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Tackle Big Projects with Action-Item Lists
by Gina Hiatt, PhD -- June 14, 2006
I know what I need to do; why do I need to write it down? You may have fallen into the trap of thinking this way. And hey, if it works for you, that's great!

I find, however, that many people with too much to do, or with large projects looming in front of them get into a state of complete overload because they haven't prepared themselves by keeping very simple action-item lists.

What's an Action-Item List?


Gina Hiatt, PhD

There are many kinds of lists, and each is useful in its own way. A list can range from "100 things I want to do before I die" to a list of reasons that you want to stay in your current career (hopefully you have 100 reasons for that, also.)

Here is my definition of an action-item list:
An action-item list consists of discrete actions, broken down into the smallest reasonable behavioral steps that you need in order to finish a project (or even a portion of a project.)

A Peek Inside Your Brain
Let's say that you are a writer who has just gotten back an article you had submitted to an editor. You intend to begin at the beginning and just start revising. Unfortunately for many of us, our brains don't function well in this mode.

Here is a peek inside the brain of a typical person in this situation:

"I can't believe there are so many corrections."
"He/she's an idiot - these are ridiculous suggestions."
"I'm an idiot. I can't believe I wrote such a terrible article."
"Maybe I'm not cut out for this."
"No matter what pathetic drivel I manage to write, it won't be good enough."
"Just that first suggested revision will take me hours, no, days to complete."
"I really need to run some errands. I'll get to it next week."

Your brain can be a scary place.

How can you stop this maelstrom of negative thoughts and get started accomplishing something? One way is to make an action-item list.

Here is an example of such a list:

  1. Rewrite paragraph introducing Concept A, being more specific.
  2. Check accuracy of 3rd paragraph.
  3. Create more elegant connecting sentence after Concept A on page 3, paragraph 2.

By breaking down the overwhelming, negatively-charged project of revising the entire article into discrete tasks, you can get over the avoidance hump and start on task number one.

Why Action-Item Lists Work

Why can such a simple act as making a list work? A list can do the following:

  • Make an overwhelming task seem doable by breaking it into discrete written parts
  • Calm you because it's no longer floating in your head - it's there in black and white
  • Prove to you that the task will end some day
  • Be a touchstone for when you feel unclear about what to do next
  • Provide that all-important feeling of accomplishment when you put that check mark next to an item, or cross it out!
  • If you are working in 15-30 minute increments, as I often suggest, you will have your work already broken up into separate items, so you are oriented as to where to start no matter how long a break you've taken

Make sure you add the action-item list to your repertoire. It's those little techniques that build the good habits that add up to being productive!

Gina Hiatt, PhD
Copyright © 2006
All Rights Reserved
About the Author
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully. Get Gina's free assessments & ezine at

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