If you've been living through the same pandemic as I have, then you are probably just as surprised as I am to learn that it is already the end of the academic year. This means it's finally time to get to those projects you've been pushing off 'til summer. But, it also means figuring out how to actually get those to-dos crossed off your checklist. As experts in human psychology, you would think that we would all be exceptional at goal setting and time management, but where would the irony be in that?
Here are three tips with concrete suggestions that I have found personally useful for mapping out my summer breaks.
Set concrete, realistic goals
In many ways this is so obvious that including it on the list seems condescending, but honestly, how many of you have sat down to work and just drawn a huge blank on what work you're even supposed to be doing? During the semester, most of us are teaching, and our work is driven by what is in the syllabus and other external deadlines. In the absence of the structure provided by teaching, work becomes more abstract. For this reason, I recommend spending the first days of the break listing your goals for the summer and breaking these goals into digestible parts and setting concrete deadlines for yourself. For example, if you have a grant proposal due, you might list all of the components required for the submission. You might need to break parts of these components down even further. After you have your to-dos listed, ask yourself how long you will need to complete each of the components and set concrete deadlines based on these estimates. Breaking down a larger, abstract task makes the task much more psychologically manageable. If you have multiple goals for the summer, this process can help you assess how realistic your goals and timelines are. Sticking to deadlines for manuscripts can be trickier, because there are often no hard deadlines for submitting papers. But, you can easily impose a deadline. After you break down your paper into manageable components and figure out how long you will need to complete each component, you can ask a colleague whether they would be willing to read your manuscript before you send it in for review. With that, I'll segue to my second recommendation!
As social scientists, I'm sure that you don't need to be sold on the value of data, but how many of us concretely quantify our work output and keep records of our productivity? According to a 2016 meta-analysis1, physically tracking goal progress was linked to goal progress. In his book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Paul Silvia recommends tracking something as simple as words written in a day and charting your progress. Figuring out how to operationalize your productivity and recording this everyday can be a valuable tool for holding yourself accountable and figuring out factors that promote more effective work days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the previously mentioned 2016 meta-analysis also found that publicly sharing your goals and progress can further boost the effectiveness of monitoring goal progress. Posting something on social media under the #14daywritingchallenge with a hashtag of the day you're on: #day1...#day14 could prove motivating. Or, committing to a summer writing workshop (like the one the SPSP Early Career Committee is organizing) or creating a writing group with friends could be an easy way to hold yourself—and each other—accountable.
As academics, we have the luxury of being able to work from almost anywhere. But, of course, that comes with the burden of constant (and unwarranted) guilt for not working everywhere. Yet, on this point, the research is clear: Taking breaks—both short breaks throughout the workday and vacations from work—improves productivity, creativity, and health. As you plan out your summer, make sure to schedule periods for legitimate breaks. These can (and should) take the form of days off scheduled into your workweek and longer vacations. Put these into your calendar and make them official and make sure you hold yourself to these days off. Of course the looming nature of work and reliance on our personal devices makes work just a couple taps away, so create ways to prevent yourself from accessing work. Head out to nature, where connectivity is poor, or temporarily uninstall applications from your devices that draw you into work mode. If you're more prevention focused, think about avoiding that overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that you will feel in fall if you don't take this time to recharge. If you're more promotion focused, think about how much more effective you'll be after your break.
1. Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., ... & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198-229.
2. Silva, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Blackwell.