“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” - Yogi Berra
At the start of a new semester or at the start of any significant marker of time (e.g., summer, winter break), take a moment to think about your goals and to take a broad view of the upcoming time.
Three Important Steps for Planning Ahead
Write down one or two goals in each area of your academic work. For example:
- Dissertation - finish draft of chapter 2 & send out for comments;
- Publishing - draft lit review for paper with JR and PC;
- Professional Development - submit abstract for conference;
- Teaching - prepare new activity for math section;
- Connections - email scholar in my field with questions about their research.
With those goals in mind, determine when, how, and whether you can accomplish them during this time period. To make that determination, you might:
- Use a physical bird’s eye view or monthly calendar to map out deadlines and requirements for the semester (e.g., paper deadlines, exam dates, application deadlines, program requirement milestones, other major events) bird's eye view instructions.
- Or you can use an electronic calendar to map out the semester similarly or to map out one month.
- With the firm dates mapped out, the next step is to take each goal you have identified, break it down into steps, and schedule those steps on your calendar. In this way, you can determine if your full set of goals is realistic. If they will not all fit into your calendar, then you know that you will need to prioritize the goals so that you can make a plan to accomplish the ones that matter most.
Recognize that there are things that you can and cannot control.
- Some of your work might depend on research findings, on others completing their tasks, on larger team needs, etc., so you need to be prepared to be flexible.
- Having a system to keep track of your long-term goals will help you not forget them and will help you reevaluate them and possibly reprioritize them, depending on what circumstances dictate.
- Be intentional in your assessment of your circumstances -- some that seem beyond your control might not be as uncontrollable as you think.
- Be sure to enlist help from your adviser or your academic or social support network, if you do not think you can objectively assess the controllability of your situation. The Academic Resource Center is part of your academic support network; you can attend an ARC workshop on goal setting or time management or schedule an appointment with an academic coach at the ARC for individualized assistance with planning ahead.
Make a Weekly Schedule
Creating a plan for the week at the start of each week increases the odds that you will get your work done.
- A weekly schedule imposes structure on your time, which is especially important if you do not have classes and regular deadlines to provide that structure.
- A weekly schedule helps you assess how much time you want or need to spend on various tasks and activities.
Three Important Steps for Making a Weekly Schedule
- Start with a blank hourly schedule of the week. You can use a printable template or Google calendar or whatever is most effective for you.
Be sure to include all the things you need to do in a given day, not just your work:
- Wake up time.
- Focused work blocks scheduled for your hardest work when you are at your best.
- General work blocks for tasks require less mental energy (e.g., responding to email).
- Classes, meetings with your adviser, research group, accountability group, etc.
- Free time.
- Buffer time.
Test your schedule out for a week and pay attention to how often you deviate.
- Identify when you deviate from your schedule.
- Try to assess why you deviated. For example, did you not allocate enough time for the task because a task was more time-consuming or harder than you thought it would be? Did you get distracted? Did you spend too much on an unimportant task?
- Create a schedule for the next week that supports more reasonable expectations. To do this you might need to break tasks down further, use strategies to reduce distractions, divide your time differently, etc.
- If you would like help or an objective sounding board to make a weekly plan, attend an ARC workshop or schedule an appointment with an academic coach at the ARC.
Set Daily Goals
Approaching each day with intention will enable you to get through the day without having to burden yourself with decisions throughout the day.
- Decide in the morning (or the night before) what you are going to get done during the focused blocks of time that you have mapped out for that day in your weekly schedule. Put those specific goals on your to-do list.
- Decide in the morning (or the night before) what you are going to get done during the general work blocks that you have mapped out for that day in your weekly schedule. Put those specific goals on your to-do list.
- Try using a blank daily block schedule.
A few tips:
- Make an actual to-do list -- in a notebook, on an index card, on your computer.
- Make the tasks on your to-do list achievable goals for the day. Failure to complete a planned task can sap confidence and start a cycle of avoidance. Conversely, crossing achieved goals off the list is hugely satisfying! Completing a goal will motivate you to move on to the next one or even exceed your current goal.
- At the end of the work day, review your to-do list and enjoy looking at everything you got done.
If there are things that you did not get done, take a moment to evaluate those items and to reflect on what got in the way. Did you avoid a task for some reason? Did you underestimate how long other tasks would take? Did you have too many unexpected interruptions? Use these reflections to guide your plans for tomorrow. For example:
- If you are procrastinating on something important but not urgent, make one discrete task non-negotiable. Whether time-bound or task-bound, make sure the task is reasonable in time and difficulty. Examples include incorporating new comments into a draft, emailing a prospective committee member, writing 100 words of a prospectus, or working on an abstract for 45 minutes.
- If you want to practice setting achievable daily goals, consider joining an accountability group. Many of these groups, including those at the ARC, require stating your short-term goals. It can be useful to hear how others do this and to experiment with what works for you. (Sign up for accountability groups through the ARC calendar.)