todo lists

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).

Ready?

  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.

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Ladder 1 Rung 2: Scheduling tasks

Last time: Identifying tasks

For an introduction to the idea I’m trying out, have a look at this blog post. In short, I’m attempting to make my PhD more like a video game by creating short, manageable, but challenging tasks to promote a sense of achievement. Each technique I do will be referred to as a “ladder”, with the individual steps branded as “rungs”.

This is Ladder 1: Identify, schedule and review.  There are 3 rungs to this ladder, with one blog post for each.

In my last post, I talked about how to identify tasks (rung 1). In this post, I’m looking at how to schedule those tasks (rung 2). In the next post, I’ll be reviewing the tasks (rung 3). In between rungs 2 and 3 you actually have to do the tasks. There’s no post for that.

Ready? (Software…)

For rung 2, I’ll be using the task management software Producteev. There are a lot of task management applications out there, but I’ve chosen Producteev for several reasons:

1) It’s usable on anything that accesses the web (via a website) and there are apps for Windows,Mac, iPhone and Android. This means I can use it on my laptop, my phone, and my tablet.

2) It’s free for individual users (you can pay to use it for teams)

3) It has features I like: I can schedule things and view them on a calendar; I can tag tasks with labels; I can email tasks to Producteev; I can capture webpages to Producteev using a neat capture tool.

You can use whatever task manager you like, including a pen and pad of paper. I hear “diaries” are particularly good versions of pads of paper for task management and scheduling.

Let’s go!

From the last blog post, you should have already identified some tasks that need to be done (if you need help with this, look here).

Gathering your information…

The next step is to figure out how much time you have this week to devote to your task list. Look at your diary, or your calendar, or wherever you’ve listed things you have scheduled. And then use that information:

1) What are your “working hours” for these tasks? If they’re Monday to Friday, 9 – 5, then you know that the maximum hours you have are 40. But you can’t work solidly all that time, can you? So take out an hour for lunch each day. That’s 35. Then there are breaks. Factor those in. Everyone works differently. I work in bursts, so the 9-5 thing doesn’t actually work for me. Now you’ve calculate the maximum time you have to spend.

2) What do you already have scheduled? If you have a meeting at 10 on Tuesday morning, what does that mean for the rest of your day? Be realistic…

– Can you do any work before the meeting? Could you arrive early and get some work done first? Could you work at home before you leave? Or is it better just to write off that time?

– When can you start work again? If the meeting lasts an hour, do you want to get going straight away? Do you need to clear your head first? Or eat? If it’s a stressful meeting, maybe it’d be good to do some exercise or have some downtime. You’ll work better afterwards.

3) Look at what you have left, and write down the segments of time where you realistically think you can get work done. Make sure the times listed are actually times you will be in position to work. Not the time your meeting finishes until the time you’re meant to be at the cinema.

You’ll do this again and again when you review your progress and identify your next set of tasks. And you’ll quickly begin to develop an idea of how long it takes you to get stuff done –  an excellent by-product of managing your time this way.

Putting it all together…

By this point, you should have your list of tasks, and a list of times when you can do the tasks. Last time we talked about “dependencies” (i.e. a whether you need to do one task before you can do another). I’m only going to give one task a dependency for this post, to make things as simple as possible. The other headings we used in the last post are more useful for completing and reviewing the tasks.

Here’s an example of tasks and available times…

Tasks:
a) Read <name of paper> on <name of subject area> [b) IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
b) Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON a)]
c) Email <name> about <interesting thing>
d) Draft blog post on <something you write about>
e) Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
 
Available time:
Monday, 9 – 12
Tuesday, 2-5
Wednesday, 9-12
Thursday, 2-5
Friday, 9-12

Finally, you need to slot the tasks into the available time slots. You can make this as fun as you choose. One option is to write the tasks on post-it notes and write the time slots on bigger pieces of paper. Then put the post-its on the bigger pieces of paper. Another is to write the task list on one side of a piece of paper, and the time slots on the other. Use arrows to connect them.

You’ll end up with something like this:

Monday, 9 – 12 – Read on [TUESDAY TASK IS DEPENDENT ON THIS]
Tuesday, 2-5 – Write up notes from <paper>, with particular reference to <super relevant part of paper> [DEPENDENT ON MONDAY TASK]
Wednesday, 9-12 – Draft blog post on <something you write about>
Thursday, 2-5 – Write 1000 words on <a concept that’s important to your thesis>
Friday, 9-12 – Email <name> about <interesting thing>, review this week and plan next week
Don’t forget to schedule in time to review the week, and to plan the next one.

Then pop those tasks into your diary or calendar. If you use Producteev, you can use their inbuilt calendar, combining the process of creating a to do list and noting the tasks in your diary . You can do something similar with Gmail and Google Tasks. If you use Gmail for your calendar this may be more convenient, but I prefer the feature set of Producteev.

Video game creators can spend lots of time figuring out how easy or difficult to make each task, and that’s a big part of what makes you want to continue playing a game. If the level is wrong, then it’s boring: too easy and the achievements mean nothing, too hard and the achievements are too rare.

So the big challenge to this rung of the ladder is making your achievements challenging but doable.

Every time you review a week, your next plan will be adjusted to take into account how easy or difficult your tasks were. You’ll be learning how much you can ask yourself to do. But that’s for the next post…

Note: This is very much a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for improvement, stories or tips to share, or nice things to say, I’d love to hear about them below. Leave a comment!

Next time: Reviewing tasks