In September I gave you a little pep talk on how to set yourself up for success at the beginning of the semester by planning your semester ahead and by getting organized. Today I am back to remind you of your resolutions, and to help you stay on track (or get back on track, if necessary).
The middle of the semester is the time when everything is in full swing. You are working on a number of things at the same time, and yet nothing is finalized. You may be flooded by emails. Deadlines are coming up soon, and you still have so many things to work on before you can finalize those end-of-year reports.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is nothing I can do to make this period of time less intense, because the nature of my job is that everything accelerates during these weeks in the middle of the semester. At the same time, I have learned that with good time management skills, I can successfully flow through the busy weeks.
Ten planning tips to stay on track
If you set up your semester with good planning and organizing at the beginning, it does not take much effort to stay on track. It does not take a lot of time to stay on track, but the key lies in reserving time often to check in with your goals and progress. I plan on Friday afternoons, and I invite you to reserve half an hour once a week to pay attention to your planning and progress.
Here are ten tips you can use to stay on track, or to get back on track if you fell off the bandwagon:
- Review your semester priorities: If you want to make progress on your semester priorities, you need to have your priorities somewhere visible and make time for them. I have my semester priorities on the whiteboard in my office, so I see them every day. I review them regularly and see if I can already check off any priority. I also review my schedule on a monthly and weekly basis and align how I choose to spend my time with what I want to achieve in a semester.
- Review your task list once a month: Before the start of every month, I do a shorter version of what I do at the beginning of every semester. I start by reviewing my calendar to know which major events, meetings, and trips are upcoming. If I haven’t done so yet, I make sure I reserve time on my calendar to prepare presentations or agendas for these events and trips. Based on my semester priorities, I will then make a list of tasks to complete in the upcoming month. I use the categories work, personal, and relationships. In the category of work, I use the following subcategories: writing, research, teaching, service, admin, and blog/pod. I add two to three tasks in each category (for service and admin I sometimes add up to six tasks, as these tasks can be shorter in nature).
- Monthly planning: Once I know the upcoming meetings, and events, as well as the tasks that have priority in the upcoming month, I make my planning for the next month. I generally will already see when I will have time to work on major research tasks and protect the time that I have reserved for these tasks.
- Weekly review: On a weekly basis, I plan on Friday afternoon. I review what I achieved in the past week and look at my monthly task list. I then decide what I will be focusing on in the next week in the categories work (with the subcategories I explained before), personal, and relationships.
- Weekly planning: Since I use a weekly template, I don’t have to do much preparation to plan my week. I check my priorities for the week, my reserved time slots for different tasks, and pending tasks that may be lingering in my email inbox (for example, if my email backlog is getting too large, I need to move some time blocks around to make sure I will have time in my schedule to get to hack down my backlog). I also usually review the family schedule for the week with my husband, daughter, mother-in-law, and babysit.
- Daily planning: At the end of every day, I check what is on my calendar for the next day. As I don’t like working with my Google Calendar open, I write down my schedule for the next day, as well as a checklist of priorities, in my physical calendar. I can also see then when an unexpected timeslot has opened, or if I have double commitments that require me to send an email with my regrets.
- Tracking progress: Sometimes, the middle of the semester feels as if nothing gets finished. You may get the feeling that you are working so hard and achieving nothing. I invite you to track your progress. I track my time, so it is easy to see what I have been working on. For a long time, I also logged what I had done and achieved (such as having a meeting with PhD candidate x or working on the literature review section of paper Y). In addition, I track the words that I write on a daily basis, as well as the number of emails in my mailbox in the morning, at the end of the day, and the amount of sent and received emails. In the past, I also tracked papers read on a daily basis, the number of Pomodoro sessions, or minutes of screen time on my phone.
- Schedule important meetings ahead of time: If one of your main tasks for the semester is to write a research report for a funding organization, then make sure you plan the relevant meetings ahead of time. By planning ahead of time, you make sure the other participants will have more availability. In addition, if you plan a number of meetings with your colleagues prior to the major one, you will be able to stay on track with your progress of the report, and you will be getting regular feedback from colleagues (which most likely will lead to a better final product). In addition, I recommend scheduling regular meetings with students you are supervising, so that you can have a recurring time and date for your discussions.
- Work on your major goals: You won’t’ be able to achieve your semester priorities if you don’t reserve time for working on these. Very much in line with planning in advance for the important meetings, I invite you to plan larger chunks of time to work in concentration and to plan and reserve these chunks of time in advance.
- Avoid the overwork-burnout cycle: The middle of the semester is busy. You may feel tempted to just pile on more on yourself until you reach the point of just working and sleeping. You can do this for a week or three, and then you will be just so tired that you won’t be able to make any further progress. Avoid this cycle of too much and then too little, and look for ways of putting in sustained effort during the semester.
In today’s post, I have invited you to find time once a week to check in with yourself and your progress. At the beginning, it may feel unnatural, but after a while, you will see that putting in a bit of thought and thinking ahead can spare you a lot of problems and all-nighters in the future. Good luck with staying afloat in the busy times of the semester!
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