You might already use lists for remembering what to purchase at the store, what to pack for a vacation, or for a to-do or must-do list. Today I’m going to walk you through three other ways you can use lists to maximize and focus your productivity and stay grounded and focused while you work on big projects, such as term papers or dissertations.


Brain Dump

The first step is in tackling a big project is seeing what is actually on your project plate.

Hailed by productivity experts, I find the brain dump method to be most helpful to the beginning stages of tackling a project. The reasoning behind dumping out our busy brains is that it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible and definitely stressful) to try to hold everything we have to do in our heads and memories. Instead, we can dump everything out onto paper, freeing up that space in our heads and trusting the paper to remember for us. Productivity researcher Chris Bailey (author of The Productivity Project) describes his “mind capture” ritual as follows:

Our minds are often an arcade of thoughts that we don’t get the chance to step back and observe. When we force ourselves to step back for 15 minutes with nothing more than a notepad and a pen, the thoughts bouncing around in our minds have no choice but to defragment and organize themselves while the best ones bubble to the surface.


Break it Down Into Steps

A brain dump will help you to identify your main goals, but it is essential that you then break down those goals into the actual steps you will have to take to accomplish them. I encourage people to break down projects because it reminds us to see the invisible labor we do in order to check goals off our to-do lists. This is important because it can help us shift our perspective around our output and avoid negative self talk when we “don’t do enough.”

Breaking down my larger goals into requisite steps requires me to shift my thinking about what it means to “accomplish” something.


Do Three Things a Day

I keep an online dissertation journal where I track my progress for each work day. Before I start work, I write down three goals for my day. Productivity researchers call this the “power of three” or “rule of 3.” Habit researcher Andrew Merle writes in his Huffington Post article, “The Power of the Three-Item To-Do List” that

In order to make this process work, it is essential that you write out these three main focus areas before cluttering your mind with “reactive” tasks such as checking email, voicemail, or social media. It is vital to prioritize what you want to achieve before being inundated with other peoples’ needs.

Starting a day or work session with only three goals “forces you to prioritize the most significant things you want to achieve, and then causes you to have laser-like focus in getting them done” (Merle). I’ve practiced it, and I can assure you that it not only works, but it feels awesome! When I’m tackling my huge list of to-dos, it’s important for me to remember that I can accomplish tasks (even if I can’t check off a huge goal in one session). While I could plan my three things ahead of time, often I prefer to decide my three goals at the beginning of my work session.

Limiting my expectations for what counts as a “good work session” or a “good work day” to three predetermined goals gives me focus and often encourages me to work more (but only if I want to) when I finish those three tasks.

Want some specific prompts?

Make lists work for you. 

I’ve created a tackling process takeaway for you that includes all three list activities. You can work through it in steps (i.e., one list per session or day) or in one go. Remember that you can employ any of these lists at any time to help fight overwhelm and to find focus throughout your progress.

Step 1: Pick a project.

Step 2: List your required goals for that project.

Step 3: Break down the larger goals into their individual steps. 

NOTE: Seeing all of the steps may make you feel amazing and charge you up to do the damn thing, or it might make you feel nervous and overwhelmed (or a bit of both). That is okay. Remember that breaking things down into steps is an action step it itself, so it is okay to do step 3 and take a break before you move on to step 4.

Step 4: Choose three of your tasks (and only three) to do in a work day.

Make them manageable, applicable, and checkoffable for the context you’ll be in that day. 

Step 5: Once you complete your three tasks, celebrate! 

If you feel motivated to keep working, by all means go for it, but remember that you have already hit your achievement for the day. And don’t forget to note what you’ve done that day so you can track your progress. I use my online journal as a place to note what I accomplish.




*This post is an adaptation of my post “How to Use Lists to Tackle a Big Project,” originally shared on my personal blog, The Tending Year.*