Work-plans: realism vs idealism (and letting realism win)

I wrote last year about making work-plans, as I had a mammoth of a plan for 2013 so that I could get my PhD finished. I am writing about this again, from a very different place, as I find this is still a big issue for me.

This is being being a ninja at my desk, fingers flying across the keyboard, realistic task list being whittled down
This is me being being a ninja at my desk, fingers flying across the keyboard, realistic task list being whittled down

I am not very good at making realistic work-plans: I tend towards an oddly naive and rather (I think) charming sort of idealistic optimism when I am making my writing and reading ‘to do’ lists, and when I look at these a few months or years after I have written them all out and then largely failed to stick to them I feel shame, but also find myself bemused by my own idealism. It’s like I have two parts of myself: the realist who does my job every day, and totally gets how long it takes to do things when you are often waiting for someone else to do their bit to make the thing on your list happen, for example, and when the internet or your PC are working on geological time;


This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently
This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

and then there’s the part of me that is a rather idealistic and detached-from-reality writer and thinker, and oddly uses none of the learning from the realistic working side of me to realise that writing and thinking, even though I may be doing these things mostly on my own with only me to worry about, actually take a really long time.

I have realised, looking at these two parts of my writing and working self, that I make two different kinds of work-plans: realistic ones and idealistic ones, and I am really much better at making and sticking to the former, which might help to explain why I complete more emails and admin tasks than I do publishable written papers. I need to translate some of that helpful realism into the task lists I create for my writing. But, how? I quite like the idealistic, lives-in-her-head part of myself – I think she does some of my best thinking. I don’t want to sacrifice this creative part of myself. But I also don’t want to just have all of these great ideas in my own head; I would like to send some of them out into the world and have people engage with them and hopefully debate them with me, so my thinking can develop.

I currently have three papers I am working on, and two abstracts for more. I have this crazy, idealistic notion that I can write all of this stuff and finish up the work year and be a very present mum between now and the 12th of December, which is my last day at work. I do know that I will go mad if I stick to this nutty notion, so this is what I am trying at the moment, and it may be helpful to any of you in a similar sort of boat:

-Firstly, I am paring back my expectations of myself (very tough to do). I would like to submit a paper to a special issue of a high impact journal in my field. I have done some of the reading I need to do for the literature review/framework section, and I have the data but have only done a preliminary analysis. In order to write a very good paper to send in, there is a lot of work to do between now and the end of this month, when the paper is due. I have thought a lot about the argument I want to make, so I’m on track, but I can probably, realistically, manage to write just this paper well. Just this one. Just. This. One.

-Secondly, I am thinking short and longer term and dividing my writing up in that way. There is also a paper I have been presenting parts of at seminars that comes out of my PhD research, and that I have some interest in from a journal that is well-respected in my field. I don’t want to take too long to write it because the ideas and the paper itself are fresh and clear now. In an ideal world, I would like to get this sent off before the end of the year as well. Realistically, though, I may have to write a ‘placeholder’ draft that contains the main ideas but is very rough and will have to be refined and played with a bit more in January before being sent in. This will also lead me to the second paper that builds on this paper, and perhaps I could realistically write that one and send it off in February next year.

-The abstracts have December deadlines, so these I think I can (must) manage, as the papers I want to write for the conference (no 1) and the book chapter (no 2) have been wandering around in my head for a while and I have enough to sketch out two abstracts.

The idealist wants to write all of the papers by the end of December. I have all the data, I’ve done some analysis, I’m well-read – good to go for 3 papers in quick succession surely? Well, sure, if I want to create a work-plan for writing that I will almost certainly fall behind on leading to me unnecessarily feeling like a failure. I would like, as we all do, to write strong papers that make a contribution to my field. I do not want to just churn out papers for the sake of publishing. So, this means I need to have a stern but kind word with the idealist, and ask her to have a look at the realist’s task list – one paper finished and sent in by December 12th along with two abstracts, another paper drafted but left for a bit and another percolating on the backburner for 2015. This feels like a far less frantic way forward, and frankly, at this stage of the year, less frantic is exactly what we probably all need.


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