📚Make your to-do list items actionable

Title: How to stop 'flipping' (and write a good to-do list)
Author: Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer)

An item is ‘actionable’ if it’s immediately clear what you should do.

My notes

The Thesis Whisperer recommends writing your to-do list in such a way that each item is actionable. This means:
– Break items down into “discrete, actionable steps”
– Use verbs to indicate the specific action you should take.

There are three caveats I would add to this.

1) Breaking things down should be done at the right time. I think of it as ‘unfolding’ tasks. This is because it takes time and effort to work out what all the steps in a process will be. Meanwhile, our plans may change before we have completed the list. I think it makes sense to break tasks down to lower levels one stage at a time. To rework her example I’d break ‘literature review’ into ‘put deadline and milestones in the calendar’; ‘schedule time to work on it’; and ‘do a literature search’; ‘read and take notes’; ‘write literature review’. I’d only break ‘do literature search’ into smaller chunks when I began work on it. And I’d carry on breaking each part of the task down until it was manageable.

2) Breaking tasks down to their component parts isn’t always helpful. In some projects, you can’t know what’s ahead until you get there.  For these kinds of projects, Ahrens (2017) recommends becoming an expert who can use their intuition to choose what to do next rather than an advance planner (Ahrens 2017).

3) Write memos, not orders (Tench 2019). this is because a list of commands is off-putting and the task loses its meaning. It also makes it easier to delete items that are no longer a priority or have become irrelevant. I need the encouragement to be flexible built into my habits and processes as I’m not naturally inclined that way. I feel like a failure if I don’t accomplish what I set out to do.



Mewburn, Inger. ‘How to Stop “Flipping” (and Write a Good To-Do List)’. The Thesis Whisperer (blog), 7 March 2017. https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/03/08/how-to-stop-flipping/.

Tench, Beck. ‘Kinder To Do Lists’. I am Beck Tench, 2019. https://www.becktench.com/blog/2019/5/13/kinder-to-do-lists.

Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers, 2017.