Focus, Focus, Focus: Goal-Setting for Fall 2020

I love the start of the academic school year. Though this fall is quite different than semesters past, I love the burst of energy after the summer lull; the excitement of fresh minds; the bustle of the university bureaucracy starting to turn its wheels; the freedom to forge forward with new goals and ambitions for the year ahead. I am especially grateful to the academic calendar because it includes these watershed moments–the beginning of academic years and semesters, holiday breaks, the start of summer–that build in natural moments to reflect and refocus on key goals. That’s especially useful because so much of our time is unstructured–and without coming up above water for a breath every now and then, it is easy to lose a grip on the gift of time we have in moving forward with our teaching, research, and mentoring goals.

Most of my productivity has less to do with setting ambitious goals and doggedly reaching them at all costs and more to do with focusing, focusing, focusing on (1) what I need to accomplish to feel that a given period of time was well spent and (2) what I want to accomplish to feel that I am moving forward with my core goals. My goalposts, then, are not set by thinking about what I “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing but instead by how I want to feel when I look back at the semester (or whatever timeline I’m working with).

Will I be happy I spent tons and tons of time in meetings? Maybe, depending on what those meetings are about. Will I be grateful I prioritized reading broadly, writing every day, developing a new project, trying out a new approach to teaching? Perhaps, depending on how that fits into my overall teaching, research, and mentoring goals–not to mention my broader “just-getting-by-as-a-human” goals. What are the few things that will really matter to me–and make me proud that I have accomplished–after the day to day tasks are said and done and I look back on a finished semester? That’s the question I ask myself when I’m doing medium and short-term planning. Because the truth is–there is no limit to what we–within academia–can tell ourselves we must accomplish in a given semester. But there is a baseline to what will actually make us feel like it was worth it–and satisfied to have done it. And finding that modest baseline, and reaching for that doggedly, is how I approach my semester goals.

This is how I start planning my semester. I first list out all the things that I will do no matter what–these include things like teaching, service obligations, and so forth. No matter what happens, the show must go on with these obligations–and they give me a good sense of how committed my time is. Next, I list out all of my projects in progress–and where, realistically, I want to be with them by the end of the semester. I want to have meaningful progress, but I’d also rather beat my goals than barely reach them, so I tend to be cautious on being too ambitious here. Last but not least, I add anything in that I’d like to start–collecting new data, developing a new project, starting a new piece of writing.

Once I have this list, I ask myself if I feel bored, excited or overwhelmed by looking at it. Excitement, with just a dash of overwhelmingness, is my sweet spot. If my goals are too tame, I won’t feel the fire under my seat to accomplish them. If I’m overwhelmed, I’ll find it hard to get the momentum needed to even get started. I adjust my goals until I hit my sweet spot.

Next I break down the goals by month–realistically vetting what I actually need to accomplish every month to get where I aim to be by the end of the semester. Again, I check in with myself that I’m at my sweet spot–mostly excitement–as I break things down by month. I adjust so that I’m not unduly overwhelmed at any given time–which might mean returning back to my overall goals and adjusting accordingly. It may also mean putting more on my plate when I realize that the stuff I thought was going to be consuming just won’t take as much time as I anticipated. And by the way, you don’t have to put more on your plate. If you are briskly moving along in your goals, it’s likely that the best thing for you is to use that extra space for self-care–whatever that looks like. In fact, this should already be built into your goals (hence the emphasis on being in touch with how your goals make you feel holistically).

Here’s what this process looked like for me. First I wrote up my goals, which looked like this:

  • Send off Article-in-Progress for Review
  • Draft Brand-New-Article #1 for Sharing with Colleagues for Feedback
  • Draft Brand-New-Article #2 for Sharing with Colleagues for Feedback
  • Complete 15 – 20 Interviews for Data Collection
  • Draft Book Prospectus for Sharing with Colleagues for Feedback

Depending on your productivity, your career stage, your methods, your personality, and probably a million other things, you may look at this and find this stressful or…highly underwhelming (to put it mildly). But either way, this is my baseline for what I will feel good about accomplishing for this semester, amid all of my commitments. When I broke these goals down by month, I paid a lot of attention to formulating tasks as concretely and as small as possible. For example, I could hypothetically bang out a book prospectus pretty fast–they are short documents, after all. But whatever I wrote probably wouldn’t be that great–and it would stress me out to do. A lot. Instead, I’m being easy on myself by breaking the book prospectus draft down into several parts: in September and October, I’m just going to be memo-ing about my book outline as I get deeper and deeper into my data, so that by the time I get to November, I can draft a coherent set of chapter outlines. Once I get to December, I’ll have been thinking–passively, perhaps, but also proactively so–about the book prospectus for about three good months. It will make the draft feel like less of a jump–and this will be because I put the scaffolding up in the months prior to building the prospectus.

As always, my approach to goal-setting and goal-getting is mine. The most important thing with making the most of the unstructured time we have as academics is knowing yourself and what keeps you happy, sane, and feeling accomplished and sticking to what works for you. It’s also important to realize that all of this is a work in progress–and you are your own worst critic. It’s important to grow not just with what we accomplish but also how we accomplish it. I don’t think you can have the stamina for this career without that growth on both fronts. And that’s especially the case for this of all semesters. Best of luck to you as we embark on a very uncertain time–and wish me luck, as well :).

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