How to draw “To DO” lists as a PhD Student

As a PhD student half way through the hustle and bustle of postgraduate matters, I can tell I have been through a steep learning curve. I have been constantly exploring and shifting my working habits to find a better way of dealing with the reading, writing and researching demands. Yes, you might have guessed already that I’m a bit of the procrastinating type (at times). But unfortunately, this is not all, as I can also be the workaholic when I get all the inspiration in the world flowing into my brain. These are happy times, then I can write effortlessly and I have time to accomplish all my goals. It’s an interesting one, mostly because doing a PhD is a process, writing is a process, reading is a process, researching is a process. It takes time to develop all these brilliant ideas, to allow them to mature enough to make sense to other people.

One of the most engaging journeys in my PhD has been the mission of finding how I work best. Still, this is a game of tossing and turning as my habits and preferences keep changing. For three months I like working early in the morning, the next four I’m like an owl up all night. I can be quite good and productive with my writing for a week, then I kind of slack for the next two. If only I could understand that. But it’s a process! I have to remind myself every now and again and keep focussed for the next week of writing or that massive piece of analysis coming up.

So, what seems to keep coming back at me as a working strategy is the good old To Do list. I have been using lists to plan and manage my workload for quite a while. I find them useful as:

  • I am constantly reminded of what I have to be doing;
  • The list is on a piece of paper and not in my head which allows me to focus rather than worry about how much I have to do;
  • Ticking off items on my list brings a sense of achievement, hence the joy at the end of the week J (I stick to weekly To Do lists)
  • I have a good idea of the progress I make by flicking through old To Do lists.

All that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get here as getting a To Do list to work is not always easy. Let’s have a look at my first lists and the most common mistakes I made which actually made me feel useless, worn out and not making progress:

  1. Proposal writing – BAD
  2. 700 words excerpt for Writing group – GOOD
  3. Reading group email and room booking – GOOD
  4. EAL reading – BAD
  5. Confirm attendance for session – GOOD

Vague goals and unrealistic plans are the worst and I have learnt this from experience. They seem easier to set though, things like read or write come up naturally, but they are not easy to measure at the end of the day. They also make it impossible to draw the line, I am a PhD student and I am supposed to read and write for three whole years.

The idea of To Do lists is to help and to make planning work more effective. Ultimately, they are a tool that can enhance productivity and achievement. I will take the opportunity to recap on the SMART goals technique. SMART goals are:

  • Specific: Have you set out what exactly it is that you need to do?
  • Measurable: How do you know when you have achieved the goal?
  • Attainable: Is your goal achievable within the set time frame?
  • Realistic: Are you being practical about the required time and resources?
  • Timely: Is the goal appropriate for the current level you are working at? Is that what you are really supposed to be working on?

I try to follow these points when setting goals for my To Do lists. I am not always successful but always review them at the end of the week, especially when I haven’t ticked off everything. The end of the week is the time for reflection on what went well and what didm’t, so that I can be more specific and realistic the next week

Do you use To Do lists? If so, do you always consider these points when writing them? What helps you work better?


Dimi is a PhD student at the School of Education, University of Manchester. She is exploring the engagement and participation of children who speak English as an additional language as they transfer from primary to secondary education in England. Social media links:@dimi_kaneva); Dimi’s BlogFB Page.


7 thoughts on “How to draw “To DO” lists as a PhD Student

  1. This was very helpful for me to read. I am new to a PhD program and find myself in a toss up between what works best for me: working early in the morning or late at night. It was good to read about your experience. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank You for sharing this wonderful post! I am also a Ph.D. student and can understand very well that how hectic and time taking it is to draft each and every chapter. There are times when we feel like writing, but cannot write because of some uncertainties or we have not collected enough data till then. Also, there are chances when we have everything ready with us when we do not feel like writing, but we have to just because the deadline is approaching. So, keeping a track record of everything is really very important in terms of how much are we done with and what all is remaining, to avoid the end moment hustle bustle. Even I was worried about my work as things were getting entangled and messy but luckily I came across and right after 2-3 conversations things started going right and as I wanted.

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