Talking to myself through a reverse to-do list

Talking to myself through a reverse to-do list

Talking to myself through a reverse to-do list

How keeping a “done” list got me through my first few years of grad school.

July 10, 2024 | Rachel S. (MechE)

Mechanical Engineering

Communication is the most important skill I have developed in grad school. The types of communication we usually think about are technical and interpersonal communication, such as publishing and presenting your research, or communicating with your advisor. However, one type of communication I overlooked in my first year was communicating to myself. 

As a first year coming straight from undergrad, it was difficult to adjust to the half-classes half-research work style of grad school. I had to shift my focus from completing course tasks assigned to me to assigning research tasks to myself. Research tasks often did not go as planned, leaving me with a feeling of lack of accomplishment. Moreover, I spent my first semester running experiments by changing multiple variables at once and failing to keep track of which variables I had changed. After a semester of aimless trial and error, I realized that I needed a way to keep track of daily details. 

Self-communication comes in many forms. Writing in my lab notebook helps me keep track of my experiments. Commenting my code helps me remember my variables and logic. Writing documentation for myself reminds me of the project’s details, including why I even started it in the first place. What these practices have in common is that they help me remember my thought processes and easy-to-forget details while helping me reflect on all that I have accomplished. However, the most helpful form of self-communication I’ve used has been my “Daily Logs” or “done” list. 

Inspired by the concept of a design notebook or lab notebook, I created my Daily Logs as a thought sandbox to turn “to do” tasks into “done” tasks. It was a place where I could gather random data, thoughts, and numbers that would feel out of place when recorded anywhere else. I start by writing down all the tasks I need to complete, then as the work day progresses, I change these into completed achievements with relevant details and thoughts attached to them. For example, if I need to run a simulation, I will start my day by writing “to do: finite-element simulation,” and as I complete it, I will add set-up details such as material properties and geometric dimensions and reasons why I selected those parameters. 

No task is too small for the Daily Logs. Each task done is a small win, which added up over the past two years to daily celebration of progress made towards big goals. This helps me gain momentum, track progress, and reflect on my work patterns. It allows me to express myself candidly, and my Daily Logs will often have my most unfiltered thoughts about ideas and data, and celebrations of accomplishments when they happen (such as in-lab selfies with my postdoc and a successful result on the oscilloscope in the background). By shifting my focus from what needs to be done to what has already been accomplished, I feel less overwhelmed (and I sometimes use this space to sort out my pending tasks if that helps me feel better). 

A day out of my Daily Log looks like the following: 


  • Read paper about new 3D printing technique
    • How can I use the working principles of this technique to advance my new project? 
  • Group meeting: lab member presented on a new computational method 
  • Created manuscript figure 1:
    • Still need to edit font sizes and replace experimental images 
    • [image here] 
    • This data looks a little funny. Need to validate with simulation 
  • 2.071 Lecture 
  • 2.071 Homework 
  • Meeting with Joe
    • Came up with group meeting presentation story
    • Scheduled meeting to debug experimental setup 

My Daily Logs help me record my achievements in a day. It allows me to write down thoughts I have in response to reading literature or attending lectures. Writing down my data and thoughts enables an extra layer of reflection and conceptualization, which is helpful when solving complex problems. In addition, it gathers all my simulation setup details, data, and thoughts in one place. This makes it easy for me to later reference details my advisor asks me about and helps me remember my train of thought when managing multiple projects at once. 

Most importantly, as I look back at my thoughts at the end of the semester, I am reminded of how much I have learned and grown in different areas. Seeing my frustrations over successive 3D print failures ebb into calm descriptions of a well-defined printing trial procedure demonstrates my growth as an experimentalist. Meanwhile, rereading seminar notes reminds me of new perspectives I considered in solving my own research problems. 

Here are some practical considerations for starting your own Daily Logs: 

  1. Platform: consider choosing a platform that suits your thought process and research. For example, if you like to record images or sketch, consider using a platform that supports image insertion or drawing. Syncing data across devices can come in handy in different settings, such as through an app on your phone if you have a random thought as you’re walking home. 
  2. Level of detail: this is up to you! Whatever is helpful, but not overwhelming is the best. Some days, I feel too lazy to record all the details and that’s okay! 
  3. Exporting experiment descriptions or images: since this is an easy-to-access file, consider what would be the most convenient format to share your descriptions and images, even if this means a simple copy-paste from a text document. 
  4. Organization: Splitting your Daily Logs into timespans, such as weekly, monthly, or yearly, should be adapted to what works for you and the platform you use. I like to categorize my Daily Logs by semester as this makes it easier to search my notes for keywords in Microsoft OneNote.

A Daily Log is just one way of communicating with yourself and is by no means a “one size fits all” approach. Different people communicate differently, and if a different method works better for you, such as keeping an audio journal, sketchbook, or lab notebook, then do what works for you! My process of tracking progress in grad school over a long period of time has varied over the semesters, with some being brief, and others delving into extreme detail. Regardless, recording my progress has been helpful for me to reflect on how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown as a researcher. 

When I feel unproductive, writing down all I did in a day helps me feel a sense of accomplishment as it concretely tracks all my activities. As a grad student at MIT, I see so many people working productively towards cutting edge technology and by comparison, it’s easy to think that I had an unproductive day. My Daily Log often proves me wrong. 

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