Dear Mentors: Help! My Semester Plan Has Already Fallen Apart

Sometimes the best-laid plans for your semester fall apart. Anthony Ocampo and Kerry Ann Rockquemore share five ways to get back on track

September 13, 2018
 
istock/Z_wei
 

Dear Mentors,

It's my second year on the tenure track, and I was determined to start things right. I created my Semester Plan for my research and writing goals (as you suggested!), but things have gotten so busy that everything seems to be falling through the cracks. I'm already overwhelmed, feel hopelessly behind, and have no idea what I should be focusing on during my daily writing time (if I can even get to it).

Sincerely,

Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

Thanks for your honesty. First, let me assure you that many tenure-track faculty members make plans, get overwhelmed and struggle to recover. The purpose of a plan is to elevate the high-priority work that has no built-in daily accountability (research and writing) so that you don't become overwhelmed by lower priority work that has intense daily accountability (service and research). The hard reality is that your tenure and promotion decision will weigh heavily on your research publications, so it is not a winning strategy to consistently put this work off in order to get everyone else's needs met.

We find lots of people make a plan, but then they struggle to stick with it on a weekly (much less daily) basis. That's because it's perfectly normal to have ups and downs in your relationship to your research and writing during the semester. We all have those days when the writing is smooth as butter, especially on the days we don't have classes or committee meetings. On the days we have teaching and service obligations, however, it gets a lot more difficult to stick to the plan, and that can have a negative domino effect on your productivity.

Let's start by taking a deep breath, mustering some compassion and grace towards yourself, and hitting the reset button on your relationship to your semester plan. While we don't know the specific reason you're off the rails, we can suggest several ways for you to experiment with getting back on track. Answering the following questions may help you to identify your blocks and find a powerful solution.

Are you holding a weekly planning meeting? Many academics make plans for their semester, but those plans typically omit the most important ingredient: a weekly ritual that puts you in conversation with your plan, designates the tasks required to achieve your goals and determines when exactly the work will get done. If you're not sitting down for a weekly planning meeting, why not take 30 minutes each week to identify the tasks you need to re-engage your semester plan and enter them into your calendar (just like you would a meeting)? That simple 30-minute ritual is what connects your plan to your reality on a weekly basis.

Are you realistic with your time estimates? Even when faculty members hold a weekly planning meeting, many fall prey to the same error: consistently and grossly underestimating the time that research and writing tasks take. It's common for academic writers to budget 30 minutes for a task that takes far longer and then get frustrated when it's not complete in the designated time. After which they either throw the rest of their schedule for the day out the window in order to complete the initial task or decide that planning doesn't work for them. Does this sound familiar? If so, we want to encourage you to just experiment with a simple strategy: however long you think a task will take, multiply that number by 2.5& before putting it in your calendar. That may seem painful, but when you learn to accurately assess how long tasks take, you’ll find yourself much more selective about the work that you agree to complete.

Are you matching writing tasks to your overall daily activity? Another common planning mistake faculty members make is that they forget that not all tasks related to writing and research require the same amount of energy. Think about the amount of energy it takes you to write a first draft of a manuscript. Is it the same amount you need to edit the manuscript, write an abstract, insert a citation or create a table? Probably not.

Do an inventory of your writing process and recognize which tasks require more or less of your energy. (Some people love writing first drafts more than editing, and vice versa!) When you accept that an enormous number of discrete tasks are involved in moving from an idea to a completed manuscript or grant proposal, you can recognize that all of those tasks do not require equal amounts of cognitive energy. We can plot our writing tasks on a continuum from brainless to brain-intensive.

If you can get your head around this idea, it can be incredibly freeing. For example, when you have heavy teaching days, why not set yourself up for success by scheduling some brainless but necessary tasks during your writing time. For example, doing some minor copyediting of your manuscript is relatively easy and helps you "stay warm" with your manuscript. Maybe you could use this day to scout out sample journals to submit your completed manuscript. Perhaps you could set up a phone meeting with a trusted colleague to have a casual conversation about your manuscript.

And when you have light teaching days, allow yourself to dive into more brain-intensive tasks. These are the days when you might read theory articles. (Sociologists like us would read Marx, Du Bois, Bourdieu or Foucault.) And on days when you have no teaching at all, you can do a deep dive into your qualitative or quantitative data or spend a whole day doing a textual analysis of a historical document or piece of literature. What counts as brain-intensive tasks varies by discipline, but what matters most is knowing what days of your week will allow for the heavy lifting.

Do you have an accountability mechanism to build the habit of daily writing? While we're sure you have the best of intentions to execute your semester plan, we want to encourage you to let go of relying on sheer willpower and perfect discipline to making that happen. For most humans, our priorities are oriented to what we will be held accountable for immediately. (That’s why most new faculty members over-function on teaching and service.) Instead, what would it look like to create an accountability structure -- the kind that would rival your teaching and service commitments -- for your writing?

There are so many ways to create an accountability structure. For example, one of us -- Anthony -- has a monthly Zoom call with fellow writers in which they take turns giving feedback on each other's manuscripts. Although each Zoom meeting focuses on just one or two people, every member knows to submit whatever work-in-progress they have to the group. Other times, the accountability structure can be more modest. For Anthony, it's been super productive to have a group of three or four "nag buddies," whom he can text for accountability. Sending them a quick text to let them know you're dropping down for 30 minutes of writing might even inspire them to get their writing done that day.

Are you scheduling grace? The final common error we see in planning is that most academics write a semester plan without any space for grace. By that we mean that they fill up a 12-week plan with 12 weeks of work and no space for unexpected challenges or spontaneous opportunities -- for life to happen. So when those unplanned things occur, they fall behind and give up on their plan.

Instead, we want to encourage you to acknowledge the reality that no matter how well you plan, life will throw you some curve balls every semester. So why not build space for grace periods into your plan from the beginning?

It's not hard. If you're revising your semester plan, just pick two random weeks in it and allow those to be exclusively devoted to "catch up time" (i.e., plan nothing in them). This also works for weekly planning. You can schedule a block of time each week that is designated for "catch up" time. That will allow you to have pockets of time already built in so that you can more gracefully flex and flow with the reality of things that are outside of your control.

At the heart of all of these suggestions is a simple idea: Try to set goals that will facilitate your writing momentum and avoid goals that will set you up for failure and make you feel shame. In our experience, setting grandiose goals is a surefire way to feel ashamed about your "lack of progress." On the other hand, setting modest goals that you regularly exceed will lift your spirits and catapult your momentum toward success.

Peace and Productivity,

Anthony Ocampo, associate professor at California State Polytechnic University and director of campus workshops at the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity&

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the center

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