Overcome Academic Avoidance with Action-Item Lists

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“I know what I need to do; why do I need to write it down?”

You may have fallen into the trap of thinking this way. And hey, if it works for you, that’s great!

I find, however, that a lot of academics get into a state of complete overload because they haven’t prepared themselves by keeping very simple action-item lists.

What’s an Action-Item List?

There are many kinds of lists, and each is useful in its own way. A list can range from “100 things I want to do before I die” to a list of reasons that you want to stay in academia (hopefully you have 100 reasons for that, also.)

Here is my definition of an action-item list:

An action-item list consists of discrete actions, broken down into the smallest reasonable behavioral steps that you need in order to finish a project (or even a portion of a project.)

A Peek Inside The Academic Brain

Let’s say that you (or for the sake of denial, the typical academic) have/has just gotten back a paper you had submitted from the journal editor, or a chapter from the dissertation advisor, with suggested revisions. The academic intends to begin at the beginning and just start revising. Unfortunately, for many of us our brains don’t function well in this mode.

Here is a peek inside the brain of our typical academic:

” I can’t believe there are so many corrections.”
“He/she’s an idiot – these are ridiculous suggestions.”
“I’m an idiot. I can’t believe I wrote such a terrible paper.”
“Maybe I’m not cut out for academia.”
“No matter what pathetic drivel I manage to write, it won’t be good enough.”
“Just that first suggested revision will take me hours, no, days to complete.”
“I’ve got papers to grade. I’ll get to it next week.”

The brain of an academic can be a scary place.

How can this typical academic stop this maelstrom of negative thoughts and get started revising? One way is to make an action-item list of the revisions.

Here is how the beginning of that list might look:

  1. Rewrite paragraph introducing Concept A, being more specific.
  2. Check citation in paragraph 4, page 2.
  3. Create more elegant connecting sentence after Concept A on page 3, paragraph 2.

By breaking down the overwhelming, negatively-charged project of revising the entire chapter/paper into discrete tasks, our academic can get over the avoidance hump and start on task number one.

Why Action-Item Lists Work

Why can such a simple act as making a list work? A list can do the following:

  • Make an overwhelming task seem doable by breaking it into discrete written parts
  • Calm you because it’s no longer floating in your head – it’s there in black and white
  • Prove to you that the task will end some day
  • Be a touchstone for when you feel unclear about what to do next
  • Provide that all-important feeling of accomplishment when you put that check mark next to an item, or cross it out!
  • If you are working in 15-30 minute increments, as I often suggest, you will have your work already broken up into separate items, so you are oriented as to where to start no matter how long a break you’ve taken

Make Your Lists More Fun and Useful

Everyone has ways of keeping lists, and for some of us the back of an envelope or the top of a pad of paper works just fine. Others have available software, such as Microsoft Excel or just Word that they use to track their “to-dos.”

I’ve been using a piece of software called Checklist, from TaskSolutions, for over a year, and it has many simple but great features. I like the fact that it sits as a little checkmark icon in my “tray bar” and that it opens quickly. It has a nice-looking white screen (I hate grey pages.) You can color code your to-dos according to priority, have many varied to-do lists, and make hierarchical lists. The latter feature allows you to create the “smallest reasonable behavior steps” that I mentioned above.

In case you are following some of the recommendations that I made in my last newsletter, you might like the timer feature – you can start and stop a clock that times each task. There is also a space to estimate how long you think it will take. This will help you with your ongoing relationship with time.

And Checklist allows you to cross off each item with both a checkmark and a cross out! (What a great feeling that is.) You can then move the item to a special “archived” edition of that list.

For the lower tech among you, you might enjoy the “Hipster PDA.” It’s a simple concept that many people have taken to heart and expanded on. (Warning: don’t spend too much time playing with this!) To get you started, and to give you some sense of how complex the Hipster PDA is, here are the directions from the site:

1. Get a bunch of 3″x5″ file cards
2. Clip them together with a binder clip
3. There is no step 3

Whatever method you decide to use to organize your lists, make sure you add the action-item list to your repertoire. It’s those little techniques that build the good habits that add up to academic productivity and its resultant bliss!


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