New faculty members are bombarded with a plethora of new duties. Clinical and teaching work tends to take precedence because of their urgency, while scholarship and professional development is at risk of neglect until those tasks becomes urgent as well. So how does a faculty member stay on top of all of these tasks?
Many faculty make weekly to-do lists and day to day lists in order to stay up to date on current projects. I have found that using a structured to-do list is very helpful in getting more done. The list helps me navigate the academic workload and maintain a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Another benefit to using to-do lists is that it increases my productivity. Psychology studies show that by writing down what you have to do, you unburden the brain from worrying about what you need do to and can actually accomplish more (The Zeigarnik effect).
Elements of an Effective To-Do List
So what does the perfect to-do list look like? The most effective to-do lists are written in the SMART goal format, organized by urgency, and encompasses short-term and long-term tasks.
1. Use SMART goals
Edwin Locke has written about setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time bound). Instead of writing, “Finish grant” on your list, you’d write “Complete introduction to grant by March 4.” Being specific in writing the goal helps focus the limited time you have.
2. Organize your lists by urgent/non-urgent and important/not-important tasks
Organizing to do lists into urgent and non-urgent tasks will help you strategize what to do first. Ideally, you should try to delegate non-important tasks because they are maybe not a great use of your time.
3. Have separate lists for short-term tasks and long-term tasks
It is great to write down a few things that you want to accomplish during an academic day. Many people use small pieces of paper so that they cannot fit more than a few tasks, which helps you be realistic about how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time. It is also a good idea to keep a list of what you want to accomplish over the next month, 6 months, or year. Have a little extra time? Think about a 5-year to-do list to help you strategize and prioritize your time.
Paper Versus Electronic Lists
People have strong opinions about what types of to-do lists to use. I have always liked paper lists since the act of crossing something off my list is very reassuring.
There are lots of to-do list apps for people who want a list on their phone, computer, or tablet. (Check out Forbe’s article The 9 Best To-Do List Apps For 2014). I tried an app and hated it. Every time I looked at my phone, there was an icon showing me that I hadn’t completed my tasks for the day. I quickly switched back to paper. But, many people have successful experiences with electronic lists. Paper lists can be lost while web-based lists are maintained online. The key to being organized is to keep to one system.
Do you have a to-do list system you use? Let me know in the comments below.
I have greatly benefitted from the system described in the book “Take Back Your Life” by McGhee and Wittry. The system adapts MS Outlook to create a task, contact, and appointment management process that is aligned with one’s personal and professional vision and goals. But a little more involved than the “to do” list, for those who are ready.