Planning Series: My To Do List


I started writing a post about my weekly planning process and noticed that my to do list plays a significant role as I plan out my week. I thought it would be helpful to write about what my to do list looks like before I go into weekly planning. [Here are links to the previous planning posts: Start with an Intention for the Year, Yearly Goals, How I Plan My Quarter]

From Asana, to Trello, to Todoist, to good old fashioned pen and paper, I have tried it all when it comes to keeping track of tasks. The one (pretty run of the mill) task organizer that I always end up coming back to is google tasks (combined with a notebook when I can’t input things into google tasks right away). I really wanted to like all those fancy apps, but at the end of the day, I just want boring old google tasks. When I’m not at my computer, I take out my notebook (and if I don’t have a notebook, I find paper) and write down whatever it is that needs to go on the list. Once I’m at my computer again I make sure to add it to google tasks.   

In google tasks, you can create lists and each list contains tasks. I assume you can create as many lists as you want... I haven’t hit the upper limit yet (if there is one!). I currently have 17 separate lists, one for each major project or area of work. Within each list you can structure your tasks hierarchically and create sub-lists within each large project. For example, within my broad teaching list I have sub-lists for each course I teach (I might actually adjust this to create separate lists for each course, as my broad teaching list is kind of a mess right now). Here’s an example of what this might look like for me:

  • Teaching

    • Online research course

      • Course prep

        • Finalize syllabus

          • Update syllabus from last year’s class

          • Do final edits

          • Post on course site

        • Post video for week 1

          • Review content and make notes on what to say

          • Write up notes for video script

          • Film video and upload

        • Post video for week 2

          • ...

        • Waiting On

          • Emailed IT on 12/18 about issue with discussion set up

    • Condensed research course

      • Course prep

        • Finalize syllabus

          • Review draft for final edits

          • ...

        • Create agenda for 1st class

          • Outline major topics for the day

          • Review last year’s agenda

          • ...

      • Emails

        • Respond to student email about syllabus

      • Waiting on

        • Colleague to return extra book

Within each list I like to have a section for emails (as these have a way of getting out of control), and also a section for things that I’m waiting on (so things don’t get lost in the ether once they leave my mind). I also have a section for things that are on hold for that specific project - they don’t take up space in the main list, but are still there where I can see them.

Here are my current lists along with a description of what’s included:.

  • Admin

    • Conference travel planning, random emails that aren’t tied to a specific project, technical stuff (like updating software), anything HR related, books/software I want to order, etc.

  • Advising

    • Mainly emails, forms to fill out, and things to follow up on or figure out.

  • Funding

    • If I’m applying for funding, this is where I stash those tasks.

  • Manuscript Group 1 - 4

    • I have four separate lists for manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts I’m working on are from a few larger research projects that I am either currently or was previously involved with. Within each group there are often multiple papers in the works, so each paper gets its own sub-list within the larger list.

  • On Hold

    • Things that I want to do in the future but can't do right now, e.g., future workshops/conferences, future research ideas, potential collaborations, etc.

  • Personal

    • Anything non-work related goes here. I haven’t been using this list as much lately (I just put this stuff directly into my calendar).

  • Planning

    • Planning for the term, the year, the week goes in here. It’s a short list but is a helpful reminder, especially in planning for the term and year (weekly/daily planning are so embedded in my routine that I don’t really need a reminder for those things).  

  • Research Project 1

    • Each major research project gets its own list where I put tasks related to data collection, IRB, and general project management. Currently I have one active project.

  • Research Resources

    • Similar to the teaching resources folder, when I come across anything that looks helpful for my research, I put it here.

  • Research (other)

    • Smaller writing projects that don’t fit in with manuscript groups as well as manuscript reviews.

  • Service

    • Each committee/service project gets its own sub-list. I also include things like writing letters of recommendation here.

  • Teaching

    • Course prep, emails, grading, professional development, etc. Currently, I don’t have a separate list for each course, although I might restructure this so I do, as this list is kind of a mess right now.

  • Teaching Resources

    • If I come across a resource that I really like or seems like it might be worth checking out in the future, I put it here. Honestly, I don’t often have time to come back and look at half the things I save, but maybe one day I will! And I feel better knowing that I wrote it down somewhere so I don’t have to try and remember it.

  • Tenure

    • Currently, 3rd year review preparation goes here. Also, throughout the year I like to add a “task” when I complete something, e.g., submitted an R&R or attended a workshop or taught a class so I have a master list of things to include in my review.

What I like about google tasks:

  • The ability to create a bunch of different lists for all your projects

  • You can easily check/uncheck items on your list

  • When you check something off it doesn’t automatically disappear until you clear it, so if you accidentally cross something off or realize that you still have more to do, you can easily get it back. Or sometimes I just like reveling in lots of checked off tasks!

  • It gives you the option to input due dates for each task (I don’t use this too often but it is helpful and integrates with you calendar if you want)

  • You can add additional notes for your tasks if you want to include more details

  • You can clear out your checked off tasks and google saves them (not sure if this in indefinite or for a period of time) so you can look at what you’ve done. I don’t really access old tasks much but it’s nice to know they are there.

  • You can move tasks around in different orders (within a single list) or move them to a different list

What I don’t like about google tasks:

  • There doesn’t seem to be a way to easily rearrange all of the lists I have, they are automatically listed in alphabetical order. I’d like to be able to organize them by groups (e.g., teaching, research, service). I realize I could rename them as a way to get around this (e.g., Research: Project 1, Research: Project 2, etc.) but it’d be nice if I didn’t have to do that!

  • The app for your phone doesn’t support multilevel lists beyond 2 levels.

  • It’s not conducive to sharing with others. I don’t care about this right now but could see it being useful if I was on a project with a large team.

During my first year on the tenure track my postpartum brain could not handle google tasks for some reason. I needed something simpler (but had too many things on my plate to realistically use paper/pencil), so I used a virtual paper and pencil: google docs. I had one document that contained all my tasks, organized my major areas of work (using headings and the outline feature so I could easily navigate through the document). In the document I had a list of active tasks, tasks for the future, and completed tasks. It wasn’t quite as detailed as my current google tasks set up, but it worked for me early on.

What long term solutions have you found for organizing the never ending to-do list that comes with an academic job?