As a student, life is super easy and relaxed – or at least that is how many non-students imagine student life to be. Of course, at university we have more freedom than back in the day at school, especially because there are subjects where attendance is not compulsory. But that’s also a problem: the less structure is given, the more organisation and discipline you have to raise by yourself to structure your day effectively and get things done. This is particularly challenging in the current situation where, thanks to the Corona pandemic, many people are studying and working from home – and this requires an extra portion of self-discipline.
To-Do lists are often not specific enough
I am currently writing my master’s thesis, and this is a project that always requires good organisation – irrespective of whether there is a pandemic or not. Planning and organizing my day is in generally something I would say I’m pretty good at. I have been writing to-do lists practically all my life, however, I am not always entirely happy with it. Alyosha Niklesz from the Central Student Advisory Service explains to me why: “Most to-do lists are simply too long and mostly not specific enough. That results in a situation where you don’t manage to tick off all the points on your list and that quickly leads to frustration”. When I think about it like that, this is sometimes true of my lists. But what to do? Mr Niklesz suggests an alternative: The “Vorhabenliste”, or “Project List”.
Projects should be concrete and realistic
“The idea is to limit the points on the list, for example, to five – these five projects should then be formulated concretely and realistically so that they can be easily implemented,” says Mr Niklesz. To do this, you have to think carefully how much time a project will take. I can tell you from experience that “Writing an annotated outline” is absolutely unsuitable as one of the five points. It’s not something that can be written in an afternoon, so it’s a much too roughly formulated goal. This became clear to me because I didn’t really know where to start. Besides, I started to doubt that I would be able to finish the task in one day. Frustration was inevitable. When I realized this, I thought about it again and changed the point to “Writing the commented outline for the theoretical part of the master thesis”. This plan was a lot more concrete and limited the extent of the task, thus making it that much more realistic to implement.
Find a positive connection to your tasks
However, limiting the number of your tasks and writing them down as realistic and concrete as possible is not yet what distinguishes the “project list” from your everyday to-do list. “It is actually very important to mentally connect with the tasks,” reveals Mr. Niklesz. “This works best if you take a short time and really imagine how you will feel and what positive effects it will have on yourself and your own situation when each goal on your list is completed”. My first impulse was: Well, I will probably feel really good when the commented outline is finally done. But of course, this is not enough. So, I tried a little bit harder and right beside my goal on the list I wrote my thoughts: When I have finished this task, I will be proud of myself and feel successful. I will feel calm and this will enable me to carefully plan the next steps.
Taking your plans into action
Mr. Niklesz emphasizes the importance of this mental connection: “It’s a central element for the “Project List”, because it really clarifies what benefits will it have for me and my situation, when a specific point on my list is ticked off. And that creates a strong incentive to really get the job done.” In this context, he also recommends the lecture “Erfolgreich im Studium”, which you can find on this page (in german). It explains how we can synchronize our rational mind and our emotional memory, so that these two won’t work against each other but together and in our favour. Have a look, it’s very interesting what effect the mental connection with positive motives can have on your motivation to get things done!
Project list not only suitable for learning
By the way, the Project List can be used for more than just motivating people to learn or work better. “It is also useful for structuring the day in general. You can write things down there that you need to do during the day and that otherwise will always linger in your brain”, says Mr. Niklesz. My list of projects therefore includes not only tasks concerning the progress of my master’s thesis, but also other things. For example, “Creating a mind map for the BLUG article”, or “Cleaning my room and put that pile of clothes back into the closet”. How I mentally connected myself with this goal, I don’t want to withhold from you: When this task is done, I will feel like a responsible adult who has her life together. In a tidy apartment, I can relax on the couch in the evening and gather my strength for the next day.
I have tested the “Project List” for a week now and the big question is: how effective is it compared to a normal to-do list? My conclusion is surprisingly positive! In the beginning I was a bit skeptical about the idea of the mental connection to tasks written on the list and to my feelings after they would be completed. I felt really strange at first when I put down in words what benefits the completion of the tasks would bring me. But it became easier and easier every time – and finally started to be fun! By the way, Mr. Niklesz has another good tip: “It’s best to write the list in the evening before going to bed. That way you can clear your head. And if you don’t get a point done, just take it up again the next day”. My way of working hasn’t changed radically because of the “Project List”; as I said, I’ve always written lists. But with this new technique I have the feeling to set more realistic goals, which I (almost) always achieved at the end of the day. Also, the idea of how I feel after completing my tasks helps me to get to work in a better mood. I will try to keep this simple way of an improved to-do list. Why? Because it gives me a positive view of my current tasks and makes it clear to me again and again what my big goal is and why.
Click here to see the entire Instagram highlight of the #unigoelernt series with all its expert tips! [in German]