time management

Ladder 1 Rung 3: Reviewing tasks

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.

Please note…

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).


  1. 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.
  2. Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
  3. 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

Let’s go!

Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings

  1. Tasks you completed
  2. Tasks you started but didn’t finish
  3. 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:

  1. A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
  2. 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:

  • Manageable
  • Specific
  • Scheduled
  • Urgent

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

  1. Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
  2. Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
  3. Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
  4. 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:

  1. What time of day is best for you
  2. What working environment is best for you
  3. How much time you can devote to these tasks
  4. How long it takes you to get things done
  5. 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.


Academia, free writing, and the rainbow of guilt

Writing this blog post was an exercise in guilt management in itself.  This month, I’m participating in Academic Writing Month, or #AcWriMo, which means I’m setting myself writing goals for the month of November. I’ve already written two blog posts on how it works, and the benefits it can bring.

AcWriMo is a personal thing. You decide your own goals, and work towards them yourself. There is no passing the buck when it comes to writing. You can’t argue that you were waiting to hear from your supervisor/colleague/cat. That doesn’t need to stop you. You can write about anything. You could even write a blog post on writing.

But for me, that is the problem. I can write about anything. How will I know if it’s worthwhile? When planning for AcWriMo, I tried to set one relatively specific, management goal: To write 1000 words, five days a week. I work as a technology trainer the other two days, and I’m trying to be realistic about managing my time. Blocking out certain times when I won’t allow myself to work is also a guilt-management technique.

To make my goal slightly more specific, I decided that those words had to be related to my PhD, but did not have to be contributing to my thesis. This meant I could do free writing.

So, the goal in full:

To write 1000 words, five days a week, which are (at least loosely) related to my PhD, but do not have to be thesis-worthy.

Turns out that wasn’t specific enough.

I had expected most of my words to be free writing. I had reasons for this (which I’ll blog about on another day). They were good reasons (just you wait).

I imagine you can see where this is going: I feel guilty when I am doing my free writing. And even more acutely, I feel guilty when I update someone on my progress.

“Yeah, I wrote 1147 words today”, I’ll report. But then I’ll feel compelled to add “oh, but it was free writing, so it didn’t really count”.

Because I’m terrified that if I leave it without that embarrassed addition, someone will catch me out. They’ll think I’m progressing extremely well with my thesis. And then I’ll have to confess my terrible free writing sin, and risk them looking slightly disapproving and very unimpressed.

Of course, this reaction is entirely in my head. The #AcWriMo community on Twitter has been unfailingly supportive. I have never seen a single negative comment about someone else’s progress on that Twitter feed. Perhaps I need to teach myself to be that kind about myself.

Sadly, there is no pleasing my subconscious. It is a guilt rainbow. A rainbow of guilt. As soon as a scurry towards the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, beavering away at some aspect of my PhD, that blasted pot moves and my thoughts jump: “Gosh, that other thing is much more important! I should be working on that!”

Of course there is guilt inside me. I try to let it do its thing without upsetting me too much. But academia is nurturing it, feeding it, and teaching it tricks.

Because, and here’s the fun part, if I write about something else for my daily AcWriMo, I still feel guilty. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post, an abstract, notes from an article, a draft of my thesis introduction. And my newly-strengthened guilt sneaks in and mutters, in the tone of voice of an academic questioning your methodology or a mother revealing her child’s superior test scores:

“But you said you’d do free writing. Can’t even do that, can you?”

If you have any thoughts on academic guilt, I’d love to hear from you. Just reply in the “Comments” section below.

Whether or not you’re doing Academic Writing Month, how do you temper writers’ guilt?

Can you set goals and be unequivocally pleased when you meet them?

Do you constantly feel that whatever you do just isn’t the thing you should be focusing on?

Well, that was 669 words towards my AcWriMo word count. Goodness, how guilty I feel…

Four ways AcWriMo gives you extra

Earlier in the month, I posted about Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo. If you’re unsure what that is, have a look at that post.

The idea behind AcWriMo seems to be that if you push yourself really hard during one month (November), and you’ll get more done than you thought was possible. You’ll share your successes and obstacles with others, particularly the Twitter community. At the end of the month, you can go back to your normal routine with increased self-esteem and a sizeable chunk of work completed.

Having created daily (or monthly) goals, we’re feverishly working away to attain them. But is AcWriMo also working for you?

Yes. I would argue that AcWriMo is giving you so much more than just thirty days of progress. How? Here’s four ways…

1) You’ve shown yourself how much you can achieve when you make something your priority. If you really decide that something is important, and devote time to it accordingly, you can make real headway with whatever that something may be.

2) You’ve learned more about when and how you work best. Early on in AcWriMo, I asked whether the AcWriMo community on Twitter preferred to do their writing in the morning or the evening. The results were very divided. I find that if I don’t do at least some writing in the morning, there’s no guarantee I’ll do it by the end of the day. In the morning, it’s easy to make it my priority (as in point 1). As the day goes by, time passes, and things come up. Most importantly, you’ve also learned how much you can realistically get done in one day, and how sustainable that is over a week.

3) You’ve developed a habit. This will be much easier to keep up now you’ve done it for a month. You may have tricked your brain into believing that it only has to do this for a set amount of time, but you can extend that time. And as in point 2, you’ve learned what times of day you need to devote to your task.

4) You just might have become happier. The act of setting yourself work, doing it, and feeling like you’ve acheived something is hugely rewarding. Our brains love reward. And having learned how to dedicate certain time to certain things, you’ll have specific time mapped out when you do not have to be working.

Will you continue your current routine beyond the end of November? Or are you counting down the days until you can finish?

Do you feel like you’re getting more from AcWriMo than just the tangible goal that you set? Or was AcWriMo only a tool to accomplish a specific piece of work?

Do you have any tips that are helping you stick to your routine and complete your goals for AcWriMo?