Tackling Big Projects: The Power of the Done List

This week, I’m finishing my thesis. It feels like a small miracle (or maybe a big one) to be putting the final touches on this project — the longest one I’ve ever started, let alone finished. But I should tell you that I sort of lied in the title of this post: there has been no tackling involved.

How I’d like to take on my thesis.

After many valiant efforts, the situation has come to remind me of childhood wrestling matches with my older brother. The harder I’d throw my tiny, indignant fists, the harder he’d laugh at me. Sometimes, I imagine my thesis doing the same. I sit down determined to blast out a full section, but instead find some trivial inconsistency in my figure formatting, and tumble into a coding wormhole trying to fix it. I reemerge hours later, much as my 6-year-old self did after every sibling tussle: frustrated, exhausted, and confused about how this has happened to me again. It feels like the hours have been stolen from me, along with my dreams of a completed Chapter 3. It’s easy to get lost in the project, which leaves me feeling like my hours of focused work are worthless.

Thesis to my tackling attempts: “nice try.”

Enter the Done List.

The McGraw Center teaches the “salami method” of to-do-list management: break each task into small, specific, salami-thin slices. Splitting items that may take many, many hours (“Write rough draft”) into those that take 30 minutes or less (“Write thesis statement,” “Fix axis on Figure 4”) makes progress seem more achievable.

This is great advice, but I’ve recently run into problems using the salami method on my thesis. One issue is that the number of slices I need is simply overwhelming. And then there’s the lunchmeat that flies in out of left field: new papers I come across, bugs in my code, figure formatting that ends up taking ages. Because I’m doing a lot of things for the first time, it’s hard to know how long it all will take – and easy to overlook tasks that end up being very time-consuming.

So, on a friend’s recommendation, I’ve started keeping a “Done List” – a catalogue of the things I’ve done, alongside the list of things I need to do. My Done List is the sworn enemy of data wormholes and literature vacuums. Instead of getting discouraged that I haven’t checked “finish discussion” off my to-do list yet, the Done List reminds me to recognize that I have downloaded three papers on phosphate limitation. One step towards understanding the literature. Check!

I now write a Done List and To-Do list in parallel, and I’ve found this approach useful for small and large projects alike. The two lists are important for different reasons: my to-do list keeps me looking ahead, while my Done List reminds me to appreciate my progress so far. Even when the steps are small, recognizing the “done” keeps me thinking positively, which helps motivate the next step, and the next. Maybe that’s not how to take down a world-class wrestler (or an older brother). But, fortunately, I don’t have to tackle anything; I just have to write a thesis. And I can do that, one little “done” at a time.

— Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent