Sunday, August 5, 2012

Get Your Goals and Projects out of Your Head and onto Paper

Like many academics, I often have several ongoing projects and it can be overwhelming to figure out when I will have the time to make progress on each of my projects, tasks, and goals.

Sometimes, just thinking about all I have to do is overwhelming, and it seems I may never finish my books and articles. I find writing everything I have to do down onto paper to be very helpful when I begin to feel overwhelmed.

At important milestones during the year – the beginning or end of the summer, fall, spring, or annual year – I like to sit down and map out where I am on all of my projects and when I expect to finish them. This is a great exercise to complete because it is a reminder that each of my projects is, in fact, terminable.

Today is August 5, which means that the beginning of the Fall semester looms ahead. For me, it is helpful to separate out what must be done before the semester begins and which projects can wait until I am back from my extended research trip in Peru. Unlike when I was doing my dissertation research, I now have to keep up with my other ongoing research projects and professional responsibilities even when I am collecting new data in remote locations.

Just thinking about all I have to do can be overwhelming. That’s why putting my goals and projects down on paper can be comforting. Even though it can also be scary to see all that I have to do, writing the tasks, goals, and projects down is the first step towards making a workable plan to complete them.

So, what do I actually need to do before the semester starts?

My discipline is Sociology. We sociologists have our annual meeting each year just before the beginning of the semester. This means that each year, in addition to planning classes and meeting other deadlines, I have to prepare for the annual meeting. This year, I have agreed to present three papers and serve as a discussant on one panel. Here are my four meeting-related tasks that must be completed before I leave Peru on August 15:

  • Prepare race and humor presentation
  • Prepare due process denied presentation
  • Prepare human rights and international migration presentation
  • Read and prepare comments on four paper for my role as discussant

Like most other academics on a semester system, I also have to prepare for my classes, which begin on August 24. This Fall, I am teaching just one class, and it is a class I have taught before. However, I have changed the syllabus considerably, and am teaching at a new university. I need to finalize the syllabus before the semester begins. Thus, we can add to the list:

  • Finalize syllabus for race class

As the semester starts fairly late in August, and I am dedicated to writing every day, in addition to these responsibilities, I also hope to finish up two other writing projects in August. These two projects are:

  • Complete tasks for R&R for LS project.
  • Complete Chapter 5 of DEP book.

Now, I have a complete list of what I will focus on until August 31. There are quite a few things on this list, but having this list permits me to stay focused, and ensures I will not work on any other projects during the month of August.

I do have several other things that I could work on, but I have moved all of these other projects off of my current priority list and onto my “Fall Semester Goals” list.

My Fall Semester Goals include:

  • OUP Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
  • DEP Chapters Intro, 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, Conclusion
  • ERS R&R
  • Intro to SI for ERS
  • Papers with YI and SD
  • SWB Paper

Now that I have a list of all of the projects I hope to complete during the Fall Semester, I can work on a semester plan. It is clear that when I do that, I will again have to prioritize and decide what can actually be completed in the Fall and what will have to be moved to the Spring. But, having everything I have to do in front of me permits me to make a realistic assessment of what can and cannot get done. Thus, when my editor emails me to ask when I will be finished with Chapter Six or my co-author wants to know if I can finish the R&R by October 15, I can give them a reasonably accurate answer.

What about you? What do you need to finish today? this week? this month? this semester? this year? Does writing it all down help you?


  1. Thank you for inspiring me! Your blog really helped me in working on my PhD thesis! I followed your advices on how to write every day, how to do the literature review and they save me!
    I really like to thank you for sharing the pomodoro technique! I really loved it! I am very productive every day, so I don’t feel guilt anymore.Instead I feel very creative! Additionally, I manage to have free time every day for relaxing and exercising!

    I agree with you that writing down really helps! My goal for this month is to finish my chapter on the concept of Identity. My goal for this year is to defend my thesis before December!

  2. Writing it all down, not usually, although when there are things I am likely to forget it is good to have a list, and it is good to have a calendar. But, that's because of having a good intuitive sense of how long things will take. It's also because it isn't the list that helps, it's making sure daily that I feel well and give myself time.

  3. I enjoy and profit from your blog. But wow: "This Fall, I am teaching just one class," How did you arrange that? Most people I know in the States teach three or four per semester. (In my country, university faculty teach six or more. If American administrators ever find out, I fear for my U.S. colleagues!)

  4. Tanya, I would love to hear your thoughts on starting new projects--I find it really hard to map out a semester plan when projects are new, as I'm not entirely sure what I'll need to do yet. Any thoughts on getting through the lull between projects? (And yes, of course I have other things in the background, but I'm talking about when main projects end--i.e., moving from dissertation to new work, etc)