A More Flexible Approach to Planning

calendar-660670_1280Before I used to start any task, whether it was completing a batch of marking, writing an article, or preparing for a lecture, I always spent some time in advance planning how long the task would take and how much time I would need to devote to it each day.

For instance, if I was aiming to complete an article within two weeks, I might set a goal of writing 750 words per day, or if my marking deadline was in 10 days and I had 70 scripts, I’d aim to complete 7 exams per day. This is the approach I had consistently taken over the years and at first glance, it does seem like a reasonable approach to planning.

There was, however, something very crucial that I had been overlooking in my planning process, or to be more specific, an incorrect assumption that I was making. I assumed not only that every day that I worked on that task would be the same, but also that it should be the same. After years and years of doing this, I can attest to the fact that this could not be further from the truth. What I encountered in reality was a much greater degree of variance between each day that I spent working on a task.

There were days when things just flowed and I ended up exceeding what I had hope to accomplish in that day. Then there were the days that I struggled to make any progress whatsoever. Sometimes the progress I made during the exceptionally good days would even out my lack of progress on the ‘off days’, and I would still hit my targeted deadline. Other times I was forced to go back to my initial schedule and amend my completion date. This never felt particularly good!

Despite knowing that my instinctual approach to planning doesn’t work, I still sometimes feel drawn to plan in this way. What this demonstrates is a reluctance to acknowledge that ‘off days’ are inevitable. Acknowledging this would not only lead to a messier schedule, it would also feel like I was somehow inviting more of those days in, which I definitely did not want.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to realize the value in taking a more flexible approach to planning by building in time for less productive days and unexpected delays. Now, on the days when I accomplish less than I would have hoped, I try not to make it a big deal. I can see that what I used to perceive as a ‘bad day’ was not really a bad day at all – it was simply an outcome of the fact that no two days will be exactly the same.

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Setting Goals and Shifting Expectations

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For many people, the start of January is a time for taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. So, what are your goals for 2019?

I’ve come to learn what a powerful role our words play when it comes to setting goals. For instance, whenever I set the goal of writing a ‘chapter’, my inner perfectionist automatically goes into high gear and starts to take over. I instantly feel the weight of what I’m working on and the expectations surrounding it. Who is going to read it? What if it isn’t any good? Why am I bothering with this in the first place? This is how I talk myself out of doing things before I’ve even started.

In order to quiet my inner perfectionist, one technique I’ve started to employ is to soften the language I use surrounding a specific task. So, whether it’s a lecture I’m preparing or a chapter I’m writing, I almost always refer to it as a ‘sketch’, outline’ or even a ‘blueprint’ and I preface whatever I produce as ‘preliminary.’ While it can feel heavy to expect myself to produce a full chapter, writing a preliminary sketch is something I can do.

With this very subtle shift in language, I begin to alleviate any pressure and anxiety associated with the task. It’s a way of tricking my mind into relaxing while I move closer to reaching my goal and in this way, the seemingly impossible task I would otherwise worry about gets completed without me really noticing.

As you start to plan for 2019, ask yourself whether you can shift the language around any of your goals for the year ahead.

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