2017 – the year of the ‘to do’ list

Social media folk delight in discussing the organisation of academic work. How to manage time. How to organise all that information that comes in and out. How to sort and select tasks in order of their urgency and importance. How to manage various kinds of analysis.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think all this organisation-talk is very useful. It’s great to share approaches, experiences of software platforms and handy hints for getting things done. But I’ve become interested in the writing that anchors all of this self-organisation. I’ve been thinking particularly about the to do list.

Together with the calendar, the to do list is the basis of daily academic practice. A to do list can be seen as simply utilitarian – it’s a way to organise and schedule the work. But I think there is probably more to it than that. The to do list is not simply a written record or a textual representation of work, but is writing which is explicitly and consciously used to produce and regulate academic life. It is writing with intent.

We make to do lists in an effort to control and manage work flow. To make sure we don’t forget things, to put things in priority order. The to do list constitutes and constructs the mundane and unremarkable, the pressing and the interesting, the unusual and the regular, in scholarly practice.

In her book Home and work. Negotiating boundaries through everyday life Christine Nippert Eng studied the everyday life of scientists and laboratory technicians. She not only observed and interviewed them, but also studied artefacts – she looked at what photos people kept in their office, whether they put their work keys and home keys together or apart, what was on their calendars, how much work-related material appeared in their homes and where and how it was stored and used.

Perhaps not surprisingly, her study’s scientists had very blurred boundaries between home and work, whereas the laboratory technicians maintained a much stricter demarcation. Scientists allowed their work to flow into all aspects of their lives, with books, correspondence and report writing spread all over their homes. The laboratory technicians by contrast rarely took any work home at all. Nippert Eng’s study was conducted pre-social media and ubiquitous pocket technology, and it is probably the case that the academic home and work are even more permeable these days.

The to do list is the quintessential way in which the potentially all day/all night academic work is managed. This is not to be sneezed at in today’s performative institutional environments. The to do list is a way to not only feel in control of the workload, but also to exercise control. The to do list can stave off that feeling of being overwhelmed, of being swamped. Writing down the tasks and sorting them out is intended to produce greater order and orderly behaviour. It can be understood as a self-disciplining technology – a way for the academic to regulate their own behaviour and make sure that they meet institutional requirements and their own agendas.

The list itself is always in the middle – it’s never where the work started or where it finishes. The list can thus be seen as humdrum, as dull and daily.  What’s more, the to do list isn’t intended to be made public. And academic writing is usually public, or on the way to becoming a public piece of work – as in field notes. The to do writing has none of the hallmarks of academic writing. It is not persuasive. There are no citations. And it lacks the criticality of what we usually think of as academic writing. The to do list cannot thus be seen as conventionally academic – yet how can it not be? It addresses the very core of what we do each and every day.

I suspect it probably matters whether the to do list is well organised, or kept, as mine usually is, as an apparently random and untidy set of post-its and scraps of pilfered conference notepaper. My to do lists appear to be ephemeral, fragments of academic life not worth keeping once enough of the items have been crossed off.  But I do go through them quite regularly and toss out those that aren’t worth keeping any more, carefully transferring the things still to be done to a new note.


Post-its =notes for this blog post, pink = to do list, yellow notes = another to do list & ideas for future blog posts. 

None of my lists has any structure whatsoever. They are simply lists – they occasionally provide the last possible date by which something is to be done. By contrast, proprietary time-management software usually provides already determined categories – and almost always a daily organisation. The list says – this is today’s list of jobs and tomorrow I must do them. This daily organisation promotes a fiction about the unending elasticity of time – it hasn’t been possible to do these things today, but tomorrow time will stretch out so that I can. There is of course no time to be had unless it is set aside.

I have been wondering about the possibility of researching to do lists. A content analysis is obvious. A rhythmanalysis perhaps. However, I have been wondering about the lists as more than this, one lens on the changing but continuous nature of contemporary academic practice. What can the quotidian to do list, produced for no particular occasion, lacking in all of the hallmarks of the average academic text, occluded or otherwise, help us to understand about our individual and collective work?

And yes, I’m at that moment when you realise that you’re not writing a blog post at all. It’s another set of preliminary notes for a possible research project…

And to that end I have decided to put all of my usually scrappy 2017 to do lists in one notebook. Not so that they are organised mind you, just so that I can read them back more easily.

Anyone want to join in?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, academic writing as work, to do list, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to 2017 – the year of the ‘to do’ list

  1. wanderwolf says:

    A neat idea. And organizing into one book has been so et get I’ve found very useful. It’s why I invest in a thick planner (multiple spaces for different kinds of lists) every year!


  2. wanderwolf says:

    So et get should read “something.” Autocorrect is weird.


  3. Chris McGrath says:

    Consistency of approach has always been my main issue. I have found that an online To Do list is by far the most effective for me. With the To Do list on both the Mac and the iPhone I can jot anything down 24/7 wherever I am and it will not be lost. Also, as my phone lives with me, I can attach the Task List anywhere, anytime. Paper diaries/to do lists/post it notes lack this level of flexibility.


  4. Interesting. I’m a bit over-organised with my to-do lists (dedicated note-book, weekly review, regularly revised categories), but I’m aware that I might be a minority. Because of the single note-book approach, I can go back and see how they morph over time – not so much at the task level (I still have to take out the bins and visit the library), but at the classification level, as this reflects how I see my work and life. There are times when it almost maps onto the Vitae framework with an extra category for errands (still taking out the bins) and times when it really, really doesn’t. Being of a nosy disposition, I’d love to know how this works for other people.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kim says:

    So far I have found this to be the most effective method for my to-do lists. I have also taken the concepts from the idea of bullet journaling to help track them. Interestingly, while I was reading your post I found myself thinking of the vast Facebook communities around organisation and bullet journaling in general. In some groups the concepts have almost a cult like following that offers people space to be creative but also centred. So I definitely think there is something interesting there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kathleen says:

    Have you been spending too long amongst your Aussie chums Pat? Or just felt like taking the Mickey out of our New Years resos? To do lists?- let me count the ways. For every hat I wear there’s a to do list, and yes these all intersect with the dreaded research todo list. My to do list for the holiday included which PhD material to take. Heaven help me and you!


  7. Jane says:

    I am interested in how to do lists are commercialised. Bullet Journalling is all the go right now. And, of course, they sell the journal. But it is basically a to do list. I have a pad of to do lists- but don’t use it in case I run out.


  8. This is SUCH an excellent post, Pat – as everything you write. As you know, I share my own practices though I don’t actually research this as a topic, but I find much of what I intuitively do at some point converges with your own research. I am happy to share screenshots of my To Do lists if it helps you with your own research! (yes, volunteering to be a research subject!)


  9. Laura says:

    I started basic bullet journaling in a my Moleskine last year. I had separated work and personal in two books, but they’re in one now with a different pen color. Freewriting, thought diagrams, and other stuff goes in the same journal, and the ideas bleed all over each other. It’s been working well.

    I like the idea of to do list analysis, but I need to get this dissertation done first. 😐


  10. lenandlar says:

    My to do list sometimes offers a sense of “you’re doing ok” which I find to be obviously hollow most of the time.


  11. They–to do lists–also seem to provide places where you can imagine action or expand your horizon of activity.


  12. For years, my to do lists were written and then not looked at again until I felt overwhelmed by what I had to do. In this, as in so many other ways, the pocket computer (an iPhone) has changed my life. Now Todoist gives me a list of tasks to do today (I do give things dates) and the gentle satisfaction of feeling that I’ve achieved something when the last one is either ticked off or, often enough, postponed to a new date. It works for me, but I know it’s also like posing for a photo – you straighten up in the hope of appearing as you’d like to think you really are. The digital to do list is like my passport photo: just close enough to get me through the gate.


  13. Zoe says:

    Great topic! I use a couple of different systems – for a weekly or monthly to do list, I prefer to make it thematic (thesis writing, other work, home, family etc), rather than one long linear list. I like to do this on a single side of landscape A4, usually split into columns to make the list more manageable!

    For short term to do lists (say for a day or two) I write each small task on a post-it note, then arrange the post-it notes on a cupboard door in my kitchen; as each task is completed the post-it note gets moved to another door. I like to be able to see the whole list at a single glance, and also with post-it notes I can sort, re-arrange and group them to help me plan my time.


  14. I use wunderlist because a) its free and b) because its integrated into office365. Anything I need to do I can add manually or with one click add an email to the list.


  15. Pamela Mounter says:

    For me the trouble with to do lists is that life gets in the way…


  16. Kai Lynn Dailey says:

    I keep multiple todo lists for short-term and long-term planning. But the most important list is the one I make before I go to bed and place on my computer keyboard. It’s built from the long-term lists (write synth of xyz article) and from the misc. stuff that comes up during the day (i.e. put air in the tires, return call to Mrs. Smith). I rely heavily on this keyboard list, especially when I am feeling overwhelmed and worn out. It’s my proverbial rope between the house and the barn during a blizzard of deadlines. I usually toss those lists when I’ve completed them. You’ve inspired me to keep them this year. I’m happy to share them.


  17. Karen says:

    I use Cal Newport’s Deep Work approach to do lists. His book is slightly annoying and certainly a little condescending in tone but I’ve found that his approach does work for me and I’ve been able to use it daily for 8 months now.
    My lists are kept in a single notebook with a new double page for each day. The left hand page is a wish list of tasks and the right hand page is a schedule with specific tasks allocated to 30 minute slots throughout the day. In the back of the book I keep a list of major, long term tasks and I revisit them about once a week so that I can make sure I’m taking small steps in the right direction. This has made PhD work more manageable and less daunting. Before this I was always deferring large tasks in favour of the quick and easy ones.


  18. I work full time and am doing my thesis part time. This means I have an organised to do list at work so that when I am there, I think about work. However, my thesis to do lists are everywhere, because when inspiration strikes…. However, as a big fan of the post it notes, I quite like writing my to do lists on post its, and then adding them to a kanban board (to do, doing, done). And then, when the done gets cluttered, I put the post its in a notebook. Incase I become a famous social scientist one day and some poor soul will have to search through my endless notes to ‘understand me better’. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I am lost in a sea of post it notes.


  19. Pingback: Inspiring aspirations | The Slow Academic

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