Professor Destressor eNews
Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives

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Powerful To-Do Lists

A new semester brings the ongoing challenge of how to structure your time and tasks to get done what you need to do. You have an hour with nothing on your calendar. Do you prepare for class, get ready for a committee meeting or grade a set of papers? How about at home? Do you make dinner, check the children’s homework, or exercise? What’s a busy faculty member to do to feel that this semester can be a happy and productive one?

College professors have two extra time management challenges that other professionals don’t have. The first is that the profession of the academic involves more discretionary time than other jobs. Notice that I didn’t say you have more free time. You might have less free time than professionals who can leave their work at the office but you have less daily structure imposed from outside your choices. The bad news is that you are the one responsible for structuring your day.

The second challenge is that your job is made up of several sub-jobs or roles: teacher, scholar, leader, and community member. Each of these roles has its own tasks. For example, the teaching role includes grading, class preparation, teaching the classes, advising, and writing letters of recommendation. Furthermore, each of these tasks has sub-tasks. Preparing for class may involve researching ideas, making an outline, setting pedagogical goals, deciding on what methods will accomplish those goals, and tying assessment with learning. That’s a lot to do for a 50 minute class period and those tasks must be repeated for each class hour across the week, across the semester.

To help faculty answer the question of what to do next, I developed the Professor Destressor Life Management System. In this and the next issue of the eNews I will apply tools of the system so that you can take control of your to-do lists and actually complete them in an eight hour work day. This issue of the eNews will review how to build your Pyramid of Power, the philosophical basis for all of your time commitment decisions, and how to construct a quick procedure (the four times three technique) for making a Daily To-Do list. If you have attended any of my workshops in the last several years, these techniques will be familiar. If you are not familiar with these tools, you can request a longer version of these steps by writing me

The next issue will review two other tools to make your lists, the Dream Book, a planning tool for generating and managing all the wonderful ideas, professional and personal, that you would like to explore in your lifetime and the Tracking System, a way of keeping track of all your current and future projects at home and at work so that you can see at a glance if you are overcommitted, procrastinating, or completing your work in a timely fashion.

The Pyramid Process for Building a To-Do List

The Professor Destressor Life Management System is built on a pyramid, the strongest structure possible because of its wide base and narrow top. Imagine that your Pyramid has four levels, like the floors of a four story house. The most basic level or first floor is the “Purpose,” the second level “Mission,” the third level “Vision,” and the fourth level “Goals.” Once you construct your Pyramid of Power, writing and completing your Daily to-Do List together will be easy. You will no longer have a list of randomly connected items but a list powered by the motivation of what really matters to you.

  1. Purpose statement. This bottom level of your Pyramid is a short phrase, comprehensive enough to encompass all that you do and inspiring enough to motivate you to keep doing it. It answers the question, “Why am I here in this life?” It is usually short, abstract, and, once articulated, changes very little across your lifetime.

    Some examples of purpose statements I have collected from faculty and other clients:

    • I am a bridge connecting ideas and people for the greater good.
    • I am here to manifest God’s love.
    • I add joy and peace to the world.
    • I bring order and beauty to an ugly and chaotic world.

    If these statements sound very big, they should. A Purpose statement does not usually change in a lifetime ­ or changes only in its language but not much in its concept.

  2. Mission Statement. The next level of your Pyramid is your Mission Statement, a longer statement that describes how you live out your Purpose. It changes more frequently than the Purpose statement, often in a 3-5 year cycle. It is more concrete, behavioral, and action oriented than your Purpose statement. The best formula I have ever seen for writing a mission statement was developed by Laura Beth Jones in her excellent little book, “The Path.” To use her formula, write:

    • 3 action words (verbs) of what you are good at;

    • 3-8 values that you hold dear;

    • 2-3 groups of people that you serve (you do what you do for/with/to them).

    Here is the formula to fill in:

    I __________, __________, and ____________(verbs)

    for/to/with__________ and ________(people)

    who want ___________, _____________, and ___________ (values).

    Here is what one client, a medical researcher on the faculty of a medical school, came up with for her mission statement:

    “I research, promulgate, and teach about coronary artery disease to students, colleagues, and patients who value clarity, integration of ideas, and hope.”

    You might wonder if the people you serve actually want your values. Remind yourselves that values are caught not taught and that when you are living your Mission your students and others will get the real you with all your values and strengths even if you never mention these things.

  3. Vision Statement. The next level of your Pyramid will contain your Vision, a statement or statements (personal and work) describing what will happen in the future, say, five years form now if you keep doing your Mission. Answering the question: “If I work on my mission, “What will result?” your Vision represents dreams conceptualized and outcomes hoped for. It is a reminder of what will likely happen in you and the world around you if you live your Mission. It could be:

    • A list of statements written in the present tense of what is happening as a result of your living out that Mission.

    • A poem or a song to describe the results.

    • A collage of pictures clipped from media to represent aspects of your Vision.

    Your Vision statement will take you the longest to write and will be the longest of these pieces, actually composed of substatements based on categories you create as you dream big. It should be about your Mission and its results for you, your immediate world, and the wider world of your career, family or the globe.

    One client wrote this Vision statement about caring for herself: “I am a good steward of my health in body, mind, and spirit.”

    Write your Vision as vividly as possible. Use sense images to see, hear, and feel what is happening as result of you living your Mission.

  4. Goals. The pinnacle of the Pyramid contains your Goals, the action steps you will take to achieve the vision of doing your Mission to fulfill your Purpose. With the firm foundation of your Pyramid in place, goals will become very easy to write and will make the abstract philosophical pieces of your Pyramid come alive and become real. They answer the questions: If I am living my Purpose what would I be doing? How would I spend a typical day? What tasks are relevant to the Mission and Vision?

    There are two ways to generate your Vision and Goals, an inductive and a deductive way. Regardless of which way your brain prefers, write all your Goals on sticky notes one to each sticky using the smallest size you can find at the office supply store. In the deductive method, you first define the major areas of your life, such as household, spiritual, parenting, etc. and then generate all the goals you have for each area, writing only one goal to a sticky note. In the deductive method, you generate the Goals first and then sort the sticky notes into piles with ones that seem to group themselves together.

    Some of the traditional New Year’s resolutions are goals; some of what you want to accomplish this semester are goals. Most professionals already have lots of goals ­ more than we can complete in a lifetime. We academics suffer from the cognitive equivalent of that familiar Mommily said when you piled more food on your plate than you could eat: “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” What is different about the Life Management System than the way you have been setting goals is that that now your Goals will be anchored to the rest of the Pyramid of Power instead of floating around by themselves. The Goals generated by either the inductive or deductive method must relate to your Purpose, Mission, and Vision, the Big Picture of why you are here, what you are doing while you are here, and what you hope will result from your actions. Your goals are ways to carry out those hopes and dreams.

Powerful To-Do Lists

You might be wondering what to do with all of these sticky notes on your dining room table. For now, get a 3 ring binder and a few pieces of different colored pieces of paper hole punched and put into the binder. Park the sticky notes on these pages, using the different color paper for the categories of your Vision such as household, parenting, writing, etc. In the next issue of Professor Destressor eNews, you will learn how to organize all these goals into a Dream Book and how to track your goals and subgoals in a tracking system.

Until then here is a simple easy way to put together your daily To-do list.

Each day ask yourself these four questions. You can write out the answers in the morning or the night before. I call this the “three times four To-Do list.” As a result of answering these questions your To-Do list will contain nine essential and three optional tasks to be completed that day.

  1. What are three things I can do today to advance productivity in my career and satisfaction in my satisfying life? E.g. Write one page on my book manuscript.

  2. What are three things that if I don’t do them today dire things would happen to sabotage my best goals for future satisfaction and achievement? E.g. Failing to work on my tenure packet thus assuring that I won’t get it in by the deadline.

  3. What are three things that I can do to take care of myself so that I can continue to serve others and feel great? E.g. Eat five fruits and vegetables, take a walk at lunch, get to bed by 10.

  4. What three tasks might be considered optional for today but essential for tomorrow that I could start on if I finish the nine essential tasks?

Here are some guidelines for your list.

  • Each goal should take no more than 15 minutes. These goals should not be huge far reaching goals. Huge goals go into your Dream Book to be broken down into smaller bites later.

  • Each goal should be linked to your Mission.

  • Avoid activities that don’t fit your Mission. If you do find yourself wanting to do activities not in your Mission it might be time to rewrite your Mission statement to include those activities.

  • Learn to say “no” to goals that don’t fit your Pyramid. Be firm, polite, and skip the explanations. If you have a hard time breaking the habit of agreeing to do things that are not central to your values say, “That’s not part of my Mission.”

Commonly Asked Questions about To-do Lists

  • What about goals other people give me that I don’t want to do?

    Who are the people and what influence do they have over you? While we all want control over our to-do lists we sometimes have to do tasks that do not have intrinsic satisfaction but do lead to long-term desired outcomes. For example, I don’t know any profs who love writing letters of recommendations but that task goes with the job of teaching because helping your students succeed extends your influence in the world. Imagine a future moment when a well-placed student offers you a job or asks you to present at a conference she is chairing. To make the task less onerous, routinize it by having a form for letters with fill-in-the-blanks for major items you would write about the student such as teaching skills, writing, researching, ethics, etc. Set up some template choices, have the students fill them- “I have known __________ for ____ years,” - and then you can smooth out the prose into a professional sounding letter.

  • What about goals that someone else gives me like when my department chair says I have to serve on a committee?

    Remember your set of items that are things that if you don’t do ruin your life? This might be one of those. Some goals like teaching a good class give you an immediate proximal connection to your ideal life plan; other goals such as service to your department are less immediate and more distal to long-term goals such as maintaining the good will of those who evaluate you for promotions and tenure. If you can’t find even the remotest connection of an assignment to your Pyramid, discuss with your chair how you might offer to do something you are good at that someone else doesn’t want to do.

  • What do I do about things that I hate to do but seem necessary like washing the kitchen floor?

    Go back to your Vision statements to see if you have written anything about your environment. For example, my Vision statement reads, “My home is clean, organized, and aesthetically pleasing and supports me, my work, and my spirit.” Last night I spent an hour filing bills related to tax preparation. I could have resented every boring tedious minute but instead reminded myself that my Vision of “organized” was being served by the time spent on filing. You will have many yucky tasks but if they relate to your long term Vision you can whip them out quickly without grumbling.

  • I keep carrying over the same goal - write an article - from day to day and it doesn’t get done. What should I do?

    It usually means you have a goal is too big to be done in one day. An article can’t possibly be done in just one day so why even start. Instead break the goal of writing an article into smaller 15 minute incremental goals such as: review notes on the Smith article or outline section IA3. You can get each of these goals done in a day and the momentum for their completion will cumulate into getting that article written.

  • What do you mean only 15 minute goals are allowed on my list? Nine of those will only take two hours and fifteen minutes. Even if I do all twelve items that will only take three hours. What will I do with the rest of my day?

    Teach classes, have office hours, eat lunch, drive to work, sit in a committee meeting, wash out the shower stall, walk the dog ­ any of things you are going to anyway that you never think of as goals on your To-do lists. A few goals will take longer than 15 minutes no matter how well you try to break them into 15 minute tasks. Some will take less. Some can be scheduled for more because of their nature ­ like a 30 minute exercise work out. The rule of 15 minute goals can be flexed to accommodate longer writing, class prep, and house tasks. Just notice that whenever the tasks are too big, you will feel overwhelmed and not start of them.


Make To-Do lists work for you each day by tying the items to your Pyramid of Power and using the four times three technique.


Jones, Laura Beth. (1996). The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life. NY: Hyperion.

© Copyright 2009 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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