Back when I was in graduate school and as a post-doc, life was fairly blissful. Only one big responsibility: research. Now as a faculty member I find so many things to do. Teach, supervise undergrads and grads, publish papers, perform research, participate in service/administrative activities, get funding, etc. Plus throw in family life, friends, etc.

I've looked at all sorts of productivity systems over the years (GTD, 7 Habits, etc.), and have settled on a simple todo list method, where I have a master list of tasks in a todo list that I periodically review. The problem is the list just seems to get bigger and bigger. More gets on the list than comes off, especially during busy seasons, like when teaching or when grants are due.

I realize that busy is part of the game, but how do you keep track of everything and not go crazy?

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    The question's link to academia seems very tenuous at best. And there is a whole other StackExchange dedicated to this topic.
    – 410 gone
    Feb 22, 2013 at 18:50
  • @EnergyNumbers I agree with you to a point but I do think the open-ended nature of many academic jobs means that the organization needs can be somewhat local. So far the answers have not really borne that out but it will be interesting if anyone really takes the ball and runs with it.
    – DQdlM
    Feb 22, 2013 at 19:49
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    @KennyPeanuts I think you hit on something about academia specifically. It is so open-ended and so disperse. I am somewhat envious of friends that are able to take their work hat off at the end of the day. I find myself thinking about research in the shower, grading papers home at night, or planning lessons when I'd rather watch TV. I have never felt this pulled in so many directions in my life, and keeping all the balls in the air has been a challenge.
    – che_kid
    Feb 22, 2013 at 21:31

8 Answers 8


This is a bit similar to other answers - keep a good list - but that's not going to fix your problem. Your problem is that employers, academic or industry, will always try to get more and more out of you. That is just the nature of things.

So, yes, keep a list of what is important and what is urgent and learn to drop the other stuff. It is natural to try to do more and more things, especially when some seem really interesting, however, you have to decide what you can do and what you cannot.

The life of an academic is not one of punching the clock and working 9-5. The good news is that we do get a bit of flexibility. However, sometimes we do need to fight for that flexibility.

You might read a recent book The Four-Hour Work Week. There is a lot which does not relate to academic work (at least not to teaching) at all (like trying to work from home). However, it does include some very good reminders to simply do the important stuff and drop the unimportant stuff.


Another nice todo list system is Trello which lets you do things like add mini-check lists to items, make separate lists for each thing, add notes to items, add pictures to items, and add other people to items. The ability to add sub-items helps a lot in that it makes it feel like I'm getting somewhere on large projects that take a lot of time and hang around in my to-do list for weeks.

Trello is also really nice for sharing/collaborating/delegating work. In our lab, we have a Trello board for any projects where multiple people are collaborating so everyone is able to keep track of who's responsible for what.

Last, it lets you move your items around so that you can prioritize them. Stuff that you need to get done sooner goes on the top while less critical stuff is on the bottom. I also have a bit of a garbage cleaning policy where if it's been sitting in the low priority for a while and I still haven't gotten around to it, it goes into a theoretical "someday when I have free time" list.


I use a Todo List manager called Things on the Mac. It syncs via the cloud with my iPad, so in principle I always have my lists. Lists can be tagged and sorted and categorized and so forth, so with some discipline, it can be a really helpful too.

That said, I still have lists of major "deliverables" on my whiteboard and lists of daily activities on scraps of paper. Ideally, what I need is less work, not a better tool.

Re: not going crazy: go on vacation, go cycling, stop thinking about work.


First, it helps to have a list system that allows you to prioritize the important and temporarily ignore the less important. I use Omnifocus, though it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Second, as more and more gets added to the list, eventually you have to realize that there are things on the list that will never get done. Those things are only burning up your mental energy. I periodically review my lists and delete things that I don't believe will get done. After doing this for a while, you start to sense which things won't get done, even before they get onto the list, and you start saying no to them in advance. You have a finite amount of time, so you have to be selective in what you choose to do with it.

For example, a few years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of saying 'no' to any interesting research collaboration. But nowadays doing so is absolutely essential to my sanity.

The same advice is given in this answer.


I am a Gmail user and prefer Gmail Tasks. Watch a short video about it.

I have a personal email and work email, so I separate the task lists naturally on both accounts - it allows me to focus on work while I'm at work, without distractions about home stuff.

Google Tasks integrate into Gmail, as many tasks originate from an email. A great way to remove an email from the inbox is to create a new task with the email (if you can't take care of the task straight away). Gmail has keyboard shortcuts with tasks, so SHIFT-T makes a new task with the current email.

There is an iOS app called Go Tasks that syncs to Google Tasks, with support for multiple accounts.

There are no priorities, but I either put deadlines (which cause tasks to show on a Google calendar) or shift them up/down on the task list. Tasks can be hierarchical, so I define themes (courses I teach, articles, committees, etc.) and tasks within them.

Regarding the growing number of tasks, many items every year get closed without being done, but that's life. They're lower priority and you can't do it all. Often a task becomes OBE - overtaken by events. Some items, like course improvement tasks, stay on the list until the next time I teach the course.


For things that can be decomposed into tasks, I use (and recommend) Remember The Milk.

The best thing is that you can set task with everything (date due, priority, tags, ...) with their markup, e.g.

check references #work #writing #qft-project ^tomorrow !2

It works on web, and as an application for mobile devices, with which it synchronizes (the only bad thing is that in free version you can do it once 24h).

When there are larger goals (e.g. "finish a paper") they need to be split in smaller tasks.


I read somewhere that sometimes simplifying a complex problem requires a complex system - think about the automatic transmission in a car.

I use a combination of OmniFocus for task and project management, and Evernote for saving resources. There is some overlap between the two, in that OmniFocus tasks can have attachments, but if the usefulness of a resource extends beyond one task, it definitely goes into Evernote. Premium users of Evernote can search within images of documents, which comes in handy when looking for a gas receipt, for instance.

I love OmniFocus' location-based contexts, so when I drive up to my apartment, a list of tasks I can do there appears on my phone. Other contexts are more mental shifts, say from 'studying' to 'phone'.

Using these tools has given me a trusted system in which to dump all the minutiae that was clogging my brain - one of the tenets of Getting Things Done.


Use a tracking/ticketing tool, like eg. Redmine to help you organize your tasks and track their progress. This is definitely more involved than a simple to-do list but it's worth the effort many times over.

I find this especially useful when shared with other people (coworkers, students, etc...) and it's seamlessly integrating with subversion systems.

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