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.

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?