GUEST POST: Operant Conditioning Success in Graduate School: To Do Lists

GUEST POST: Operant Conditioning Success in Graduate School: To Do Lists

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Timothy Parks is a third year student in the Combined Doctoral Program in Counseling and School Psychology at the University at Buffalo. His research interests include school safety and crisis prevention and intervention and enjoys doing community presentations for the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention. In his free time he enjoys listening to and playing music, reading books for pleasure, and exercising. He has future aspirations to work in a clinical setting with children and families.

Graduate School Productivity

 Getting into a doctoral program is an exciting opportunity that is not for everyone. I think that I speak for some, but not all, when I say that a doctoral program is initially not respected or understood for the beast that it is until you’re in the midst of it. I write draft after draft of the same paper and receive different feedback every time. I can spend hours doing a task that I think is perfect just to have it ripped apart. However, I do understand the purpose of the feedback and tough skin is certainly a necessity—it does weigh on you though.  In addition to mental fatigue, you have to fully balance adulting, schooling, and having a life without dropping any one of the balls. When outside stressors add additional work to your already overwhelming load, it can become unbearable.

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 My first semester of graduate school went by quickly. The course content was manageable and I was getting all of my assignments done without any issues; I felt great! Sadly, that feeling quickly came to an end when I started my second semester of my first year. The content of the course became more novel, the number of reports and papers increased, I was working through relationship issues, and I was living between two houses—not an ideal situation when you are expected to achieve at a high level. It did not take long for the wheels to start coming off and for my advisor and colleagues to notice. Something had to change for me to succeed.

Set Goals

I addressed my behaviors and began deliberately setting goals. I am being trained as a school psychologist and I view things as functions of behavior and contingencies—this makes changing behavior seem manageable to me. I began writing down SMART (1) goals each day/week on a to do list—this is in contrast to broader, less concrete goals (e.g., finish a paper or complete assignments for X class). When we set a goal (e.g., finish 600 words of this guest post) and achieve that goal, our goal setting behavior is reinforced through positive and negative reinforcement—as long as we set the appropriate contingencies (i.e., reinforcers that are actually motivating to you!).

 According to the learning and instructional hierarchy, all skills must first be acquired, then one becomes fluent with the skill, the skill can then be generalized to different situations, and ultimately the skill is adapted to all situations (2). Goal setting and making to do lists was a skill that I had to acquire. The more I used to do lists, the more my usage of them was being reinforced by my increase in productivity, receiving good grades and praise from professors, my ability to complete all of my tasks efficiently and with less anxiety, and the rewards that came after completing a goal.


 I made my to do lists with the following method: (1) on Monday I would write down all of the tasks—including tasks that take only a few minutes. (2) The tasks would be mentally prioritized by the time they took to complete and (3) as the week went on I would keep the same list but add additional items if necessary. (4) By Sunday, I would rewrite the list and carry over items that needed more work for the upcoming week. Although this may seem simple, it organized my tasks and made them seem manageable.

Reinforce Your Appropriate (Productive) Behavior

 As is known from operant conditioning, behavior is shaped by that which follows it (i.e., rewards, positive reinforcement, or by removing something that is typically aversive, negative reinforcement) (3, 4). Prior to making a to do list, I am typically anxious about my tasks. Engaging in a (productive) behavior that allows me to escape something aversive such as anxiety increases the likelihood that I will do that behavior in the future to escape further aversive anxiety (i.e., negative reinforcement)(3, 4). That same behavior (i.e., to do lists) is further reinforced if I am rewarded (i.e., positive reinforcement) by achieving my goals.

 In contrast to productive behavior, consider procrastination and the function that it serves. When we have tasks to complete we may become anxious. Rather than completing tasks and reducing our anxiety, we could avoid the task (i.e., procrastinate) and subsequently not complete them. This, in turn, reduces our anxiety and negatively reinforces our avoidant behavior. However, we are not doing ourselves any favors and are ultimately pushing off the inevitable—unless, of course, success is not your goal, then, good for you, you’re nailing it! For most, successful completion of tasks is the ultimate goal. After completing your tasks, reward yourself!

You Know You Best: Reasonable Rewards

 Rewards for appropriately achieving your goals are absolutely crucial; however, the rewards have to be reasonable. I typically reward myself with 20 minutes of guitar playing or reading a book that I enjoy, but I will NEVER punish myself with going to bed later than normal—the time I wake up, my bed time, and my self-care are set. As an aside, self-care is a necessity like food and water (do a quick search on for “self-care” and you will see a number of posts and podcasts about it).


 If you know that you are a procrastinator, it will ultimately be counterproductive if you complete the easiest tasks in 30 minutes and reward yourself with a one or two hour break—especially if you still have 10 hours of work left! Also, be honest with your goal setting and give yourself feedback on your ability to set goals and to achieve them (5). Performance feedback can give you an accurate self-assessment of your personal behaviors and provide you with the knowledge of behaviors that could use tweaking (6). If you are not good at following your list or you still are not being productive, then something has to change. If you have never used a to do list to set goals for yourself, then you may need to take time to learn how to appropriately set goals (e.g., SMART goals (1)). Setting goals that are too high can be punishing when they are not achieved and it is best to avoid this practice (7).


 Making to do lists work for me, but it may not work for everyone—find what works best for you. Graduate school programs are hard and this is what I have found to be helpful for my workload. Graduate school requires learning new skills (e.g., time management, goal setting, etc…) in addition to learning new material from books and lectures. It takes discipline and an absurd number of hours, but Rome was not built in a day and a diamond is not created overnight. You certainly can find your key to success!


  1. Drucker, P. F. (1954). The Practice of Management, Harper & Row.

  2. Haring, N.G., Lovitt, T.C., Eaton, M.D., & Hansen, C.L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

  3. Skinner, B. F. (1953). The science of human behavior. New York, NY: The Free Press

  4. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

  5. Turkay, S. (2014). Setting Goals: Who, Why, How? Manuscript.

  6. Rees, C. & Shepherd, M. (2004). Students’ and assessors’ attitudes towards students’ self-assessment of their personal and professional behaviours. Medical Education, 39, 30-39. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2929.2004.02030.x

  7. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York:Harper Perennial.