Have you ever sat down to make a to-do list and felt overwhelmed by the enormity of your goals? Many academic writers struggle with this feeling. There’s just so much to accomplish (publish these articles for tenure, prep an entirely new course, plan this conference, etc), and the journey to achieving those goals can feel like walking through a maze blindfolded.
A few weeks ago, I worked with a group of academics to create semester writing plans. When we reached the lesson on breaking goals down into tasks, I feared there might be a revolt. One participant called the exercise “brutal.” It was certainly challenging. Most people don’t learn any sort of project management in graduate school, so the prospect of creating actionable tasks is incredibly daunting.
Turning Goals Into Tasks
The process I walked the group through is relatively simple and is definitely something you can do too. First, establish your goals. A goal might be, “complete article by November 15th.” Then, break that goal into sub-goals. Some obvious sub-goals: completing each section of the article. Then, you’d want each of those sub-goals to have a set of actions. In my coaching program the Productivity Pipeline, we call these “Projects” and “Actions.” Each action is tied to a metric, usually writing/work time. Here’s how I turn a goal into a task.
Project: Literature review
- Do keyword searches for relevant articles.
- Read article abstracts.
- Print/organize articles.
- Schedule time to read each article (you might set aside 45 minutes for each article. Each article becomes its own task).
- Go to the library to borrow relevant books.
Then, you would create another set of actions to help you start writing:
- Identify themes in literature
- Determine what themes should be subheadings of the lit review or combined into one subsection.
- Write 100 words on each theme (this is a task that can be repeated over and over until you have the section complete).
Ideally, your list would be exhaustive. You don’t want to leave out tasks because they seem easy or obvious. The objective is to have a complete inventory of what needs to be done in order for you to achieve your goals, so you can then schedule those tasks.
The very thing that makes the task list effective, however, is also what makes it overwhelming. In fact, the task-creation exercise revealed a truth that many writers don’t want to know – just how much work they actually have to do.
Now, the reason many you as an academic (and people in general) don’t want to face all you have to do isn’t that you’re afraid of hard work. Instead, you’re afraid of how long it’s going to take. Once you plan out your tasks and start scheduling them, you realize that the article you thought you could write in a month will actually take twice as long. This can be incredibly stressful! Here’s my tough love: it’s going to take twice as long whether you write it down or not. But you’ll spend less time if you write it down because you won’t waste time spinning your wheels wondering what to do next.
You might be asking yourself if it’s actually worth it to spend so much time planning. After all, you could be spending that time on your work. As I mentioned, a plan can alleviate uncertainty. You’re also less likely to mess things up if you have a plan. A plan serves as the directions to your destination or goal. Imagine if you were planning a hike but didn’t organize your gear or map out your course. That would be one unpleasant hike.
With more certainty and direction, you’ll have more confidence in your ability to get your work done. So even if doing the exercise I discussed above to turn goals into tasks seems very intimidating, do it anyway. Once you start doing it, you’ll realize how valuable it is and you’ll want to do it. To keep it simple, start with one small project like the literature review I discussed. Identify 3-5 tasks and schedule them in your calendar. Then, as you’re working on the tasks, think about how you feel. Do you feel focused? Relieved? Organized?
Let’s face it: you don’t have time to be afraid of your tasks.
If you’d like even more guidance on turning goals into tasks, scheduling your work, and effectively managing your projects, then click here to receive my free workbook on creating a writing plan. You’ll go from wondering how everyone else gets so much done to knowing exactly how you’ll get your work done!