Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning to love a To-Do list

I've tried to make to-do lists for myself in the past, with very little success in actually using them.  This semester, though, I've come to appreciate a to-do list that has helped me stay on-task and motivated in my research.

Basically, the list is all of my tasks for the next week, broken down into little steps.  Oftentimes, I find that just thinking about all the things I need to get done for the next week is overwhelming and I don't know where to begin.  Just the act of writing everything down forces me to think about each task, rather than feeling like the work is insurmountable.  Breaking larger tasks down into little steps also helps me be more productive when I have short blocks of time.  I don't waste half that time wondering what I should be doing.

This method is mostly inspired by an old post at 43 Folders that I read in high school.  The post describes a procrastination hack called (10+2)*5 that's pretty similar to the currently popular pomodoro technique.  I used to use it to get through my history readings in high school.  This time, I borrowed the concept of breaking down my to-do list.

Here's how I make my list.  I meet with my advisor once per week (typically).  This results in a messy sheet of notes and tasks for the next week.  That afternoon or the next morning, I go over that paper and pick out each task for the next week.  I pull out all the different aspects of the task, and write them down separately.  I break them down further from there if I need to.

For example, two weeks ago I had to plot all a bunch of data on a single figure.  In addition to the basic plot, I had to include several other pieces of information we had on each source.  So I had to write a program to change the plotting symbol based on that information, and my task breakdown for that code looked like this:

Plot this diagram, XvsY
  • Distinguish type A from type B
  • Distinguish types 1, 2, & 3
  • Distinguish between 6 data sources
  • Plot X vs Y
I leave space to annotate this if a sub-task requires several steps or I have to stop partway through.  In this case, I added a note to fix the symbols for the data source, and then broke the plotting down further (plot type A before type B, add error bars, add a legend). 

Finally, I don't force myself to go in order unless the tasks require it.  I skip around and work on whichever task I feel like, and check off each task/subtask as I finish it.  Eventually, I have to do the ones I'm dreading or that are just plain annoying, but I can procrastinate on those by working through the others.  This technique is all about tricking my brain.

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