Ruthlessly realistic with annual plans


Ah, another new academic year. Time to make plans. Take stock. Write goals. Start filling up the diary.

Given the disruption we’ve experienced over the last eighteen months, it’s really tempting to think that it’ll be possible to get back to something like our usual routine. This year there’ll finally be time to catch up on all the things that were put aside. Abandoned, but not forgotten.

Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to work out that a normal workload plus catching up is likely to be a lot more than there is actually time for. After all, the usual workload in your average university is generally pretty demanding. So why now think of adding even more?

If this is you – and it has been me until quite recently – then it’s time to get realistic.

First of all, let’s not assume that this year is going to proceed smoothly. I don’t know about you, but I am starting out with hybrid teaching – some heavily-masked face to face, and some online. I’m pretty uncertain about whether this mix will continue or will be disrupted. Perhaps I will need to replan and revise my course, yet again. And there’s some field work happening in my biggest research project, but who knows if that will go on. So I may need to be “flexible” about teaching and research. Not much point in making plans which don’t allow for change.

In the light of potential changes, I’ve thought about my diary in two ways – time that I will need if things go on as they are now. And additional time that will be needed if things get worse again. If research has to be reorganised, if different methods are required, if there’s a need to give people in the field some space. Not forgetting teaching which may retreat to the safety of the virtual, with accompanying challenges, more students working remotely in different time zones with different kinds of access.

After going through this matching-jobs-to-diary exercise, there’s quite a bit of time already committed – blocks for teaching, meetings, mentoring, admin, research – and some contingency time shaded in, just in case.

But what about the absent writing and publishing? Writing the things that I am committed to, and the things that I want to do. Writing has taken a battering in the last eighteen months. I am way beyond way behind, particularly on big writing projects. I have been saying no to most new writing projects for some time but I am still left with a big list of writing must-dos and want-to-dos.

Just like a lot of people I get pretty agitated when I am a very long way behind where I need or want to be. I feel really overwhelmed by having too many tasks due at once, and too little time. Adding writing to my annual plan surfaces this likelihood.

So here is where a bit of ruthless self-management comes in handy. I’ve just made a list of what’s in my two categories of writing – the must do and the desirable. I’ve looked at how much time each of them will take. I’ve plotted this writing time against the time I am likely to have if things go as well as they might this year. I’ve also looked at what time is available if things don’t go to plan. And I’ve had to prune back everything but the essentials.

There was writing that I wanted to do that I probably won’t get time to do. Rather than continue to feel bad about never getting to it, that writing is on the back burner now, rather than having it haunt me for the entire year. I still have a list of things I want to publish, but I know most of it wont happen straight away.

And I’ve made some decisions about the things I do outside of my workload, things that take up a fair bit of time. I’m giving up on the vast majority of external talks and workshops I usually do. For the foreseeable. My diary exercise showed me that there are some important jobs that won’t be done if I keep the outside work in.

In a nutshell, looking at what I can actually do, given the likely year, has pushed me to be more realistic and pragmatic.

This more granular approach to annual planning – matching commitments and desirable activities to the actual time likely to be available, and allowing for contingencies – feels pretty alien to me. In the past I’ve had much looser plans. But I really don’t want another year of feeling submerged in the alligator pool. Being realistic does restore a sense of autonomy and control. I have made choices about what I will try to get done and what I won’t. And I’m prepared to revisit my goals and plans again during the year, if events really spin out.

PhDers in particular also need to plan realistically. Working backwards from submission date is a key to working out what needs to be done, by when. Thinking of the Phd as project to be managed can really help. But if the PhD demands don’t meet the available time then you, like me, need to make some decisions about how to adjust your programme. This is not about giving up, but discussing progress with your supervisor, using the provisions available to you for modifying your timeline, finding peer groups and institutional programmes that can help you to keep going, and seeking help if you feel in need of additional support.

Don’t wait till you feel like it’s all too much, as I did last year. The trick is not to ignore either demands or time, but to take charge of them.