In the comments section of Trevor's recent post, "Dissertation Reflection Series, Part 2: A Different Kind of Project", a reader ("cw") wrote:
For me, #1 was the biggest problem. I'm not good with unstructured time. I found myself rushing at the end of each semester to have something to show my director.
I should have set more meeting points for us, and clearer expectations for each meeting. I'm sure my director would have gone for it, but I didn't ask.
In my experience, this is a problem a lot of graduate students have, and for roughly the reasons Trevor gives. Throughout the first part of grad school (e.g. course work, comp exams, etc.), one has fairly clear deadlines. Yet, when it comes to the dissertation stage and publishing, one no longer has such clear deadlines--and one can end up wasting a lot of time getting little done. I know from experience! After my comp exams, I basically got nothing of import done for about a year-and-a-half. And it wasn't for lack of trying. I was reading. I was trying to write. I just wasn't being effective. And I know I'm not alone in this. I am currently mentoring a PhD student who excelled in graduate school...until passing comp exams (just like me!). Fortunately, I have learned a lot about how to deal effectively with "unstructured time", and as I will explain below, the strategies I have developed have sound empirical support.
I didn't know this until my spouse (who works in IO-Psychology), but one of the more well-confirmed theories in her field is known as Goal-Setting Theory. In rough outline, Goal-Setting Theory posits that specific and ambitious daily and weekly goals lead to higher performance than easier or more general goals. The basics of Goal-Setting Theory have been inductively confirmed by over 400 studies spanning over 25 years. More exactly, the theory recommends (here I quote):
- Clarity. A clear, measurable goal is more achievable than one that is poorly defined. In other words, be specific! The most effective goals have a specific timeline for completion.
- Challenge. The goal must have a decent level of difficulty in order to motivate you to strive toward the goal.
- Commitment. Put deliberate effort into meeting this goal...
- Feedback. Set up a method to receive information on your progress toward a goal. If losing 30 pounds in four months turns out to be too hard, it is better to adjust the difficulty of your goal mid-way through the timeline than to give up...
- Task complexity. If a goal is especially complex, make sure you give yourself enough time to overcome the learning curve involved in completing the task. In other words, if a goal is really tough, make sure you give yourself some padding to give you the best chance at succeeding.
Interestingly, several years ago I began implementing this very strategy...before ever learning of Goal-Setting Theory--and the strategy's effects on my work efficiency have been remarkable. Allow me to briefly illustrate how I deploy Goal-Setting strategies, along with the differences they have made in my efficiency.
When I was in grad school, I used to spend months on end drafting a single paper. Then, if I got a revise-and-resubmit, I would spend anywhere from 4-9 months (determined primarily by whatever the resubmission deadline was). It was a grueling and inefficient way to work, but it was all I knew how to do. My first step toward becoming more efficient was learning some new writing strategies I recounted recently here. Just as importantly, however, I slowly began setting determinate and challenging daily and weekly goals for myself, just as Goal-Setting Theory recommends. Here is roughly how I go about my work nowadays. I've never owned a daily planner. Instead, I formulate daily, weekly, and monthly goals in my head. For example, this summer I had two revise-and-resubmits to complete, one book-review to write one paper to draft for an edited volume, five new papers to draft, and a tenure-file to put together. So, I first put together a monthly plan in my head:
- May (3 weeks, given first-week commencement): complete 2 revise-and-resubmits, complete book review
- June: draft 3 new papers over four weeks
- July: put tenure file together, draft two more papers
- August: finish tenure file, prep for Fall classes
These might seem like overly ambitious goals (I don't know, do they?). In any case, once upon a time they would have been far too ambitious for me. Nowadays, however, these sorts of goals have become fairly routine. Thus far this summer, I've met all of the above goals. I had a similarly ambitious set of goals a couple of summers ago, when I completely re-wrote Rightness as Fairness' eight chapters from scratch (with mostly new arguments) over an eight-week period prior to submission of the final manuscript. Although again these goals might seem too ambitious, one of the central (and verified) parts of Goal-Setting Theory is that ambitious goals that are hard to meet actually turn out to motivate better goal-satisfaction than easier to meet goals! The critical thing, apparently, is for one's goals to be really ambitious, but not so ambitious that one consistently fails to meet them.
Anyway, in line with Goal-Setting Theory, I've found that the way to accomplish monthly goals like these is to in turn set clear, challenging weekly goals, and then similarly clear and challenging daily goals. For example, here are what my weekly goals routinely look like:
- Week 1: complete one revise-and-resubmit, begin drafting paper for edited volume.
- Week 2: complete second revise-and-resubmit, continue drafting paper for edited volume.
- Week 3: finish draft paper for edited volume, write book review.
- Week 4: draft new paper on X. Work on revisions of paper for edited volume.
- Week 5: draft new paper on Y. Work on revising book review.
- Week 6: work on teaching portion of tenure file. Revise draft of X.
- Week 7: work on research portion of tenure file. Revise draft of Y.
In order to ensure that I meet these goals, however, I also have to set clear daily goals and rigorously hold myself to them. So, for example, here are what a typical set of daily goals looks like:
- Monday: complete revisions of section 1 of revise-and-resubmit paper. Work for two hours on drafting paper for edited volume, drafting its introduction.
- Tuesday: complete revisions of section 2 of revise-and-resubmit. Work for two hours on edited volume paper, drafting some or all of its first section.
- Wednesday: complete revisions of section 3 of revise-and-resubmit. Work for two hours on edited volume paper, finishing draft of first section and beginning draft of second section.
- Thursday: complete revisions of final section of revise-and-resubmit. Begin writing reply to "reviewer 1" comments.
- Friday: finish writing reply to "reviewer 1" comments. Write reply to "reviewer 2" comments.
As you can see, if I hold myself to these daily goals, I will have completed my "Week 1" goal above and thus be on my way to completing my monthly goals. Importantly, as Goal-Setting Theory recommends, I hold myself to my goals. Sometimes I fall behind by a day. If at all possible, I make myself catch up the next day. Also importantly, I intentionally build room to catch up to my weekly goals if I fall behind. For example, when I was rewriting Rightness as Fairness in Summer 2015, I gave myself one week to draft each chapter, knowing however that Chapter 5 was really short and would be easy to draft. I decided to devote an entire week to this chapter in my summer plans not because I thought the draft would take a full week, but because I expected I might fall behind a bit and might need some "wiggle room." As fact would have it, I did fall behind, just as I expected. I had a lot of trouble on Chapter 3 (the book's most difficult chapter), and ended up having to spend a week-and-a-half on it instead of one week. Fortunately, I was then able to partition the week I had planned for Chapter 5, revising my schedule so that I could spend half of that week finishing up Chapter 4, thus catching back up to my original plan.
Another important part of the strategy--or so I have found--has to do with partitioning daily work. I know people who work on one project alone at a time, and this is something I used to do too. The problem with working on one thing at a time, though--or again, so I've found--is that it's all too natural to fall behind on the one project you're working on, only to continually push back other projects to some indeterminate point in the future. Having daily goals for more than one project prevents one from getting "stuck" on one project before moving onto other important things.
Now, of course, I don't want to give the impression that I always meet my goals. Sometimes I don't. There was one paper I wanted to draft this summer that I just couldn't get the argument for correct (yet). So, although I spent my scheduled week on that paper, I didn't finish it but instead set it aside to come back to later (my plan is to return to it either next month or in the Fall). Here again, the critical thing--or so I've found--is not to get stuck. If I fail to meet a given goal (viz. drafting this paper), then if I can afford to do it another time, I stop banging my head against the wall on it (I don't let myself get "stuck" on the project) but instead immediately move onto my next scheduled project. Once again, I find this incredibly helpful--as one pitfall I used to fall into (and which I know other people fall into) is getting "hung up" on a given project, spending too much time spinning one's wheels rather than getting to other things. Keeping to daily, weekly, and monthly goals helps one avoid getting stuck.
Finally, I don't pretend that this strategy will work for everybody. People are different. It is worth noting, however, that Goal-Setting Theory has been systematically confirmed by hundreds of studies, and thus, is known to be a good general strategy for most people. Further, I have seen it work its magic with other people I know. As I mentioned above, I am currently mentoring a PhD student who has struggled with unstructured time. After she approached me for help, I asked her for a list of projects she needs to complete and by which date, along with how many parts each project contains. I then drew up daily goals for her each week, and have worked with her to hold herself to her daily and weekly goals...and it is working wonders so far.
In short, if you're struggling with unstructured time--or with your overall work efficiency--I cannot recommend Goal-Setting strategies enough!