Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tip #9a - Make lots of goal lists

As promised on Tuesday's tip post about freeing yourself from the shackles of PhD Guilt, today I'm expanding on the topic of setting goals. I am an avid "to do" list-er, which is sort of like setting goals, but my to do lists tend to be a brain dump of everything I could ever need to do in my entire life and are thus overwhelming and often ignored. The goal list is the to do list's older, more organized, much more successful brother.

As I wrote this tip, it grew into a monster, so I've split it up into two half tips. In this half I will discuss different strategies of constructing goal lists, so that you can think about what is right for yours. In the second half, on Sunday, I will give you examples of my own goal lists and my own personal strategy to try out if you'd like.

So, here's what you should consider before you write your goal lists:

  • Recognize a goal versus an expectation - A while ago I heard someone make a distinction between goals and expectations, which really stuck with me. An expectation is something you hope to have happen, but is not really under your control. A goal is something you have control over and can, for the most part, affect the outcome of. For example, a goal could be to write a dissertation - totally in your control - an expectation is that that you will get your Ph.D. - something someone else controls. The purpose of a goal list is to help you take back control of your often ambiguous work and set structure for yourself in the open-ended world of the PhD program. So when you're making your goal list, make sure you're setting accomplishable goals and not just filling your list with expectations of greatness.

  • Short term versus long term goals - I think it's important to have lots of goal lists. Right now I have 4. The first is a general goal list for my life this year, the second is a 6 month goal list for my dissertation work, the third is a goal/expectation list for this blog and the fourth is my daily goal list. The reason it's important to have goal lists of different granularity is so that you can see both the big picture and the daily work you anticipate it takes to get there.

  • Too many versus too few goals - I strongly suggest erring on the side of caution with the number of your main goals. Too many goals defeats the purpose of the list, which is to give you structure as well as accomplishable benchmarks for success. With too many large goals you are dooming yourself to failure and being unrealistic about what you can accomplish. On any given list, you should have only a few main goals, with subgoals that are required to complete the larger goals.

  • Physical versus mental goal list - A mental list of your goals is a list you plan on breaking - at least it is for me. There is something about writing down and declaring your goals that is scary, final and unappealing. But there are many things you gain from writing down that you tend to not get out of keeping them all stored inside:

    • A thorough plan - I guess you could develop a thorough plan in your head, but by the time you get to the end, would you really remember much? (hint: science and wikipedia, say no)

    • A reference - Even if you remembered your plan for 5 minutes, I doubt you will remember the details of it over time (back to wikipedia for lack of a better quick source). You also won't have anything to pin above your desk or on your mirror, or wherever you find it useful to pin reminders.

    • A promise in writing - If you go as far as agreeing upon this list with your advisor (which I suggest, it's a good way to keep you "honest" to the list), a written list can act as a contract. If you've written out your goals smartly and you stay on track, the next time you or your advisor wonder why things are going so slowly, you can (nicely - don't be a jerk) point out that you are exactly where you should be according to your list. Feel free to casually slip it into conversation - if you're presenting your work to your group, start out with a short summary of the project that highlights the goals you've laid out and then explain how you're right on target. If you're meeting with your advisor, bring the goal list and say "I'm at this point on the list (hopefully you're pointing to a place that corresponds exactly to the current date) and I want to discuss starting this next item on the list with you". If your biggest critic is you, point out the same thing to yourself: "I'm exactly where I said I would be. If I keep on this track I will complete a goal that is an important step in my dissertation, in a time frame that my advisor and I agreed was reasonable."

A story:

The trick with the goal list is to map out a good work schedule without being unrealistic.

The first legitimate goal list that I made was for a course I took in which we had to layout our work plan for a 3 month long final project. It was explained to us the work plan itself was part of the grade and was a lesson to teach us how set realistic goals so that if/when we get into industry we have an understanding of what we can and can not produce in a given time.

With that in mind I set the lowest possible goals that I thought the professor would let me get away with. I simplified the project to something that fulfilled the minimum requirements without any excessive bells and whistles that might add a "wow" factor. Then I broke the work, which sounded very simple and accomplishable in a week, down into about 6 major-ish substeps and had them vary from about 1 week to 1 one month in completion time needed.

Some of these steps were pretty simple, such as "project write-up" and I assume a lot of my classmates didn't consider it important enough to note, but I gave that step a week of time for two reasons - 1) It would actually take some time and should be acknowledged as one more piece of work I was doing and 2) It might only take me a day or two, but a week didn't seem like too much to ask and gave me 5 extra days to make up for when I inevitably got behind somewhere else. The same was true about my 5 other steps - some didn't seem that complicated, so I would suggest a week of time. But those weeks added up so that it was clear to the professor that there was not just one major component that should only take one month, which is the time I allocated for the major component, but other, small substeps that would chip away at my 3 months on their own. The other substep that I added and assume other people brushed off was basic setup of the project. There is always a learning curve for starting anything new, and set up (i.e. learning new theories/procedures/technologies) can be the biggest time killer of all the work, so should definitely be acknowledged in any project, complete with a list of all the learning that will be required.

So how did this project go? As you might have guessed (why else would I be telling the story?), it went great. The professor was fine with the amount of work I laid out. I got behind on things as I anticipated, but since I gave myself cushions of time to make up for it. I finished everything by the due date. And since a majority of the class didn't complete their more ambitious projects, my project looked like a star by the end. The moral of the story is: set small, manageable goals, give yourself the time you think you need plus a large cushion and at the end, instead of frustrating yourself and your advisor with a broken, half completed promise, you will deliver exactly what you promised or more.

On Sunday I'll finish this post with a "how to" tip.

By the way, on another day when I have more time, I'll write a review of this book, which I really liked and inspired the first seeds of the idea of daily work plans in me. But until then, if you're dying for a whole book of dissertation writing suggestions check out:
Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis