Friday, November 18, 2011

Transition Series: Part Three

The last couple posts on transitioning to tenure track have dealt with the mind-game of feeling like a tenure-track professor. I want to get a bit more practical here and offer a practice I use to help me balance all the things I need to do in a day. I feel as though this post does not fit squarely
within a “transitioning” series, as the problem of balancing is not something one takes on once you hit the tenure-track. However, it is something I have really focused on in the last few months, so for me, at least, this practice of planning is connected in some way with starting this new job.

Two Prefaces:

1) I have always been an obsessive planner, living in the future and fretting over the past (as in – fretting over what I did not get done last week). In fact, when I lived in the dorm as an undergraduate my hall mates used to joke that they always knew where to find me because my entire day was written out on a white board at the foot of my bed. They used to write “breath” in various places on my schedule because it seemed that if it wasn’t on my list I might forget to do it. So what I am proposing below is new to me because of the kind of plan it is.

2) I owe many of these ideas to Tanya and her blog.

Starting sometime this summer the “to do” list became so long and cluttered with various tasks, from menial things like “mail this birthday card” to monumental things like “set up the movers” that I quickly discovered my old way of having one list no longer sufficed.

Although I had lots of things I needed to do in one week as a graduate student, they somehow seemed all about equally important and generally took similar amounts of time (read for class A, read for class B, write my final papers, read for comp list, attend EGSA meeting, attend meeting with advisor, and so forth). Leaving one place and settling in another first alerted me to the need for “pyramid plans” (not to be confused with pyramid schemes). I had to develop several different layers of the to-do plan that incorporated a sense of varying priority levels and timelines. The pyramid plan consists of layers: the semester, the monthly & weekly, and the daily. Here is how I go about doing that:

At the beginning of each semester I create a “semester plan” that lists everything I want to accomplish in four categories: research, service, teaching, and personal. This list provides no detailed notes on any item. It might look something like this:

Fall 2011 Semester Plan

Research Goals

Book Project

Submit one article

RSA Proposal


NAVSA roundtable paper

Teaching Goals

Develop a website

Create paper assignments and exams

Course proposals for next fall


Join one department committee

Serve on one grad student thesis/diss committee


Get office set up

Plant a garden

This list is the largest layer of the pyramid; it is also the most basic and will form the foundation from which all the other lists are generated. One other element I like to add to this list is to divide some items into months, particularly where it makes sense. So, for example, I know the book project will be part of every month but for the conference papers I would section them off under “October” since they had to get written then for the conferences in late October and early November.

At the beginning of each month I look at my semester plan and decide what I will accomplish in that specific month. Some of that will already be designated (as in the conference papers) but other things become a decision you make during this planning session. So, for example, I could decide that November will be the month I work on a personal website.

I like for my semester level plan to be ambitious, knowing I probably won’t get to everything, but as I move down the pyramid the plans have to start getting more realistic. A monthly level plan might look like this:

Sept 5-9

Article: send rough draft to writing partner

RSA: finish reading sources and draft proposal

Book Project: read through chp 3, make notes for book revisions

Sept 12-16

Article: finish last bits of research & implement writing partner’s comments

RSA: polish draft, send off (due sept 16)

Book Project: read through chp 4, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Sept 19-23

Article: final revisions, send off

Conference: get back into visawus research

Goal this week: to get through at least one novel and some analysis of it, add one page to conference draft

Book Project: read through chp 5, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Goal this week: locate any useful sources and read them, get 2 pages of brainstorm draft

ATL application: finish

Sept 26-30:

Book Project: look over sample book proposals and start drafting yours, make specific action plan for revising each chapter (look at 1-2 chapter a day and have this done by the end of the week)

visawus. Read two library books checked out, 3 ebrary sources

navsa: start making yourself brainstorm, actually write something down! Look at Goffman sources

Once I have listed the specific things I want to get done that month, I then divide them up into weeks. Notice this is getting a little more specific, so instead of just listing “work on article” I might delineate a specific task like “send draft to writing partner.”

At the beginning of each week (for me this means either Sunday night or Monday morning) I sit down and look at what I had designated for that week as listed on my monthly level plan. As you can probably imagine by now, I create a list for that week and I get really specific. I have just recently discovered that it is more effective to allot time amounts rather than time slots to tasks. So for my weekly plan, one day’s plan might look like this:


Teach (2 hours)

Class prep & office hours (4 hours)

Write 2 pages of NAVSA draft (1 hour)

Look at book proposal samples (1 hour)

Read 2 sources for visawus paper (2 hours)

Finish final article draft revisions (2 hours)

Workout (1 hour)

I am still learning how much time certain tasks take, so I intentionally demonstrated what often happens to me when I first create a plan for one day of the week. This plan shows me working for 12 hours, and while it does include things like working out, there is not much time left in the day for things like dinner, getting to and from work, etc. But this is the beauty of creating a plan based on time allotments. Once I create this day-layer plan, I would quickly realize it’s not realistic. I can revise it by moving, say, the reading a source for the visawus paper to Thursday and that at least gives me a 10 hour day. Sometimes, I’ll admit, 10-hour days happen for me at least once a week. But if I’ve already scheduled a long day this week according to my plan, then I know I need to shuffle still more from this day to another. So I might also decide to do only one hour of article revisions and finish it up on Thursday and add in an hour of class prep time back into Monday which I realize was a much lighter day according to the plan I had created.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that the weekly plan becomes kind of like a game of shuffling tasks around like puzzle pieces until you get it all to fit together.This can take some time, but for me it is well worth it, primarily for two reasons:

*It holds me accountable to getting done what I set out to do

*It lets me feel guilt-free when I am not working.

I want to end this post with that last point: if being in a tenure-track job is exhilarating, it is that way primarily because, like a race-horse, you’ve just been let out of the starting gate and you are now racing around the track, the tenure-track that is. The narrative that we have been groomed to hear over the years of graduate school is that for the next 5 or 6 years of your life you should be harried, overwhelmed, stressed-out, and always working as you race around that track. I just don’t buy that (or refuse to and am in denial). A lot of the stress and worry that I’ve experienced in my first few months on the tenure track comes from feeling like I’m not doing enough. Anytime I feel that way now, however, I pull out my plan and, starting from the top level of the pyramid, I look at all that I will accomplish by the end of the semester, and then I glance at what I was supposed to do today. Did I do it? Yes! Then that means I can stop for the day because if I’ve followed the layering I outlined above, the tasks I laid out for today will lead me to accomplish all that I should this semester. And, by the way, that semester plan is connected to a 5-year plan so that I know what needs to happen each semester to make sure I am “doing enough” on the track we call tenure.

This has saved me countless evenings when I feel myself starting to fidget with guilt after I’ve been sitting for more than 5 minutes. I simply pull out my daily plan, re-confirm that I checked off my tasks and then there is absolutely no reason not to relax. Do I always stick to this plan? Of course not. I am still a terrible judge of how long things take so I am constantly revising the plan. In fact, I leave Saturday unplanned, knowing I always work a half-day Saturday. Whatever doesn’t get done mon-fri becomes the task I focus on for that half-day.

Keep in mind the plan is supposed to be freeing, so it can never become too rigid or else it just becomes another task. I never consider it failing if I don’t get to something on my list, so long as I resituate the plan to accommodate it. Obviously if this happens to often then you will start not meeting goals, but there should be enough flexibility in your schedule to accommodate minor schedule changes.

This also answers to those people balking at the idea of being so scheduled because they claim they went into this field because they could have flexible schedules. The kind of pyramid plan I have laid out here absolutely allows you to do that. Flexibility is one of the things I love about this job as well. Today is the perfect example. Justin works night shifts at the hospital, so sometimes there are really odd times of the week that we can actually spend time together. It just so happens that his sleep & work schedule meant that for the first half of Thursday we could spend some time together. When I got up this morning, then, I shifted all the tasks I planned to do this morning to Saturday afternoon. I spent a fun morning with my husband, guilt-free, in the middle of the week. I never could have done that if I didn’t have written down tangibly in front of me that I would still get all my work done this week even with taking Thursday morning off. It’s a beautiful thing.

So my biggest piece of advice? Create a plan that has layers to it – so you can get increasingly more specific and so that you can allot priorities to more important tasks (they get done in the first week of the month or during your biggest chunks of time, say).

And plan to plan. That’s right, schedule a time each week where you sit down and do this. The upshot to all this? You won’t be the horse running in front lathered and completely winded, nor the horse getting mud slung all over her in the back of the pack. You’ll be the horse running comfortably in the middle, hugging the rail, pacing herself, who makes her move perfectly on time at the finish line.


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at


  1. Kristen, what a lovely post. I firmly adhere to the philosophy that working all the time is impossible, and thus permitting ourselves to feel like we must work all the time to be successful is pathological. You're so smart to recognize that and develop a flexible plan that keeps you working steadily. I would add that in addition to allowing you to spend guilt-free time with important people in your life, working in this way also benefits your students and your colleagues, who get, instead of a frazzled and harried professor about to drop, a calm and reasonable person working steadily toward her goals. It's a good lesson.

  2. so true Risa! I actually just read back through my post and felt my descriptions, because so specific, might actually be a little confusing. I just feel that we always hear "you need to have a plan/schedule" but never talk about what that looks like. I would love to hear what kind of plans other people use.

  3. One thing that's been extremely helpful for me is having a notebook dedicated to planning. I don't take any notes for my research, job hunt, or anything else there. That notebook is for planning alone.

  4. so what kind of things do you write in the notebook Matt?

  5. I typically include the very things you track, from the semester goals down to the day-to-day. But mostly I use the notebook as a weekly and daily way to think through what I need to do on any given day so that I don't ever sit down at the desk without a specific plan.

    Consistently sitting down without a clear goal in mind is what leads to endless procrastination and an unhealthy view of work more generally.

  6. about procrastination I would add one more thing - sometimes my planning becomes a form of procrastinating. Instead of actually doing the tasks I sit down and start planning again. One way I've found to prevent this is to only allow myself to plan during the allotted sunday night/monday morning time. I love the idea of carrying around a notebook with my ideas in it, but I could see that for me it might be a dangerous procrastination trap. How do you get yourself, Matt, to actually start the tasks you planned instead of continuing to plan?

  7. It's a fair question. Like you, I typically have specific times set apart for planning (usually early in the week: Sunday evening or first thing Monday morning).

    But I've also found that it's incredibly helpful for me to make a quick action plan at the end of each working session for the next working session.

    For example, if I'm working on a diss. chapter and I finish one writing session knowing that I need to do something specific in my next writing session, I'll make a note of it in my planning notebook, and that way when I sit down to work again I have a specific plan beyond simply "work on chapter"

    to answer your question directly, I only plan for the week once, and then I make little planning notes AFTER individual work sessions.

  8. poo nice. I like that. I do that erratically sometimes, but making a habit of it would be very helpful!