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Five ways to fix your unrealistic to-do list

It’s a few weeks into the semester and you might feel as if you’re already behind. There was a project you wanted to finish, but somehow you didn’t. You feel disappointed and discouraged. If you’re already behind, how will you achieve all the goals you’ve established for the semester?

You may have grand plans to start this year off better than the last. Your intention is to make up for all the work you didn’t complete in December, and then some. For academics, we not only have a new year, but a new semester – a fresh start on multiple counts.

It’s natural that you’d want to establish some ambitious goals. The danger, however, is that these goals don’t fit into the reality of your workday. When you create unrealistic expectations, you set yourself up for failure.

There’s a lot of productivity advice claiming that you can always find more time. The consequence of listening to this advice is that we sometimes think that we can squeeze out just a little bit of additional work, no matter the circumstance. In these days of shrinking budgets and increasing obligations, everyone is expected to do more. To write more, to teach more, to sit on more committees – the list goes on. What we don’t have more of is time.

It’s easy to make a list of all the tasks you feel pressured to complete. That inventory of obligations cannot be your to-do list. Instead, your to-do list must reflect what you can really achieve.

Making a better to-do list.

There are five principles you should keep in mind when creating your to-do list. While I believe the first principle below is the most important, the rest are presented in no particular order.

Be honest with yourself.

Here’s the truth: you can’t complete everything. That means you need to be honest about what your capacity for work is, what you’re willing to put on the back burner (and when), and what you’re willing to give up – even if temporarily.

Set boundaries.

Treat the time you do have with respect. Don’t multitask. Keep your office door closed. Let students know you aren’t available twenty-four hours a day. Giving your work the attention it deserves means you will do a better job because you’re more focused – and you might even complete it faster!

Say no.

Are you over committing? We say yes in ways both large and small on a daily basis. We might accept meetings outside of office hours, allow a colleague to engage us in a long conversation during our writing time, or use social media to procrastinate. Many of my clients hesitate to say no, for fear they’ll be considered difficult. I remind them that by saying no to distractions and unreasonable requests, they can say yes to their writing.

Decide on a pace.

Be realistic about what you can get done. Think about your past progress and use it to predict your future progress. We should all have a sense of whether we are slow or fast writers. If you don’t have a sense, then start tracking your progress – use a timer and document how long it takes you to make an outline, write an introduction, write an entire first draft, etc. Use that information to revise the deadlines you have set for yourself. This principle helps you to fulfill the first principle of being honest with yourself.

Schedule according to the peaks and valleys in your semester.

There are times during the semester when you will be incredibly busy – midterms, graduate student recruitment time, when you’re interviewing candidates for a faculty position, etc. It’s important to take account of these times and put them in your calendar, because you’ll have to be strategic about what else you can complete. Your priorities will change week by week, and that’s OK! Some weeks your goal might be to finish grading a stack of papers. Other weeks, you may have writing as a priority. Some of these decisions concerning what to prioritize are made for you due to the structure of the semester. Being mindful of the ebbs and flows will give you clarity around what to prioritize in your goal-setting process.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re in charge of your to-do list, not the other way around. Rather than thinking of it as a burden, use it to temper your expectations and gain confidence in your ability to see projects through to completion on a timeline that works for you.

Jane Jones

Jane Jones, PhD is a developmental editor and writing coach. She has worked with scholars at all stages of their careers to develop better writing habits, bring their projects to completion, and publish work that they’re proud of. Her clients have published with presses including Oxford Press, University of California Press, and University of Chicago Press. You can find her at or on Twitter @janejoann.