladder is looking at the short bursts of achievement that video games can give you. As such, the focus is identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks. There are 3 “rungs” (or steps) to the ladder, with one blog post for each rung.
In the first rung, I talked about how to identify tasks using to do lists and free writing.
The second rung covered how to schedule those tasks, whether using a pad of paper, a diary or calendar, or a task management app like Producteev.
In this, the third rung, I’ll be discussing how to review your progress with the tasks you set.
After the first and second rungs (where you’ll have identified and scheduled your tasks), you need to actually attempt the tasks you’ve set. I would usually set tasks for one week, and set a time at the end of the week to review the past week and identify and schedule tasks for the next week.
So to make full use of this post, it’s a good idea if you’ve already identified, scheduled, and attempted your first set of tasks (say, a week’s worth).
- Do you have your list of tasks, and the times you scheduled them for? I tend to have these in a file in Scrivener from when I was identifying and scheduling the tasks.
- Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
- Do you have a way of writing things down? I use Scrivener for this too, because it means that it’s easy for me to have my “identify” and “review” files open next to each other using “split view”, and refer to both
Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings
- Tasks you completed
- Tasks you started but didn’t finish
- Tasks you didn’t start
For each of the tasks you’d identified and scheduled for the week, choose which heading fits best. Then, write the task under that heading with a gap between each task (you’ll be writing more in those gaps).
Have you done that for all of your tasks?
Next, under each task write:
- A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
- Why you think you managed to/didn’t manage to complete it.
For me, point 2 is the most important part of this rung, and one of the most important parts of the whole ladder.
Look at your reasons for completion or lack thereof. Are there any themes within the headings? Write them down!
To give you an idea, I’m going to share some of the patterns from my first review session.
1) Tasks you completed
Things tended to get done if they were:
In my first week (and in following weeks), most of my completed tasks were done during a writing session with a friend. That’s one session in the week. If this working pattern sounds familiar to you, I highly recommend this blog post from the Thesis Whisperer.
It’s easy to view the rest of the week as a failure, or write-off, but instead I’m trying to try and focus on the achievement of that one very productive session, and to figure out how to replicate it
2) Tasks you started, but didn’t finish
This mainly happened with tasks where the criteria for completion were unclear. I started using the “measure for success” heading when identifying tasks as a way of combatting this problem.
3) Tasks you didn’t start
With me, these were mostly because I was ill or tired, or other things came up. “Tasks I didn’t start” seemed to be due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s also possible to have a high amount of tasks in this list if you overestimated the amount of time you’d have, or underestimated the time it would take you to do the tasks.
Once you’ve done that, think about ways you might replicate the conditions that helped you to complete these tasks. If you’re interested in the idea of improving a situation by embracing the positive rather than banishing the negative, appreciative inquiry is a research approach that draws on this. As my research focuses on improving healthcare, I’m also including this abstract for a paper which uses appreciative inquiry in a healthcare context.
In my first review session, mine were
- Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
- Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
- Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
- Have contingency plans in place (this and the previous bulletpoint were addressed by adding the “measure for success” and “backup plan” headings in the identification phase)
If you review your tasks each week, and schedule the next batch of tasks at the same time, you’ll start to get a good idea of:
- What time of day is best for you
- What working environment is best for you
- How much time you can devote to these tasks
- How long it takes you to get things done
- What stops you from getting things done
And that’s the end of this ladder. Well done, you reached the top!
I’d really like to write more posts on improving productivity by taking hints from video games. If you have any requests or ideas, please let me know in the comments section. You can also use the comments section to say nice things, let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful, or if you have any suggestions.