Action items should have well-defined end conditions

16 Jul 2021 Gregory J. Stein

I have a lot of meetings, many of which are with students pursuing research objectives as part of their PhD. Part of my job is making sure students are on a path to success, ensuring that they have a good idea of what needs to happen next if they are to make progress towards their ultimate goal. It is common for our meetings to produce action items that we add to something that functions like a persistent task list: a collection of intermediate objectives for the students to explore in the pursuit of their research.

Note that I don’t usually police these task lists, but my students and I have so far found it helpful to keep a shared workspace (on Notion) where we can record what we’ve agreed sound like good next steps.

Research requires making progress in multiple areas at once—reading papers, brainstorming new ideas, writing papers of one’s own, writing/running code, etc.—and so the tasks we generate after a meeting will be similarly varied. Yet if we aren’t careful, some tasks stay on the list indefinitely, leading to clutter and reducing how effective the list is for motivating progress and keeping track of work that has yet to be completed.

One common trend I have discovered: many tasks that are never crossed off our list lack well-defined end states. For many of these tasks, it is clear how to make progress towards completing those tasks, but nothing that indicates when the task should be marked as done. For instance, a task to conduct a literature review on XYZ is easy to write down, but how do I know when I’ve completed my literature review? Instead, I recommend including some way of quantifiable progress in the task itself, adding either an amount of time (e.g., look for related papers for 2.5 hours) or a target number (e.g., add 4 papers to my annotated bibliography). Once the task is complete, we can decide whether or not it was sufficient and augment it if necessary.

Finally, it should be easy to get started making progress towards a task. If making progress towards Task A requires that some other pre-work be done first, that pre-work should be its own task that exists as a prerequisite of Task A.

I generally follow a Getting Things Done methodology, in which tasks are grouped into “projects” and assigned either a NEXT (unblocked) TODO (blocked) keywords.

I have found that tasks that implicitly require pre-work feel harder to sit down and start working towards, which can make the difference between whether or not I choose that task to work on.

I try to make sure that my tasks are bite-sized and are both easy to start making progress towards and have clear completion criteria. Working towards complex, long-horizon objectives—as is commonplace for a researcher—can be daunting, but this procedure of making small, well-defined tasks (and occasionally splitting up larger ones) helps me and my students make continual incremental progress and staves off procrastination.