Checklists for the Academic Grind

With all the preparatory discussion of Getting Things Done out of the way, here are a variety of work-related projects and tasks that I use in Pocket Informant, most of which can be reused regularly. These are largely glorified checklists, which, recent research has shown, are extremely useful. Even experts (like experienced doctors and pilots) benefit from them when time is short and focus is too easily distracted. Remember that the point of these GTD-themed task checklists is to do all of the thinking about the process once, when you make the list (though you can obviously revise it). So GTD checklists should be slightly different from “trigger” lists (lists of things that trigger you to remember other things), in that the GTD tasks should be explicit physical actions. This way you don’t have to reconstruct the process every time, usually right before the thing is due. You don’t have to, for example, spend the mental energy (as small as it might be – it adds up) to remember what exactly you’re supposed to do with the ‘receipts’ entry on that list. These lists are made even more useful with additional metadata à la GTD, and the ability to integrate them into your calendar.


But first some clarification about multiple-item projects as they’re currently implemented in Pocket Informant. Projects are outcomes made up of one or more tasks, though PI tasks don’t necessarily need to be assigned to a project (you can still track them via the Context or Tag lists, assign them due dates…). Pocket Informant doesn’t allow you to record much info about Projects in the GTD setting: you can’t record metadata like tags or contexts, nor can you duplicate the project or make it into a template. The tasks are the main items that store metadata.

So there are three choices if you want to track multi-task things in PI: either a) make a Project with associated tasks, or b) make a single checklist task, or c) make a series of tasks, assign one of them as the parent task and the others as the children tasks. Which is best? Depends on what you want to do. The key, as with all database software, is to match the software’s metadata features with your needs. So if we want to make a bunch of tasks replicable (either as a template or by easily duplicating them), we should use either a checklist task or parent-child tasks. So then we ask if there is some other criteria that encourages us to choose b) or c). After a minute of thought, we realize that the main limitation of the checklist task compared to parent-child tasks is that all of the items in the checklist task are within that single task. Logically, this means then that if you need some of the sub-tasks to be performed in different contexts/tags/actions or due dates, only parent-child tasks will suffice. So a checklist task with several subtasks might look like this:

Single checklist task

Single checklist task

The parent-children tasks (each with a separate tag and context), on the other hand, would look like this:

Parent-Children Tasks

Parent-Children Tasks

So give some thought to what exactly you want to do with your software, and how you can use its features to maximize the app’s flexibility and power. But now back to our regularly-scheduled program…


Teaching requires all sorts of administrative, pedagogical, and support tasks. And these tasks will expand to consume all of your free time if you let them. So you might as well write ’em down and tame the beasts.

Prepare for Semester

Perhaps you want a well-stocked work office, in which case it likely needs a’- stocking come late August. All sorts of things you should think about before the semester begins include:

  • Get office key – assuming the locksmiths are even around. ;(
  • Set up login passwords
  • Coordinate installation of software on office computer
  • Check out your assigned classrooms
    • Confirm any special software is installed on classroom computer
    • Confirm computer/projector in your classroom works
  • Rearrange paper files for new courses
    • Put most-used files in the desk drawer close at hand, and move files on courses you teach in other semesters to the big filing cabinets
  • Create & Organize your work email mailboxes for your new courses (in sidebar)
  • Replenish spare change/emergency cash stash
  • Decide which books will be in your home office and which in your work office
  • Transport books accordingly @Home Office-To school, @ECSU-Bring home
  • Inventory office supplies
    • Add items to replenish to @Shopping
  • Always bring a towel
  • Bring extra pair of clothes in case of emergency (along with whatever other equipment your personal zombie apocalypse scenario will necessitate)
  • And, of course, Bring kleenex and disinfecting wipes to keep your office germ-free
  • Create semester-specific PI projects and tasks (or duplicate from Template project)
    • T-Improve [Course#]
    • T-Teach [Course#]…
  • Print off class rosters…

Then we come to the actual pedagogy part. Each course will have at least one project or multi-task grouping. To look at all of your tasks for a single course in one fell swoop (assuming you have multiple projects for a course), you can either make a tag for the course, or a smart filter searching for the course number in the task titles.

I usually teach 2-3 preps per semester, requiring as many different syllabi. So why not use a checklist to make it a tiny bit easier?

Make new syllabus for HIS 231 (sequential project)

This series of tasks adds revisions to the previous version of the syllabus, creates the class schedule, and makes copies for everyone who needs them.

  • Find Word syllabus of last time course was taught (matching #days/week) @Computer-iMac [include the path if you always keep them in the same place, or, like me, use a Spotlight tag for the current syllabi]
  • Make new copy of old syllabus with new semester (AU15) in file name (specify where to save)
  • Draft weekly semester schedule and decide times & days for office hours
  • Revise contact info (office number, phone number, office hours)
  • Revise AccessAbility contact info (learning disabilities office)
  • Revise Academic Dishonesty info
  • Revise textbook info
    • Order any desk copies beforehand (check edition number)
  • Add Dept blog reminder [include URL]
  • Add theoretical dates and days of week for course meetings to Class Schedule grid
  • Find upcoming semester calendar for important dates (1st day of classes, withdrawal deadline, days off, midterm date, last day of classes, finals dates, final grades due, commencement)
  • Add important dates to PI Calendar (include tasks to post upcoming date reminders on dept blog, Tag=Blog) @iPhone
  • Revise meetings in Class Schedule grid based off important dates
  • Add my “days off” (conference trips, personal days…) into Class Schedule grid
  • Decide which class topics to add, change or drop
  • Add class topic revisions from last time to Class Schedule grid
  • Add reading assignments for each meeting to Class Schedule grid
  • Decide assignments and point distribution
  • Change assignment points in Grading section of syllabus, as needed
  • Revise syllabus description of assignment types, as needed
  • Add written assignments & exams to Class Schedule grid
    • Consider spacing, assignment type, proximity to days off…
  • Clean up Class Schedule grid (merge vacation rows and shade…)
  • Add class meetings as repeating Events on PI calendar, then delete days off @iPhone
  • Name class Events requiring more work with topic name (keep rest “231”) @iPhone
    • [This is a compromise between naming every topic (a course might meet 40 times) and providing me with a visual prompt that an upcoming class will require more work]
  • Add PI project for each class meeting requiring unusual prep work  @iPhone [see template below]
  • Revise syllabus based off general notes on changes from previous semesters (clarifications, revisions…) from specific course file folder and General course file folder.
  • Read over syllabus
  • Convert syllabus to PDF
  • Create Blackboard page for class
    • [You can put more detailed instructions here if the latest version of Blackboard is counterintuitive]
  • Post PDF to Blackboard (make sure it’s visible to students)
  • Tag (Spotlight) PDF with red Syllabus tag (delete old syllabi tags)
  • Copy Word & PDF syllabus to Dropbox
  • Email/print syllabus to dept secretary
  • Order copies of syllabus from Copy Center [include URL/email] based off enrollment – order 1 extra for me. [You should set a reminder to do this with a due date long enough in advance of 1st class to get delivery by day 1.
  • Request any relevant books be added to Library’s Closed Reserves.
  • [Normally I add assignments to Blackboard as we go along during the semester, requiring their own tasks and reminders, even though at the start of every semester I always promise myself that I’ll make and post them all at the beginning of the term]

 Prepare for class meeting on topic X – do this sequential project/parent-children task group as often or rarely as you need to.

  • Post reading assignment and homework assignment to Blackboard long before the class meets [you can set reminder alarms in PI]
  • Take notes with note-taking templates
  • [My recent re-revelation when applying GTD principles to research: notes should be taken in the form closest to how you will use them, and how you can best understand the underlying dynamics, which isn’t necessarily in the prose text format historians so love. So if you eventually want to make a map, or are studying a subject with spatial information, take notes on a map for pete’s sake. Want to compare many different sources’ accounts of event X? Then make a chart (e.g. Excel) and track each source’s account, along with each author’s nationality, ethnicity, class, the year of the account, etc. etc. Even if you don’t have time to create them in your computer, they can easily be scanned as images and put in your Note Place. If you’re brave, you might even risk showing something like this to your class:
    Availability of primary sources, by social rank

    Availability of primary sources, by social rank

    • Map-timeline notes template for narrative and thematic. Such as:
    • Genealogical table (family tree)
    • Could create a generic 1-page cheat-sheet for specific types of topics, e.g. biography of person X… Maybe you go crazy and do something like this:
      Louis XIV and his lady friends

      Louis XIV and his lady friends (I suppose I could’ve made thin lines to show the lifespan of each offspring, since a lot of them die young)

      Once you have your note-taking system established, you can:

  • Read through paper file folder on topic.
  • Read through DTPO group on topic.
  • Read through books/articles on topic @Home office or @ECSU office or @ECSU Library or @ECSU Library databases
    • Find historical atlas and historical dictionary/encyclopedia @ECSU Library
      • Scan in good maps or consider making custom
    • Read book reviews and recent historiographical essays
    • Find primary sources
  • Search web on topic (including images)
  • Summarize research on topic
  • Find latest version of PPT @ECSU Office
  • Save copy of PPT and rename with semester-year at end
  • Add any notes from last PPT Notes printout. @ECSU office
  • Revise PPT
    • Incorporate research into class lecture
    • Include map/timeline/overview/anecdote/question/theme of the day on intro slide
    • Include conclusion slide with summary, next actions…
    • Include anecdote or quote of the day?
    • Vary format in class?
    • Add/revise graphics
      • Photos, maps (blank to mark up on whiteboard, or pre-annotated), (marginal) timelines, charts/graphs, argument maps, word clouds, discussion questions, marked-up text of readings, hyperlinks to websites, animation…
    • Embed any audio/video in PPT
    • [Add any other features you want to make sure are present]
  • Copy PPT and notes to Dropbox
  • Copy PPT & any other files from Dropbox to Z drive @ECSU office
  • Print off PPT notes as needed @ECSU office
  • Save PPT as PDF @ECSU office
  • Delete unneeded slides from PDF @ECSU office
    • Unneeded slides include most image-only slides…
  • Post PDF to Blackboard @ECSU office

You’ve probably noticed that I need contexts in order to coordinate between the various places I work: I work at home a lot, spend time in my work office, teach in various classrooms, research in the library, and might have business in the administrative buildings. It’s even worse for computers: my personal Mac computers (iMac, MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad), the PC computers at work on the university’s network: in my office, in the main department office where student workers store PDFs they’re working on for me, the computers I log into in the classrooms, and those in the library when I’m scanning microfilm as PDFs. All these different computers require a variety of drives where one needs to store files: my own computers’ drives (iMac, MacBook Air, various external hard drives for off-site backup, USB flash drives), Dropbox (as a Cloud backup and as the general transfer point between computers), the office computer (both the local drive and the shared Z drive, and I have to log in to Dropbox through the web interface), and of course Blackboard for the students. Just coordinating all of these merits its own checklist, or else specification in each task of where exactly to save the relevant file, and reminders to copy files from one place to another.

Remind Class

Whenever I think of an announcement to make in class – administrivia, changes in due dates or assignments, general comments about graded work, things of note in the news, etc. – I use the @ECSU Classroom context. I create a separate one for each course for course-specific reminders (e.g. @ECSU 231 Class…) and just pull that context up at the beginning of class; universal class announcements can simply be duplicated to each course and their context changed (this is a case where I might not create a Project for the task). Important announcements also get posted to Blackboard of course. This is better than a stray Post-It note that may or may not make it with me into the classroom, and I can check each announcement off, to know that the message was delivered. You can also check this context list (or create a @ECSU Office-To Class context if you’re a stickler) right before you leave your office for class (set a reminder alarm if you’re likely to forget), to make sure you’re bringing everything you need.

I’m also going to encourage my students to make use of their own smartphones’ calendar and task-managing apps – maybe I’ll even show a sample or two on the first day of how they could use one. I know I wish I’d learned a system like this (even a paper one) back in college.

Student Questions

I also delegate whenever possible: I tell students who ask questions in class relevant only to themselves (that require additional work on my part) to email their question to me  – i.e. their email, assuming it’s important enough for them to follow through, triggers my need to confirm a grade… In addition to my laziness, I’d like to think that forcing the student to email me encourages him/her to figure out if it’s the kind of question they could just as easily answer on their own (teach a man to fish…). Any ad hoc comments/questions/revelations about the class material get entered into a pre-made T-231 Improve project for later rumination and follow-up. Sometimes I’ll even take a photo of the whiteboard (thank you, smartphone) of something that emerges from our class discussion. My Weekly Review checklist includes a reminder to look in my smartphone camera roll for any such photos.


Writing a recommendation for a student could, depending on what they’re applying for, be a single-task project (Tag=Teaching-Recommend). But for serious applications there will be multiple steps:

  • Collect info from student, @StudentName
    • What applying for [URL]
    • Student’s application/cover letter
    • Any test scores required for the position
    • Student’s Resumé
    • Deadline date
    • Format of recommendation [online or paper form, email, letter?]
    • Address to send to
      • Email or SASE or ECSU envelope
    • Get student signature waiving right to read recommendation
    • [Some faculty even require students to fill out a form with this info and more]
  • Read student’s materials
    • Give feedback as needed
  • Review student’s work in courses @ECSU Office (wheregradebooks are stored)
    • Consider GPA and quality of work
    • Connect coursework to application area of focus
      • Including classes beyond mine @ECSU Eweb
    • Assess attendance & participation
    • Assess consistency & reliability
    • Consider extracurriculars…
  • Research organization, @Computer-Any
  • Draft recommendation letter, as needed
  • Print off recommendation letter @ECSU Office
    • ECSU letterhead and envelope; Dept-paid (or SASE) mailing
  • Send recommendation @ECSU Office
  • Notify student that recommendation sent

Just remember to follow the Two Minute rule: if you can do something in two minutes, then just do it and don’t waste time putting it into your system.

Wind-down semester/academic year

  • Enter final grades by deadline [insert deadline]
  • Save emailed students’ final papers to [insert path on hard drive here]
  • Save backup of Blackboard course [?]
  • Enter any notes from courses into Next Time DTPO group
  • Transfer T- [Class] Improve project notes to DTPO class group
  • File any materials useful for promotion/review
  • Send seminar papers to dept secretary
  • Clear out office inbox
  • Clean any dirty dishes/utensils
  • Dispose of perishables in office
  • Dispose of perishables in office fridge
  • Bring home any extra spare change that’s accumulated @ECSU-Bring home
  • Shut down computer
  • Close window blinds….

If you’re an academic you can probably think of many other recurring, multi-step projects both large and small. A convoluted grade/attendance-reporting process? Maybe you need to coordinate nine full-time faculty members’ schedules? (Which reminds me….) Or read through a bunch of files before next week’s meeting? Or maybe there are certain details you discuss with your advisees, or with a certain type of advisee? Whatever it is, there’s a checklist for it, preferably filled with actions rather than single-word triggers.


As acknowledged earlier, humanities research is a bit fuzzier and amorphous than “Buy Iam’s Adult Light cat food.” But GTD can still be of significant help. Aside from the benefits of keeping track of the rest of your life so your other obligations don’t crowd out your research time, here are some ways GTD can help your research projects move along, in addition to scheduling hard due dates (and reminders).

One way to give yourself some structure while not micromanaging your calendar is to schedule a generic Research time in your calendar, and then choose which specific Research tasks to perform based off of your Research list sorted by Next Action (or by Research project, or whatever) at the beginning of each research session. That way you dedicate time to research in your schedule, but you’re not micromanaging which hours you’re doing which exact research task. And if something comes up and you can’t get to your research (say, midterms or scheduling), then it won’t require juggling your schedule around. Just be sure to assess your research progress in your Weekly Review. So maybe your idealized week calendar (column view) looks something like this (iPad version):Sample semester schedule

Don’t worry – I do work seven days-a-week, including evenings, and I don’t watch quite that much sports. But the NBA season hasn’t started yet, so best to create a @TV context for mindless work, things like:

  • Creating timelines and maps (which reminds me, new task: Install Adobe Illustrator on the MacBook Air, @Computer-MBA, Waiting For expiration of current annual Adobe Creative Suite Cloud subscription)
  • Sorting scrap-paper notes into the appropriate file folder (with my small hand-portable file cabinet – or you could use a 3-ring binder with deep pockets)
  • Transcribing English printed sources (i.e. not things I have to concentrate on too much, like reading difficult handwriting)
  • Searching your DTPO documents for keywords and tagging the results for later analysis
  • Doing bibliography searches (and saving them to Zotero), etc.

If you do schedule periods of multi-tasking, do yourself that favor of defining the events as either Free (instead of Busy), to avoid being warned of scheduling conflicts.

Other tasks I perform early on in the research process:

  • Read historiography
    • Identify works to read
  • Brainstorm research question
  • Brainstorm diagnostic tests to answer research question
  • Identify which sources would help answer research question
  • Decide which keywords to organize research by
    • Which timeframe (and why)?
    • Which theaters (and why)?
    • Which nationality (and why)?
    • Which type of combat (and why)?…
    • Enter them in DTPO groups as needed
    • Create file folders for each main concept as needed
  • Figure out “So What?” answer
    • Draft list of how my argument is distinct from other historians (for clarity and to help shape historio section)
  • Figure out structure of paper
  • Create file folders for each section of paper
    • Sources to Enter
    • Draft chunks
    • To Categorize Later…
  • Sort stray notes into the appropriate file folder
  • Read publisher’s submission guidelines
    • Citations
    • Quotation format…

Ideally one should come up with more concrete Next Actions for such tasks. Something for the future.

Revise draft

If you’re lucky enough to finish your paper with days to spare, you can use something like the following checklist to hit all the main aspects of revisions.

  • Review publisher’s submission guidelines.
    • Keep track of whom to send it to (email).
  • Export from Scrivener to MS Word.
  • Change document to different font from that you composed it in (in theory this tricks your brain into experiencing the document as ‘new’).
  • Print off hard copy (I like to revise on paper).
  • Proofread citations (format, etc.).
  • Proofread text. Check for:
    • Include topic sentences
    • Include transitions
    • Vary word choice
      • Scrivener has a word frequency tool you can use, to see which words you overuse
    • Vary sentence structure
      • [Could even change font size/color of periods to get a sense of sentence length at a glance. A quick global Replace, and then back.]
    • [Your own particular Achilles’ heels, such as:]
      • Avoid passive voice
      • Avoid dangling participles
      • Make sure “garrison” is singular!
      • Use synonyms for garrison [and other frequent words]…
    • Delete curly brackets { } [I use curly brackets as in-text notes to myself. Scrivener, however, allows metadata, i.e. notes/comments on each chunk of text. If you use that feature in Scrivener, add a task to: Confirm that meta-notes incorporated into draft]
    • Obey word count [gotta come in under the limit!]
  • Revise digital document (if you revised on paper)
  • Submit paper [email]

Or maybe you need to organize a panel for an upcoming conference. That will include a whole variety of tasks that should probably be divided into several different projects (given their different time frames): one project for the proposal stage, one for the drafting stage, one for the presentation/travel stage, and one for the travel reimbursement stage.

Conference Proposal Phase

  • Create DTPO conference group under Projects
  • Save CFP (call for papers) to DTPO conference group
  • Brainstorm on possible paper topic and panel
    • Fit conference theme if at all possible
  • Brainstorm on possible co-panelists
  • Contact potential co-panelists about panel
  • Draft paper proposal
  • Receive paper proposals from other panelists
  • Receive short CVs from other panelists
  • Draft panel proposal
  • Solicit revisions from other panelists
  • Assemble panel proposal
  • Submit panel proposal [deadline with alarm]
  • (After accepted) Remind panelists of deadlines
  • Register for conference
  • Reserve hotel room [maybe earlier]

The conference paper stage would presumably use the same research checklist as above, though you could add tasks like Practice the talk (timing yourself), Print off a copy of the paper in a larger font with logical page breaks, etc.

Conference Funding – since these tasks occur over a longer time frame, and often have some specific due dates, you should assign deadlines to the various tasks as needed.

  • Apply for travel funding (do this early)
    • Find online form
    • Confirm deadline and set due date
    • Collect support materials
      • Include CFP
      • Include acceptance letter or email correspondence with organizers or panel planning correspondence
  • Apply for travel approval 2 weeks before travel [set due date and reminder]
  • Save plane boarding passes
  • Save any transportation receipts (taxis, etc.)
  • (After return) Fill out reimbursement form @Secretary
  • Collect reimbursement support materials
    • Print off credit card statements
      • Black out irrelevant financial details
    • Include transportation receipts
    • Include conference registration fee
    • Calculate per diem based off city @Secretary
  • Sign form and submit materials to secretary @Secretary
  • Retain receipts of any un-reimbursed costs for later tax deduction [path location]

There are, in other words, so many repetitive academic tasks that require a specific series of steps, that making a checklist is worth it: annual grant applications, conference travel preparations, the list goes on and on.

Let me know of any other checklists that you’ve found useful.



One response to “Checklists for the Academic Grind”

  1. jostwald says :

    As I wonder about how to maintain research momentum as the semester drags on, I recall some website or another talking about the importance of making sure you know exactly what you’ll write next, so you don’t dread the next writing session. Some have suggested prematurely stopping a writing session before you’ve put down everything that’s in your head, and (others I think) suggest writing down the next thing to write at the end of your session, so you can pick up there next time. I now realize that advice like this serves the same purpose as Allen’s Next Action idea with explicit action verbs – you need to roll the ball up the hill, so when you start next time, it will be simple to just push it and all that potential energy will be easily converted into kinetic movement. Applying this to tasks, one idea mentioned somewhere online was to include in your task names the reason *why* you are performing each task. This might be particularly useful for vague actions like Read or Brainstorm. For example, instead of just “Read France on siege capitulations”, try a task title like “Read France on siege capitulations to see if he shares view of capits as ritualized.” Might be worth some experimentation.

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