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Your Extra-Somatic Brain

Four ways to keep your to-do list under control.

January 8, 2015

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.


How many things are on your to-do list right now? And how many of those things are actually written on your to-do list? Do you have a plan for how you are going to tackle these things, or are you facing a list of vague and complex tasks? Are you procrastinating? Are you forgetting about something that is due soon? Are these questions making you a bit anxious?

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic.” What follows are four tips for keeping your to-do list, and associated panic, under control. I call my to-do list my extra-somatic brain, because it does all the remembering of things, and, when properly managed, seems like it thinks for itself.

1. Write everything down in one place

Everything that you need to do that is not written down is occupying precious brain-space. Instead of thinking about things related to your research, you are wasting brain-effort memorizing your to-do list. Delegate this menial labor to your extra-somatic brain, and free up your own brain for actual work (or fun).

Anything that you need to do gets sent to your extra-somatic brain as soon as your real brain thinks of it. It should be obvious that this extra-somatic brain needs to be a single entity, whether that is a physical notepad or an app on your phone. Otherwise, you will spend your newly liberated brain energy remembering where you wrote your list down!

2. Make a plan

Effective to-do management requires more than just keeping a list of all the tasks you want to do. You need to take control and make a plan of how you are going to accomplish these things. I dump all my tasks into a temporary list as they come to me. Then, when I’m sitting at my desk, I triage them.

Break big tasks down into things you can accomplish in a single effort. For example, if I want to do an experiment with cells, then I know that two weeks beforehand I need to thaw some cells, and three days before I need to prep the experiment. Thawing the cells and prepping the experiment are each manageable in a single effort. By that I mean, I can go do the task and check it off my list.

Some tasks are more difficult to break down, such as “write manuscript.” Unfortunately, for these sorts of tasks you can’t exactly plan what you will accomplish in a single day (or at least, I can’t). These tasks tend to be the ones I procrastinate on, precisely because they’re less concrete. I try to complete a daily goal for the task, and then I hide the task until the next day. It’s important to hide the task when you finish your daily goal, because it removes the temptation to fret or feel like you ought to be doing more. The next day you will be fresh and motivated to complete your daily goal again.

3. Use start and due dates to manage what you see

Seeing a list of everything you need to do is completely overwhelming. Your extra-somatic brain needs to be a good assistant and only tell you what you need to be doing right now. This is where start and due dates come into play.

Due dates are fairly self-explanatory. You have hard due dates, like the deadline for a fellowship application (Feb 2 at 12:00pm), and soft due dates, like when your analysis of a particular experiment needs to be done (sometime in the next three weeks). Some people advocate only assigning due dates to tasks with hard deadlines so that you stay aware of them. Since most of what I do has soft deadlines, I’ve found that putting a due date on each single-effort task motivates me and helps me prioritize. Your mileage may vary.

Start dates will save your sanity. There are tasks that I don’t want to think about until far in the future. Using start dates tells your extra-somatic brain when it needs to bring a task to your attention. I don’t need my extra-somatic brain to tell me every day that I need to thaw some cells three weeks from now. Think carefully when assigning your start dates. Something like putting the garbage out Wednesday morning needs a start date of Tuesday afternoon, just in case I don’t look at my list before heading out on Wednesday morning. Conversely, something like renewing my passport in 2017 should have a start date a month or two before my old passport expires, to give me time to get photos taken and mail in the forms.

4. Review and rebuild from time to time

Sometimes your extra-somatic brain can get a bit cluttered. These are the times you need to sit down and go through the lists to delete tasks, break down tasks, or re-assign start and due dates. I think of these like strategizing meetings with my personal assistant, where I get us both back on the same page.

Some apps to help you along:

OmniFocus is probably the grand master of to-do list apps (with a loyal geek following and a hefty price tag to go along with it), but there are many other apps with the ability to create start and due dates and to organize your tasks elegantly, including: Microsoft Outlook’s tasks, Things, Todo7, Toodledo, 2Do, and Asana, to name a few. I prefer an app that syncs between my phone and my computer, so that I can add tasks anywhere, and organize them on my computer. I would strongly recommend getting a trial version of any to-do software to see if it works as a good extra-somatic brain for you. You can also do this in an analog way by assigning tasks to a particular day or week in your agenda.

Your extra-somatic brain, like a good personal assistant, needs to fit with how you work.

If you want a more thorough and disciplined take on to-do management, I recommend reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.

How do you keep your to-do’s organized? What tricks keep you from getting overwhelmed?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Curious Expeditions and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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