academic reorganization · job market · new year new plan · saving my sanity

Realistic Lists (& how I have not yet learned to write them)

I love lists. I am the kind of person who revels in writing down to do lists and relishes the bliss not only of crossing off accomplishments, but also adores the slightly skewed sense of satisfaction I get from looking at an impossibly long list. I use a digital calendar in my computer, a digital calendar on my phone that also synchs with my computer, I use Wunderlist, and I keep an analogue Moleskine day planner as well. I email lists. I write them on little pieces of paper. It isn’t just that I like writing lists, I suspect that writing down everything I have to do (or want to do…or feel I should be doing) allows me some modicum of control. I write lists that begin with something I have already crossed off in order to make them seem possible. Indeed I must admit that I have been known to write lists that look like this:

-go to yoga
-walk dogs
-prep class a, b, and c for the month of January
-write article draft
-prep class d for month of January
-paper abstract
-coffee with friend I should see more often
-spin class
-cook dinner
-plan manuscript project
-watch movie
-spend quality time with loved one
-leisure reading
-start writing a journal again

Sure, some might call this delusional, I call it optimistic. Alright, I also call it delusional, but doesn’t it seem some days that these kind of lists that require time machines and clones are the only way that you’ll accomplish all your goals as well as everything that needs doing not to mention the Abstract But Looming Expectations of Others? Doesn’t it?

Last week as I sat down to write my New Year’s resolutions alongside my list for this term’s looming tasks I found myself unable to write either. I have been writing resolution lists that resemble my delusional to do lists for years now, and for some reason I couldn’t do it this year. Why? Part of the challenge, I suspect, is that I have been writing–and failing to complete–these impossible lists for many many years now. Another part of my challenge comes from an increasingly convoluted sense of what actually needs to be done. Sure, I know that papers need to be marked, and I have those upcoming conference papers scheduled, but after four years of teaching overloads and maintaining a relatively reasonable research profile, squeezing in service where I can, and yes, trying to cultivate a rich personal and social life I know that some things need to be jettisoned, but which ones?

So this year my resolutions are thus far just two: 1) be kinder to myself and 2) read more for pleasure

How do you do it, readers? Do you write resolutions? How do you keep your expectations of yourself both realistic and challenging?

9 thoughts on “Realistic Lists (& how I have not yet learned to write them)

  1. Those sound a lot like my lists (which are kept in a Moleskine day planner and in Remember the Milk), although I also have a list for days when I'm feeling completely overwhelmed, which says things like “eat breakfast,” “shower,” and “walk to the library.” Sometimes I just need something to cross off a list, and breakfast might be it. I'm getting better about writing unrealistic lists so that I don't have more overwhelmed days; “write entire section of dissertation” is more likely to do it than “write 1,500 words of dissertation,” so it's also about breaking things down and not psyching myself out. My “goals for 2012 list” is pretty specific, but it boils down to four things: be healthy and happy, loved and loving. It's trite and cliched, but if I can focus on that, I better remember why I'm doing the things I'm doing, and stop doing things that don't fit into that vision of my life.


  2. Melissa, I like your “walk to the library” list: sometimes, I have those days, too.

    And Claire, I think Mondays are often the day for contemplating an eternal return to bed.

    Erin, I'm a helpless list maker, too. I use either scrap paper that I pin to the wall, or my goes-everywhere-with-me Ecojot notebook, or Things for the Mac / iPhone / iPad. There is nothing better than crossing stuff off a list, unless it's creating a list like what you describe as this year's offerings: focused, clear, and short. We did this at yoga last night, distilling our goal for the year into one word. That's hard but powerful.


  3. I didn't think there was a “list-free” option to life. Seriously. I am a hard core lister. The most realistic “list program,” though, is what my partner and I call “20-20-20.” It is a truly brilliant way of scheduling “To Do” items.

    Here's how it works: You take 20 minutes to list the items you want to get done in your day (this takes care of our proclivity for procrastination right off the bat). Include everything (from editing to making your bed — you get the idea). You allot 20 minutes to each task. Only 20. So that's 20 minutes of course prep; 20 minutes of revising an article; 20 minutes of reading; 20 minutes of posting a comment to H&E. Because you work in such short, concentrated spurts, you keep your focus sharp and you don't get bogged down the way you do when you think “Okay, I'm now going to prep for an entire week of classes” or “I'm now going to work on my dissertation.”

    At the end of a good 20-20-20 morning or afternoon or entire day, you have the VERY great satisfaction of knowing that you have made good progress on a number of fronts.

    20-20-20: In one hour, you are further ahead in three tasks! Try it!


  4. I know the feeling about unrealistic lists. It's even worse right now because I'm crafting and trying to run my Etsy shop on top of school (and honours), so I usually have list for both. Although they are mental lists, which I think might let me keep it a bit more realistic, because I can only think of so much at one time.
    My goals this year? Exercise more often, read for pleasure (as soon as school's done!), craft, and have fun with my boyfriend. 😀

    Katie =^..^=


  5. I only ever treat my to-do lists as weekly goals. I have small daily stuff (update email lists, send XYZ, respond to this, buy this) and then weekly or monthly ones with hard deadlines attached (syllabus Jan 15, Abstract Jan 30, Essay Feb 15) and it helps me plan my days, weeks, and even months. When I see something or get asked to do something, I can look at the list and say, yes I have time or no, I have too much other stuff to do at the same time.

    Not that these lists tend to have very few personal things on it (like journaling, swimming, yoga, meditation, etc) which is a bug in my system. It's actually one of the things that I like about blogging; it's something for myself, but it is also something that I HAVE to do, so I budget into my time.

    Does that make any sense?


  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! It is reassuring to know that I'm not the only one who writes large lists, and it is really helpful to see the different ways you organized yourselves. I'm going to try the 20-20-20 system, PhDiva!

    Do you all have specific systems for writing too? (I'm thinking the pomodoro method & similar)


  7. Wow, I feel like I could have written this post! I tend to write ridiculously long to-do lists where I put *everything* on them. The lists give me a sense of control, like you mentioned above. But when I only cross off one item or two at the end of a long day, I just get frustrated. Nowadays I try to make small lists, keeping in mind I can only do so much. I aim for five items. If I get all five done, it's a good day.

    As for your last question, I schedule time at night for my non-dissertation writing. (My most productive time is early in the day, so I reserve that for the dissertation.) I do have it in my schedule, so I know when to start and when to end. It keeps the burnout at bay.


  8. i have never held new year's to be a good beginning for anything substantive..too much pressure. If i have an idea for a resolution , i just start it at the moment of conception. This year my 'New Year's resolution' hit me a few days after Christmas. By the end of 2012 i want to own half as many possessions as I did on that day. So far I'm doing pretty good.

    As for lists, i make them but don't assign too much pressure on the time frame. If i get something off the bottom of the list done i feel just as good as if it were the first thing on the list. avoiding the pressure of self disillusion was on one of my previous lists but i crossed it off.


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