Monday, September 7, 2009

Tip #9b - How to make good goal lists

Ok, so here's part two of the goal list tip and it's implementation time (if you haven't read part one, check it out now):

  • How to start your goal list - Focus on all of the things that you want/need/should/could/would do in any aspect of your life. Let them flow out without censor and get them down as they come to you, before you forget them. Write anything and everything now, and worry about choosing appropriate goals from the list later. You can do this in one sitting or over some period of time. Personally, I like doing it in one sitting because then I can get a train of thought going. But sometimes, when you've opened the floodgates you will find yourself suddenly inspired the next day or later that week (or maybe forever!), and you will find yourself saying "That'd be a pretty cool thing to try", if so, make sure to add it to your list.

  • How to narrow down your list - Once you have your goals down on paper (or screen), start organizing them into a thorough and detailed plan. This plan will eventually be a few large bulletpointed items, followed by smaller subgoals that are the steps to completing large item. Now is the time to condense your list to a few major goals. Pick 5 or so major goals from your brainstormed list and as many subgoals as you'd like.

  • How to organize your goal list - Keep your brainstormed list as a super long term goal, and check back on it every once in a while. There are various ways to organize your lists, but I think most lists should generally be a few large bulletpointed items plus many small subgoals. They don't always have to look like this, sometimes long term goals can just be one large goal, but shorter term goal lists should start to show the fine details and subgoals needed to get there. Projected goal completion dates are also useful and sometimes even a calendar layout can help. See my examples below.

  • What to do if you're stuck on your research goals - If you don't know what to write for your work goals, don't get overwhelmed. You're lucky to realize that now so that you can talk to your advisor before you head down a path almost certain to lead you to PhD Depression. When you talk to your advisor, you might even bring a half completed goal list and explain what you're trying to do. Tell him you'd like to flesh out whatever goals you're missing - ask things like what should your overall goal for the year be (completing a requirement, submitting to a journal, etc)? What should you complete in the next 6 months to help you get there (collect data from 10 subjects, outline your dissertation, etc)? This is a great conversation to get you guys on the same page and can prevent future misunderstandings or unmet expectations.

Here are some examples of how I organized my goal lists:

(To avoid giving out too much information about myself, I've modified
the lists slightly. If you haven't read my "about me" and my reasons
for anonymity, check them out now)

My life this year goal list:
  1. PhD goals:
    • Defend dissertation by August 2010
      -Read two papers a week, add summary of papers to current writing
      -Submit paper in December

  2. PhD Depression Blog goals: (Yay! I completed two of my goals already!)
    • Average 3 entries a week
    • Figure out survey posting
    • Reassess blog success/utility in July 1st 2010
    • ....

  3. ...etc...

My disseration work goal list (6 month list):

You could just say:
  • Make super sonic hyper tonic rocket blaster (made up thing...as far as I know)
...but that doesn't tell you anything that needs to be done or give you any estimate of how long it will take to complete...

My version would look like:

  • Examine blueprints for regular rocket blasters (1 month)
    o Find 10 blueprints (1 week)
    o Compare blueprints (3 weeks)
    -Note the main points of variation in design
    -Compile list of main points of variation

  • Explore super sonic hyper tonicness (1 month)
    o Find 10 recent articles published in good journals (1 week)
    o Develop a list of the advantages and drawbacks versus regular sonic hypo tonic (1 week)
    o Brainstorm ideas for combating the drawbacks and enhancing the advantages (2 weeks)
    -Research the best method for implementing these ideas

  • Create novel blueprint for rocket blaster (2 months)
    o Integrate each of the best variations from the 10 examined blueprints (3 weeks)
    o Add super sonic hyper tonic-ness (3 weeks)
    -Incorporate ideas for enhanced advantaged and decreased drawbacks
    o Present to advisor for approval (2 weeks)
    -Reevaluate with input from advisor

  • Build super sonic hyper tonic rocket blaster (2 months)
    o Find parts (2 weeks)
    o Weld parts (3 weeks)
    o Run small test and adjust blaster (3 weeks)
    o Layout test (1 week)
    o Run test (1 week)
    o Adjust controls based on test (1 week)

  • Write up preliminary results (1 month)
    o Analyze results of preliminary test (2 weeks)
    o Note adjustments made and future adjustments needed to improve results (1 week)
    o Add introduction and conclusion (1 week)

...so that's a way to convince yourself and your advisor that something that sounds somewhat simple (I'm assuming it does to a rocket scientist), is actually a many-part series of steps.

My daily goal list (for month 2 of the example above):

Each day, I like to aim for completing something that seems like it should take me only a couple of hours. It's the same principle of the whole goal list - plan to do something small and be proud of yourself when it's complete. Most likely you will hit a snag and it will take longer than you expected, but you will hopefully still be able to accomplish it. If everything goes smoothly, then move on to tomorrow's goal and be excited that you're ahead of schedule!

You might say:

  • Read 1 paper (which seems like a small task)

...but that makes it sound like you're doing nothing...

I would say:
  • Read 1 paper
  • List advantages and drawbacks
  • Brainstorm methods to combat the drawbacks and enhance the advantages.

You'll notice that the second goal list stresses the importance of the one small goal you're completing that day. It doesn't add much more work than you probably would have done, but highlights all of the work you will be doing. Also, if you look back at the 6-month goal sheet, you'll actually be completing in 10 days (1 day/paper) what you promised would take you much longer (about a month, there's one goal on that list you won't be completing in those 10 days). This will give you some cushion for various problems - if you're having trouble finding papers, or if you're not understanding a paper, or if something later takes extra time.

Final thoughts on goal lists...

  • Where to put your goal list - This is a more personal choice and depends on what works for you. I like to keep my 6 month list by my desk so that I can look at what I should be doing in any given week. I try to keep my daily goal list next to or sitting on my computer keyboard so that it's the first thing I look at when I start working and requires barely a head movement to see over the course of the day. I may consider keeping it by my bed so that I can look at it right when I wake up to avoid that "Oh crap, there's so much to do" panic that I get sometimes in the morning. My yearly goal list is in a google spreadsheet, so that I can look at it any time the feeling strikes. Also, I like that it is in a guarded place (i.e. password protected) so that no one else but me knows my secret hopes and dreams for the coming year. All of these are either electronic or printed on paper, but you could write them in a calendar, notebook, desk planner, personal planner, white board, black board or body paint if you think that would help.

I know all of these things sound stressful - I have a really hard time making myself accountable for things because of a fear that I won't accomplish them - but you don't have to think of this as a reason to beat yourself up. Just try it and stick to it and see if it doesn't actually remove some of the stress from your life. Knowing what needs to be done every morning when you wake up can be such a relief compared to the overwhelming feeling that you need to be doing *everything* when you wake up.

  1. Some time in the next week, dedicate a few hours to setting up your goal lists. Set up at least 3 and no more than 10 lists.

  2. Starting with your long term goals, list a do-able number of long term goals, I like the number 5, it seems to be enough to fill a year without being overwhelming. You might list a goal for each of the most important categories in your life like I did in my example above: research, teaching, social, travel, hobby, etc. When you've listed your goals, bulletpoint a few of the major steps along the way.

  3. Now move on to the 6-month goals - Break the major goal into about 6 1-2 month long sub goals and those into weekly goals.

  4. Finally, think about what you want to do each day of next week. Assign yourself work that you think should take you just a few hours. When you've completed it, check it off, praise yourself for completing your day's work and be done. Do this one once a week for a few weeks and see if you don't start getting out of your slump. Eventually, if you're really finishing off all of your work in a few hours then you can consider upping your goals, but don't push it - this is a marathon not a sprint.
As always, good luck and report back to let us all know how it's going!