Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Five Steps to Setting Semester Goals

There is no denying it: the Fall Semester is here. The beginning of the semester is always a hectic time for academics. We often are anxious about all we have to do in the moment – finalize syllabi, set up appointments, prepare for classes, and re-arrange our schedules – as well as all we have to do over the next few months.

Although you probably are in a frenzy to get ready for the upcoming semester, I am going to suggest that you add one more task to your immediate to-do list: Set goals for the Fall Semester. In this post, I am going to lay out why you need to do this now and explain exactly how to set your goals.

Academic life revolves around semesters which start and end several times over the year. The beginning of a new semester, then, is something that academics experience over and over again. However, even for those of us who have been teaching for many years, new semesters continue to be times of high anxiety and insecurity. We may have taught our classes several times before, but we never know how this batch of students will be. We may have been in our department for years, but it is often unclear what issues or challenges our department will face this year. For new professors and graduate students, the horizons are even less clear. The unknown, logically, leads to anxiety. Setting goals for the fall semester will allow you to see a bit more lucidly what lies ahead and will relieve some of your anxiety by permitting you to come to terms with what you can and cannot accomplish.

Thus, even though it is one more task in addition to all you have to do, I highly recommend you take thirty minutes to sixty minutes out of your busy schedule and sit down and write out your goals for the Fall Semester. Here is how you do it.

Step One: List all of the tasks that you would like to accomplish this semester. Look over your calendar and through your emails to make sure that you do not forget any important tasks.

Step Two: Separate those tasks into categories. The categories I use are: Research, Teaching, Service, and Personal. Dividing these tasks into categories will help you to prioritize your tasks according to your professional trajectory. For example, if you are at a Research I institution, and your Teaching and Service categories are much longer than your Research categories, you may need to figure out how to move things around.

Step Three: Arrange your tasks by month. It’s almost the end of August, but go ahead and put in August anything that needs your immediate attention. Anything with a September deadline goes in September, and anything with an October deadline goes in October. Once you have dealt with the tasks that have deadlines, you can decide where to put the remaining tasks that do not have firm deadlines.

Step Four: Arrange your tasks by weeks. If you have four writing goals for September, then you can place one in each week of the month. If you have two, then give yourself two weeks for each. The point is to decide NOW when you will turn your attention to each task. This will help you to keep on track and to feel less guilty about not dealing with everything at once.

Step Five: Cut. If you have tasks that do not fit into your semester plan, now is the best time to decide that you will either put them off for another semester or remove these tasks from your list of goals. Believe me, it is much better to make this decision now than to have this weigh on your shoulders for the rest of the semester. If the project is something you really would like to do, make it a priority for the Spring semester. If it is something you wish you could get out of, find a way to do that diplomatically. For example, you could say: “I just made a detailed plan for my semester, and have come to realize that I simply do not have the time to complete this work this semester.”

I wish you the best as you plan for the Fall Semester.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Five Reasons Academics Should Set Writing Goals

Some writers may see the setting of goals as the purview of corporate types and far too unromantic for creative tasks. I, however, have found setting writing goals to enhance, not stifle, my productivity and creativity. Setting goals allows me to prioritize my time and tasks and to make sure that my most important tasks are accomplished.

I set goals both for tasks I will accomplish over the course of the semester, month, and week as well as goals for how much time I will dedicate each day to writing. For example, my goals for the Fall Semester include: 1) Drafting two chapters of my book on deportees; 2) Checking and coding my interviews from the Dominican Republic and Brazil; and 3) Making the final revisions to my book on immigration policy. My goals for next week include: 1) Putting the final touches on a conference presentation and 2) Submitting the final draft of a co-authored book chapter. During the Fall Semester, I plan to write for at least one hour a day and code interviews for at least 30 minutes a day.

I learned about goal-setting from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, and have found setting goals to be enormously helpful in terms of my productivity. In this blog, I give five reasons why I find setting goals to be useful.

Reason #1: Setting goals allows you to track your progress, and to feel more productive.
For example, when I set goals for the semester, at the end of the semester, I can see how much I have accomplished. In academia, often, no matter how productive you are, it never seems to be enough. When you learn to set reasonable goals, however, you can feel good about having accomplished them. Often, I might feel as if I have not done very much in a semester. However, once I look over my goals and look at all I have accomplished, I feel more productive.

Reason #2: Setting goals on a regular basis allows you to figure out how much work you can accomplish and helps you to avoid becoming overburdened.
Many academics find themselves unable to meet deadlines and running breathlessly to the finish line. Some people enjoy these marathon sprints. I, however, prefer to move slowly and steadily. Having set goals for the past three years, I have a very good idea as to what I can accomplish in a month, a semester, or a year. Thus, when I am at my limit, I know when to say “no” to additional obligations.

Reason #3: Setting goals helps you to stay on task.
If, at the beginning of the semester, you have an R&R, copy-edits on a manuscript, two article reviews, and a new chapter to draft, you can prioritize those tasks by setting goals. I set my goals and make plans for what will get done when on the basis of deadlines and the time tasks will take. If you start the semester working on the new chapter, you may never get to the R&R or article reviews – which are likely time-sensitive tasks. You will probably feel better about your progress if you get the smaller tasks done first and then move on to the larger, more daunting task of drafting a new chapter. Setting goals helps you to plan and organize your time effectively.

Reason #4: Setting goals helps you to move along at a steady pace.
For example, I usually set a goal of writing at least one hour each day. On days when I have fewer other obligations, I set a goal of writing for two hours. As I know I have a goal of writing at least 60 minutes each day, I make sure to find that time each day, Monday to Friday, to write. This helps to keep my projects fresh in my mind and make it easier to pick up where I left off whenever I need to.

Reason #5: Setting goals helps you know when to stop.
As I mentioned above, I have a good sense of how much time I can dedicate each day to writing, and how much I can accomplish in a semester. When I reach my writing goals – in terms of time or tasks – I stop. Stopping when I know I have done enough allows me to enjoy the time I spend doing non-work related or non-writing related tasks. Having set goals and met them allows me to enjoy the rest of my life guilt-free.

Setting goals is not necessarily about being more productive. It is about learning how to find the time in your life to do the things you want and need to do. In my life, writing is important, but so are teaching, parenting, my friends, my family, and my community. Setting goals allows me to make time for each of those.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How To Write and Enjoy Life at the Same Time

After being on leave for over a year, returning to my tenure-track position at the University of Kansas seems a bit daunting. While on leave, I have been completely in charge of my own schedule, and have been able to arrange my days such that I have had plenty of time for research, writing, my family, my exercise routine, and enjoying life. Happy with this balance in my life, I am determined to achieve a similarly fulfilling lifestyle upon my return to teaching and service. Here is my plan.

Keep Writing a Priority
My ability to be productive on my writing projects is a direct consequence of having kept a strict writing schedule for this year. Each morning, I write for two to four hours. When I am back in Kansas, I plan to write every morning, Monday to Friday, for two to three hours between 8 am and noon. As there are four hours between 8am and noon, I am leaving myself extra time for breaks and for attending to any important business. Writing, however, will be my priority each morning.

Make Time for Family
During this year abroad, my children have either out of school by 1pm or not in school at all. This means that we have spent nearly every afternoon and most weekends together. When I have had interviews or out-of-town research, I have spent less time with the kids. But, that has been the exception much more than the rule. Often, we have traveled together as a family. In general, we have spent much more time together this year than we normally do, and we have become closer as a family as a result. I recognize that keeping a schedule such as this is unrealistic for when we return to Kansas. However, I will make time for my family by going home to eat lunch with my husband as often as possible and I will pick my kids up from school each day at 6pm and spend the afternoons with them. Weekends, we will have plenty of family time.

Keep Exercise in My Life
This year, we have traveled to many absolutely gorgeous places and it has been a great pleasure to get my late afternoon exercise on trails overlooking the sea, on the beach, by flowing rivers, and gazing at enormous volcanoes. The scenery in Kansas does not lend itself to much praise. However, the pleasure I derive from daily exercise is not limited to the wonderful scenery, and is something I plan to keep up while I am in Kansas. I will incorporate exercise into my daily life by walking to and from work and my children’s school as often as possible, and by signing up for some exercise classes at the Rec Center.

Make a Schedule And Stick to It
The best way to make sure that my days include writing, exercise, and family time is for me to make a schedule and stick to it. I will schedule my writing every morning, my exercise each afternoon, and my family time each evening and weekend. That leaves me plenty of time between noon and 6pm to attend to my other responsibilities. I will make a schedule that allows me time to attend meetings, meet with colleagues, make phone calls, go to the library, do online research, prepare and teach my classes, and respond to emails each afternoon.

Back at my full-time job, I will not have the freedom that my fellowship has afforded me. Nevertheless, I am confident that I can maintain a reasonable schedule and an emotionally and physically healthy balance between my work and my personal life. Life, after all, is too short not to enjoy it as much as possible.