Plans Are Worthless, But…

I first heard about semester planning when I began my postdoc at the University of the Pacific. I couldn’t even parse the phrase then: one made plans for things that one had some control over, like a vacation, or to a lesser degree, a lesson. A semester was something that happened to you, a force of nature. You might as well try to plan a tornado.

But I kept hearing about these miracle semester plans from the more established faculty, the ones who claimed to leave the office at 5 and not work weekends, who had solid publication records and still looked like they slept on the regular. Meanwhile, every semester of mine followed the same pattern: Start out strong. Work like a maniac for as long as possible until I inevitably fall a bit behind. Then hide from work for a couple of weeks, full of guilt and dread, until I claw myself back out at the end, exhausted. So when the Center for Teaching and Learning announced their next semester planning workshop I thought I’d give it a go. Besides, lunch was provided.

Deceptively simple, courtesy of NCFDD

Deceptively simple steps, courtesy of NCFDD

The process sounded too straightforward: Write down goals for your semester, personal and professional. Write down all the steps needed to achieve those goals. Guess how much time each step would take, and put them on your calendar accordingly. I squinted at these ultra-productive, well-rested faculty members sitting around me singing the praises of this little document, wondering what I was missing. But I worked through the steps, ate my free lunch, and started a new semester.

Example semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

I can’t say I achieved all of my goals that first semester, or in any of the subsequent ones to be honest. That third step – time allocation – is a slippery one, and I am still wildly over-confident in my writing efficiency. But I did make some pretty good strides: I was on the market that semester, and I got all my materials together and applications submitted on time (which ultimately scored me my dream job). Research goals were met, though admittedly not the ones that involved actually submitting anything. I started up new projects and got some great results for future papers. And the really incredible thing was that the mid-semester meltdown never came. I was sold.

While I’m sure others have created similar structures elsewhere, the particular semester plan process we used came from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, of which the University of the Pacific is an institutional member. The center has all their materials for planning accessible for nonmembers, including a ninety minute seminar from Kerry Ann Rockquemore to walk you through creating your first plan.

The first part of the seminar describes my life before planning to a T: getting bogged down in what Kerry Ann calls the “day-to-day, low-level misery” of academic life, working all the time on the tasks that have constant built-in accountability (teaching, service) and ignoring the quieter items that are ultimately more crucial to long-term faculty success (hello, folder of half-done manuscripts).

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

The next part articulates the steps of the plan, and gives you time to write your own. She emphasizes including goals for your personal life, and gives you permission to clear your calendar of research obligations when you’ve got a big grading week. Finally, she lists ways to create accountability for yourself and your plan, something I’ll talk about more in a later post.

As I finalize my plan for this semester, I know that my biggest problem is still being realistic about the amount of time it takes me to write. I always think I can knock something out in a week if I set my mind to it. I also know that I have some pretty big goals (which I am not sharing publicly, due to what I think of as the “Facebook Gym Selfie Effect“), some of which might not get met. But my plan breaks these intimidating goals down into bite-sized, ostensibly achievable tasks. I’ve been meltdown-free for three semesters now, and I don’t see that changing. Even if I do get off track for a week or two, planning gives me the structure to regroup and continue instead of just holding on until the semester ends.

There is one big issue for mathematicians and scientists that gets ignored in these types of planning discussions: what if your research plan turns out to be impossible? I can give myself a week to typeset a proof that I already have scrawled in a notebook. But what about when I spot a mistake that kills the whole proof? Or discover that what I hoped to prove that month was just plain false? All of a sudden the paper that I thought would be out by the end of the semester is dead in the water. I can set firm writing goals for expository work or grant applications, but deadlines for pure research still feel utterly arbitrary. But even if that part of the plan turns out to be worthless, I’ve found planning to be essential to my sanity.

Does anyone else make semester plans? Any tips to offer for the newbie? Tried it and decided it was a waste of time? Let me know in the comments.

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2 Responses to Plans Are Worthless, But…

  1. Avatar bmalmskog says:

    I have the same problem with planning for research. I can plan time, but actual theorem goals seem totally ridiculous. Working with collaborators is a big part of how I effectively budget time for research–by scheduling meetings with them, I keep moving without having to set specific goals way ahead of time. I just have to do enough of something so that they won’t feel like I was slacking off, and I have to show up for that Skype meeting.

    Do you find that you are actually able to put your personal goals into the plan and make them happen? I haven’t figured that part out very well. Exercise and musical practice seem to be the first things to go when I get busy with grading and helping my students in the office, two things that always take more time than I have ever ever planned for them.

    • Avatar smalec says:

      Seeing goals in my plan seems to help with bigger-picture projects – finishing an online language course or a large craft project or something. But those “do x three times a week”-style targets never really feel like capital-G-Goals to me, so putting them in the plan doesn’t seem to work as well. And I’m with you on the grading and the office hours!

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