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Open Thread Wednesday: What’s at the Bottom of your To-Do List?

Every few days of summer, I recopy my to-do list to a new page of my notebook (currently, a Moleskine Professional Notebook because I like the page layouts.) Jason wrote about addressing the challenges of unstructured summer time through careful to-do list management previously: he advised making use of regular reminders to keep important tasks in front of you. I’ve written in the past about my preference for physical to-do lists, but I find the very act of recopying is enough reinforcement for most deadlines. The process of re-copying is mostly about adding new things: new commitments, assignments coming in for grading, new meetings, and so on. But the worst part of the process is always when I get to the bottom of the list, which is inevitably filled with the things I most dread. Often these are the great insurmountable tasks: papers planned where I haven’t found my stride; coding projects with tedious or illusive bugs; and other projects without immediate ticking clock deadlines that tend to get pushed back over and over again.

Natalie offered some great tips to makeover your to-do list and included some advice on those tasks that won’t go away: “Is it something that you no longer actually want to do? Is it something that you think you ought to do, but feel some reluctance or resistance about? Or is it something you’d like to do sometime in the future, but can’t fully commit to right now?” These questions are a great starting point, but the next step is deciding how to tackle (or eliminate) the tasks. Once a month, I like to perform a to-do list cleaning by asking a few follow-up questions for each stubborn task:

  1. Do I have to do this? If the answer is no–for instance, if the item is a call for papers that looks awesome but isn’t a great fit right now, or one conference deadline too many–the solution is easy: cut it. There’s no point continuing to be haunted by a sense of obligation to something you haven’t committed to. On the other hand, if you’ve made a commitment to an editor, a committee, a student, or a colleague, it’s not so easy to bow out — but definitely keep this moment in mind next time you are tempted to say “yes” to something similar!

  2. Can I do this right now? Some of the must-dos that hover on my list are the type of interpersonal obligations that aren’t my favorite: answering emails that require reflection, making an actual phone call, or filing paperwork. Facing it immediately saves the act of recopying, and a once-a-month purge is an easy way to handle a lot of busy work in one focused session.

  3. How can I do this differently? If the lingering item is something I have to do but can’t eliminate quickly, it’s usually time for a new approach. If it’s a project with a collaborator, try to switch roles or find time to talk through a difficult problem. If it’s a solo project, try switching to a different phase or evaluate if it’s time for a new tool or possibly an entirely new argument.

What are your strategies for handling those hard-to-shake to-do list items? Share your tips in the comments!

“5/4/2010: To-Do List” by john.schultz is licensed under CC BY-SA

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