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.

Work plans: making them work for you

In my final year of my PhD, 2013, I had  a LOT to do, and not a lot of time, so I made a work plan. I’m not very good at these – I always think I am way more capable than I am and I seem to also think there are about 35 hours in every day and that I can go without 8 hours of sleep every night. It was a very detailed thing, with 4 columns, broken down by month and by task. I even had a column for possible stumbling blocks and things that would hold me up or prevent me from reaching my deadlines. It is actually still stuck up on the back of my office door. I had one at home too – and I highlighted things in different colours as I went – green for something I did, and blue for something that was postponed because of unexpected changes to my timeline. To be honest, the highlighting didn’t really help at all, but it made the work plan look like it was happening which was a good psychological trick :).

It did all happen in the end, because I did finish, but I learned a few things about making workable work plans that may be helpful to those of you who are at the beginning trying to get started, or in the middle or near the end trying to get it finished and submitted.

1. Work out deadlines and move backwards to now. When do you have to hand in your thesis? (Perhaps also make sure your supervisor is on board with your proposed submission date before you start bullying yourself into sticking to it). That’s the big deadline. It’s a good starting place. Then work out how much time you have between now and then in terms of months (weeks can be a bit too narrow, I found – they go by so fast and a month at a time feels like a less alarming way of working). I worked mine out from January to December, so 12 months in 12 blocks on the spreadsheet. 

2. Start with non-PhD commitments (especially for students who work full-time and are parents/carers of others). Work out your other deadlines and commitments that you can’t ignore – what is happening with your family? If you have kids, what are the big things going on in their lives that you need to be part of, like camps or sports tours or concerts etc? This is especially important if you have to help them prepare or be involved in an integral way as opposed to just being there in the audience or on the sidelines. What’s happening at work? What are the big things you have to get done in the time frames you are looking at? Do you have to travel? Does your partner have to travel? Put in all those things and dates. These can go in column 4, if you like, under ‘things that could slow me down this month’.

3. The next thing would be to work out exactly where you are right now. How much have you already written or done in terms of chapter writing/reading/data gathering/analysis etc? Make a note of all of this. Your work plan needs to be realistic, and starting with what you have already done is also a good way of motivating yourself and feeling good about what you have accomplished so far.

4. Then start working out what needs to be done. For example, I had already completed chapter 2’s draft and had as complete a version as I could have. I had set up my case study sites, and I had a bit of the methods chapter. I needed to gather, transcribe and organise all my data in the first semester. Then I needed to reorganise and analyse it, and write the two analysis chapters, revise the theory chapter, finish the methods chapter and write the introduction and conclusion. (I know – I should have had a workplan in 2012!). It was a lot and I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth and height of it all. But working it all out and breaking it down into smaller bits and into months did help to make it seem more manageable.

5. Finally, put it all into a neat table. I had, for example, column one for the month in which I was working, column two for the objectives I needed to achieve (eg., gather data in two case study sites), column three for the activities I was going to need to do to achieve the objectives (e.g., set up interview dates; write fieldnotes in all lectures etc), and column for for ‘things that might slow me down or get in my way’ so that I could go a bit easier on myself if things fell a part a bit. Here’s mine:


6. Stick it up or keep it in a place where you can refer to it weekly and keep track. Revise as you need to. If you can’t get the interview dates you planned for, you will need to rejig things – flexibility is key, I have found, to workable work plans and to feeling like you are moving forward without having to bully yourself, ask others to bully you or be mean to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. But you also need to be strict if you are going to get to the deadlines in one piece. I procrastinated way too much about the transcription of my video and interview and fieldnote data and I ended up spending some of my study leave doing this, when I should have been doing hard analysis and writing from the get go. This lack of strictness in sticking to my own pretty reasonable workplan meant I had to keep writing the draft when I went back to work and this was very stressful and difficult and I still worry even though I am finished that I rushed my analysis in the end because I cut into that time with tedious things like transcription which should have been finished much earlier in the year.

Plan time off too – work breaks into your workplan where you take a weekend or week off and focus on other parts of your life. You need time every now and then to recharge and rest. As my husband kept saying to me throughout my final year: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint!’