How to stop ‘flipping’ (and write a good to-do list)



At a dinner party some time ago, an academic’s husband pointed out that there are many similarities between being an academic and running a small, not very profitable business. I laughed, but since I briefly ran a small business the comment struck a chord with me.

After much thought, I think small business owners and academics have two key problems in common:

Problem one: There are a lot of opportunities that could turn into nothing, so it’s best to say yes to everything and deal with the possible overwork problem later.

Problem two: Since (outside of a teaching schedule) no one is really telling you what to do with every minute of your time, it can be hard to choose what to do next – especially if all the tasks seem equally important.

Problem One leads to being over-committed, probably constantly. Problem Two makes individual days hard to organise, leading to decision fatigue and fractured attention states.

When Problem One, over-commitment, collides with Problem Two choosing what to do next, the trouble really starts. The freedom to choose among seemingly equally important tasks leads to what I call ‘flipping’. ‘Flipping’ is not finishing a task properly before starting on a new one.

A good example of flipping is half reading a paper before downloading the next one, or opening your email to download a reference someone sent you and then starting to answer other emails just to ‘clean up a bit’. Before long, your work days are filled with activity, but you can’t see deliverables popping out the other end. It’s a frustrating feeling, like you are trying to hold onto a cloud.

These problems start in the PhD, but only get worse when you graduate and work as a full time researcher and/or academic. It’s not really the meetings or the teaching that are the problem for most of us, but making best use of the time in between. Flipping erodes your focus, making each task take longer than it really should, at time same time slowly eating you precious time and energy.

Every time you start flipping you are creating a technical debt that you will have to pay eventually. Technical debt is the time you must spend later because you didn’t do something properly the in the first place. This is a concept from computer science that I have discussed before in relation to researching. Academic work incurs technical debt because of the inter-connected nature of most of the tasks. A simple task, such as reading a paper, relates to bigger projects which are ongoing, like a literature review. Part of finishing the task of reading the paper is processing the ideas it presented and putting them in relation to other ideas and your own. If you only half read a bunch of papers, ideas start buzzing around in no particular order. It’s horribly easy for those unprocessed ideas to turn into an angry swarm, creating confusion, even panic.

You’d think taking notes would help, but in my experience it really doesn’t. I bet you have heaps of notes in journals that you never look at again – I certainly do. The academic attempting to save time just writes stuff they noticed in a journal, hoping that will preserve the thoughts for their future self. We imagine our future self will have the calm thinking space that is eluding your present self, but how just realistic is this? What’s more likely to happen is by the time you sit down to write your literature review you’ll have to spend time interpreting your own notes, which more often than not turn out to be impenetrable.

How do we stop all the flipping? You’ve heard the advice before: make a good ‘to do’ list and commit to it. It’s easy advice to dole out, but surprisingly hard advice to follow, especially in a research context. So what does a good to do list look like?

Let’s take the literature review as an example. A not very useful to-do list might look like this:

  • Read the 140 papers I downloaded last week
  • Write a bunch of notes
  • Write the literature review section

A useful to-do list will break down these large, vague terms into discrete, actionable steps. My friend Dr Jason Downs says that to-do list items should always have verbs in them, like so (some verbs in bold type):

  • Set a deadline for the first draft of my literature review in consultation with your supervisors and/or co-authors. If you don’t give this thing a timeline it’s going to spiral out of control. You will read far, far too much and end up with an unmanageable hoard of references.
  • Look in your diary for stretches of uninterrupted time of at least 2 hours, but not more than four. Mark them as dedicated to your literature review. Do not fool yourself by thinking you can do reading and note taking for whole days. You need time to absorb all that academic goodness. Be kind to yourself, build in breaks and time to do other things.
  • Do a proper, systemmatic literature search. Download papers that look interesting, but don’t get too caught up in reading them. Your purpose here is just to find things related to the topic. Start with your supervisor and then the databases in your area. Keep track of your keywords – they might end up being useful as themes later. If you don’t know how to do a citation search, this might be the time to visit a librarian.
  • Shallow read all the 140 papers you have downloaded and jot down the key themes you notice as you whip through them – by ‘shallow read’ I mean quickly scan read the abstract, intro and conclusion.
  • Start a document with the key themes you noticed as headings. Write a word limit at the top. This document will become your literature review, give it a name and file it accordingly.
  • Make a short list of papers you will deep read. Be ambitious, but try to rank them in order of importance so that you do the most crucial ones first.
  • Deep read the most interesting looking of the papers with the timer on. By ‘deep read’ I mean read reasonably slowly. As you read scribble on the paper or your journal and think deeply about how this paper relates to others. Then read a second time, this time (*** important ***) writing notes using the Cornell template or a Literature matrix to record your thoughts. Both these tools help you to relate your ideas to other ideas as you read; effectively ‘freezing’ your thinking for future self.
  • Add up the number of hours you’ve got left before the deadline. Divide these in half to give you some writing and editing time. Then divide these remaining hours by the time it took you to deep read the first paper. This is your realistic estimate of how many papers you can actually read – almost inevitably this number will be a shock.
  • Based on your estimate of the number of papers you can read, reassess time line. Adjust accordingly. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about the deadline, in these cases you will need to manage your expectations or decide to put in extra hours. I think you know what I am going to say about putting in extra hours. Studies have shown that research students who routinely do this tend to end up struggling. The toll on your health can quickly wipe out the gains in productivity. Be careful.
  • During the times you have set aside, deep read and take notes in the Cornell template or the literature review matrix. Try not to do anything else in those hours. If you burn a session, add in another session and change the timeline accordingly. By being honest with yourself about time lost or wasted, you can keep your supervisor and/or co-authors informed about when you are realistically able to deliver. In my experience, people care less about things being late than not being told they will be late until the very last minute. Giving people an early heads up of a delay is about being professional, not about admitting failure. Give the shame and blame a rest.
  • As you do your deep reading, use the key themes document as a place to jot down ideas about how everything is fitting together. These notes will form the connective tissue of your literature review, which you can fill in with specific references later. Most people find productive academic writing is more like watching a picture come into focus, than rolling out finished text like a type writer.
  • When it feels right, start transferring notes from the Cornell template or literature review matrix into your outline document. At this point you might switch from putting your deep reading notes in a template, to writing them straight into your literature review as you go. This is a good sign the literature review is coming together. Embrace it.

I hope my example of an realistic, actionable verb-tastic to-do list is helpful. I think you’ll agree that following a list like that is good insurance against flipping, but what do you think? Do you work in a SMART fashion, or have you found another system that works for you? I’d be interested to hear about your working styles in the comments.