Sunday, July 22, 2018

Writing Workshop: The Weekly Plan

The only thing you can control is how you spend your time.

[Note: Most of the material from these writing workshop blog posts, plus a lot more never-blogged material, is now available in my book, The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia.]

One of the best things about an academic job is that outside of a few fixed commitments such as classes and lab meetings, you can pretty much decide your own schedule. If you want to work at night and sleep late in the morning, you can. If you need to take your car to the mechanic or go to an event at your child’s school in the middle of a workday, it’s no problem. This day-to-day schedule flexibility gives outsiders the impression that academic jobs are easy; what they don’t realize is that academics are still expected to produce a lot of work. The old joke is that you can work any 80 hours of the week you want.

The first writing problem that most academics have to solve is finding the time to write in the first place. People sometimes tell me that they don’t have time to write. I think what they mean is that even though they are not writing, they are already busy all day long, every day. I don’t doubt it. The problem is that if you are evaluated based on your research output (which means writing), then all of the non-writing, non-research work that you are doing all day counts for very little. So you must carve out and protect time for your writing and research.

The Eisenhower Distinction: Urgency vs. Importance

In a 1954 speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Eisenhower attributed this insight to “a former college president,” which seems fitting, because the problem of how to balance urgent against important tasks is a perennial one in academia.

For most of us in academic jobs, particularly during the early years of our careers, the most important work we do is our own original research, and especially writing. (Depending on your job, the quality of your teaching may also count for something, or it may not.) The important tasks on your term plan compete for your time with an endless parade of urgent, but ultimately less important tasks: Emails to answer; manuscripts to review; committee meetings to attend; administrative paperwork to fill out; etc.

If you haven’t held a job where you struggled to balance urgent and important tasks, you may be thinking, What’s the problem? If you know which tasks are important, just do them. The problem is that at least three powerful forces push us to do the urgent tasks instead of the important ones. These are (1) social accountability; (2) the pleasure of doing something easy; and (3) the mere urgency effect.

Social accountability

Urgent tasks often have built-in social accountability: Other people want you to do them, and those people will be unhappy, inconvenienced or annoyed if you don’t. Research and writing tasks, by contrast, have little or no social accountability—at least in the short term. If I spend six weeks working on a paper, and then I get bored and abandon the project, no one else will even know, much less object. But if I walk into a lecture hall unprepared, I will spend a very uncomfortable hour with a room full of bored and increasingly irritated students. So I have a strong urge to work on my lecture instead of my manuscript. Similarly, when our department manager Clara sends me forms to fill out, I’m tempted to stop writing and fill out the forms-- not because I care about the forms, but because Clara is my friend and I don’t want to make her job harder.

One of the most important functions of our writing workshop is to harness the power of social accountability for good. That is, we create social accountability for our important writing and research tasks. We do this in two main ways. The first is by scheduling writing time. We do some quiet writing during our meetings, but I also encourage people to set up writing meetings outside the regular workshop. When you arrange to meet a friend at a specific place and time to sit and write together, you are more likely to actually use that time for writing than if you just made the appointment with yourself. (We've always call this practice 'Write on Site,' but I recently read an essay by a Norwegian scientist who calls it skrivepress, which is a pretty cool name too.)

The second way we create social accountability for writing is through the use of our shared daily writing log. This is a spreadsheet where everyone in the workshop is encouraged to log their weekly and daily writing goals, and to note whether they actually wrote or not. For many of us, it’s motivating just to know that the others will see whether or not we wrote today.

The pleasure of doing something easy

Urgent tasks are also tempting because they are usually easier than important ones. Doing original research—especially writing—is difficult. It’s a form of thinking, and as such it never becomes automatic. Many of the urgent tasks, by contrast, require very little thought. Forms must be filled out, papers must be graded, emails must be answered, forwarded, filed or deleted. Easy peasy.

Although writing never becomes automatic, we can make it much easier by breaking it down into small steps. A key strategy for dealing with resistance to writing is to do just one small thing: Revise one figure caption, fill in one citation, proofread one sentence, etc. Another way to make writing easier is to do it in small chunks of time: Set a timer for 5 minutes and commit to writing for just that long. These strategies are discussed at length in the next chapter.

The mere urgency effect

As if social accountability and ease-of-work weren’t enough, there’s new evidence that mere urgency—the impression that time is running out on a task—makes us want to do the task even if it’s not really worth doing. If you are a parent, you’ve probably discovered the magical trick of counting to get the attention and compliance of young children. Parents of preschoolers quickly learn that to say, ‘Get down off that coffee table right now!’ may get you nowhere. But to say, ‘Get down off that coffee table by the time I count to three: One, Two . . . ,’ works much better.

Apparently, the same is true for adults. In their 2018 article The Mere Urgency Effect, authors Zhu et al. found that people tend to do urgent tasks rather than important ones, even when there’s no rational reason to.

Specifically, results from five experiments demonstrate that people are more likely to perform unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively better payoffs), when the unimportant tasks are characterized merely by spurious urgency (e.g., an illusion of expiration). The mere urgency effect documented in this research violates the basic normative principle of dominance—choosing objectively worse options over objectively better options. People behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence.

How do we counteract the mere urgency effect? By creating deadlines for our writing and research tasks. This is the reason to have an IDP, a term plan and—starting this week—a weekly plan: So that you can see how your work today is getting you closer to your long-term goals.

In our writing workshop, we devote the first 20-30 minutes of each meeting to making our weekly plans. People who have already made their plans, or who finish early, just use the time for writing. The key skill in making a weekly plan is to prioritize. And if you have a job that emphasizes research (including being a PhD student or post-doc), these are your priorities: (1) Your health and well-being; (2) Your writing and research; (3) Everything else.

Priority 1. Your Health and Well-Being

Your first priority, and this is non-negotiable, is your own mental and physical health and well-being. If you are a parent, your children’s health and well-being comes right after yours. (Yes, after. You can’t save anyone else while you are drowning.) So the first question is, what do you need to do to stay healthy and sane? There’s good evidence to suggest that you need at least three things-- Sleep, exercise and social engagement-- and I would add to that list a fourth requirement: Breathing space.


Make sure you get enough sleep. For adults ages 18-64, the healthy range seems to be around seven to nine hours per night. (If you are sleeping a lot more than nine hours per night, that’s not good either-- you might be depressed.) When you have a lot to do, it’s tempting to use some of your nighttime hours to get caught up on work. Resist that temptation. The effects of sleep debt on cognitive function are well documented: When you get less sleep than you need, your thinking is measurably impaired. People whose sleep has been restricted show slower reaction times and poorer performance on measures of attention, working memory, long-term memory, decision making, motivation, visuomotor performance, response inhibition and a host of other cognitive measures.

I’ve talked with people who say that they function just fine on four hours of sleep per night. The problem is that it’s hard to know whether this is true, because your ability to gauge your own level of functioning is impaired by lack of sleep. People who insist that lack of sleep doesn’t affect them are like people who insist that they drive better after a few drinks: They don’t know how badly they are performing because their perception is impaired.

Actually, comparing sleep deprivation to alcohol intoxication is a handy way to describe its effects. Here’s how one study summarized it.

After 17–19 hours without sleep . . . performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC [blood alcohol concentration] of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.1%).

The bottom line is this: Humans need sleep. When we don’t get enough, the first thing to suffer is our high-level cognitive functioning. So if you are a human with a job that depends on thinking, don’t shortchange yourself on sleep.


You probably know that exercise is good for you. But why would I mention it in a book on writing? Because in addition to its other benefits, exercise is key to combating anxiety and depression, which are extremely widespread among academics, and particularly PhD students. For example, a 2014 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that 47% of PhD students met the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. This followed up on a 2005 study showing that 10% of Berkeley PhD students had contemplated suicide within the past year. Similarly, a 2014 study of over 2,500 academics at all levels by the Guardian newspaper in Britain found that 78% of PhD students there reported symptoms of depression, and 87% reported struggling with anxiety.

Exercise is a cheap and powerful way to lower your risk of anxiety and depression, without side effects. You don’t have to run marathons; just make space in your schedule a few times a week to go for a walk with a friend, go to a yoga class, lift weights, or do whatever you enjoy doing. If you’re worried about taking time away from work, remember this: If you exercise for one hour and work for seven hours, you will get much more done than if you just work for eight hours.


The third thing you must build into your schedule is regular socializing. The academic life can be isolating: Many of us move to a new place for graduate school, move again to take a post-doctoral position, and move a third time to start a job. Each time, we leave behind the friends we made in our previous location.

Humans are deeply social animals, and friendly social interactions are essential (not desirable, essential) for our health and well-being. A big part of our writing workshop at UCI is providing social support for each other, and I hope that you are also creating a support system with the friends you are reading this book with. And of course there are many other ways to get social interaction: If you live with a partner, family members or roommates, you may have social engagement built into your living situation. (Note: Taking care of children or others does not count as social engagement. You need time with friends.) So please make a point of cultivating friendly relationships based on regular interactions with other people. Friendships are not a luxury; they are necessary for human health and well-being.

Breathing space

Finally, please don’t pack your schedule too full of commitments. Do you know how to build a good fire? The key is to pile the wood in a way that leaves lots of space in between the logs, so air can circulate. If you stack the wood in a solid mass without gaps in between, it won’t burn.

Your calendar is the same. When you are stressed, you may feel tempted to pack your calendar full of commitments, leaving no space between. Specifically, you may have the impression that your stress comes from having too many things to do, and that if all the things on your list were done, you would be able to relax. So you pack your schedule way too full, hoping to get some relief from the stress.

It doesn’t work. I know we each need to discover this for ourselves, but I will go ahead and say it anyway: Happiness and relaxation are not waiting at the end of the to-do list, because the to-do list never ends. As quickly as you can accomplish a task and cross it off, a new tasks gets added at the bottom. If you wait until there are no more tasks on your to-do list to allow yourself to relax and enjoy the moment, you will be waiting forever.

And while you are waiting, a packed-tight schedule will smother you. A career is a long hike, not a sprint. Your goal is not to do everything on the list (which is impossible), but rather to find a healthy pace of work that you can maintain over the long term. So make sure your schedule includes space to rest and to breathe, to look out the window or enjoy a cup of tea, to recharge your batteries. Without that space, you will become exhausted and depleted. There is a joke among people who practice meditation: Instead of saying, ‘Don’t just sit there; do something!’ we like to say, ‘Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Priority 2. Your Writing and Research

If you don’t carve out and protect time for your writing, you will not write. Your urgent tasks will expand to fill your time instead. Many people (including me) find that the best way to protect our writing time is to put it as early in the day as possible. I find over and over again that whatever item comes first on my to-do list each day is the most likely to actually get done.

I think this is the meaning of the old saying, First Things First. It means that you should always do the most important thing first, followed by the second most important thing, and so on. That way, if you don’t get to all the tasks on your list, at least you will have done the most important ones. Whenever I think about this, I realize that our ancestors must have understood it very well. The word ‘priority,’ for example, means ‘most important,’ but literally comes from the word ‘prior,’ meaning ‘earlier’ or ‘before.’ This is the basic principle I use to plan my days.

Sometimes when we talk about scheduling a daily writing time, new workshop members say they can’t do it. That’s usually because they hold one of several common misconceptions about the writing process. Luckily, these misconceptions diminish as people develop a regular writing practice.

Misconception A. I need long blocks of time in order to write.

I hear this a lot. “I can’t do anything in less than two hours,” people say. “I spend the first hour just looking over what I wrote before and trying to remember what argument I was making.” I think this misconception arises because when people don’t have a regular writing practice, they often avoid working on a given project for weeks or months. Then, when they finally return to it, it does take them a while to remember what it was about. But that doesn’t happen when you write every day. When you’ve been working on a project regularly, it takes no time at all to remember where you were and pick up your train of thought again.

Similarly, many people put off writing until they face a deadline. Then, because they underestimate the amount of time the writing will take, they end up working for hours and hours or through the night. For some reason, the lesson they take from this is not, If I had worked on this for 30 minutes a day starting last month, the work would be better and I wouldn’t have missed a night's sleep. Instead they think, I write in all-night binges because that’s just the kind of intense, creative genius I am.

This illustrates the way that people stop using their common sense when they think about writing. If I told you on June 1 that you had to walk 90 miles by June 30, would you choose to walk 3 miles a day for 30 days, or would you wait until the evening of June 30 and try to walk the whole 90 miles at once? If you want to buy something that costs $10,000, should you start saving some money every week, or just wait and hope that one day you will happen to find $10,000 lying around?

Writing follows the moral of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race. Over many years of observation, I’ve noticed that the most prolific writers do what we in the workshop call ninja writing -- writing in sneaky little sessions of five or ten or twenty minutes, whenever the opportunity arises, wherever we happen to be. We also set aside regular writing time in our calendars, but many of us supplement it with ninja writing throughout the day because we find that the more frequently we write (even if it’s just for a few minutes) the less resistance we encounter. In short, maintaining a strong writing practice is like keeping the knives sharp in your kitchen: The key is to sharpen (or write) little and often.

Misconception B. I can only write when I feel inspired.

Many stories that people tell about their writing feature two mysterious and powerful forces: Inspiration and Writer’s Block. In the stories, these god-like forces toy with us poor mortals, alternately granting us the gift of writing and taking it away. We are helpless to resist them.

Of course this is nonsense. Writing is a human behavior, and no behavioral scientist should be content with magical explanations for it. Sometimes you feel like writing, sometimes you don’t. So what? I never feel like giving a lecture to an auditorium full of undergraduates, but I show up and do it anyway because that’s my job. I particularly loathe grading, and if I could stop giving grades, I’d do it in a hot minute. But I can’t because grading is also part of my job. So if writing is just a hobby for you, feel free to wallow in the myths of writer’s block and inspiration. But if writing is part of your job, forget that silliness. Inspiration is no more required for writing than for teaching, grading, attending meetings or any other kind of work that you do.

Thirty years ago, Robert Boice conducted a study on inspiration. He recruited college professors who said they would like to write more, and he randomly assigned them to one of three conditions. People in Condition 1 were told to avoid writing completely. People in Condition 2 were told to schedule 50 sessions of writing, but only to write during those times if they felt inspired. People in Condition 3 were told to schedule 50 sessions of writing, and to write during those times whether they felt like it or not. Boice measured how much (the number of pages) people wrote, and he also asked them to keep track of the number of new creative ideas they had. He found that people in Condition 3 (the ones who scheduled their writing and then wrote whether they felt like it or not) produced 3.5 times as much writing as people in Condition 2 (who scheduled their writing but then only wrote if they felt inspired). When people forced themselves to write, they also had a lot more new ideas: People in Condition 3 reported an average of one new idea per day, whereas those in Condition 2 only had a new idea every other day, and people in Condition 1 had a new idea every five days. (Boice, 1990, p.80). In other words, forcing yourself to sit down and write-- whether you feel like it or not-- works.

Misconception C. I can’t write until I’ve decided what I’m going to say.

This idea is based on a false separation between writing and thinking. In reality, writing is enhanced thinking. When you think, the amount of information you can keep in mind is strictly limited by your working memory. When you write, you can work with much more information, because you can trap much more information on a page than you can keep in your working memory. In this way, writing lets you think better.

When my kids were little, they loved math but hated showing their work. Mental calculation was easy for them and handwriting was difficult, so they resisted writing anything down. Every homework assignment prompted a struggle, with me advising/urging/insisting/cajoling/bribing them to show their damned work, and them refusing. Over and over, they asked why it was so important to show their work. As long as they got the correct answer, wasn’t that enough?

Over and over, I explained that although they could hold all the information in their head now, the day would come when the math became more advanced, and the information required for the calculations would exceed their working memory capacity. At that point, they would no longer be able to do the calculations in their heads. I would tell them that even you may find it easy to calculate 9x12, but it is less easy to calculate 81x144, and to calculate 6561 x 20736 is downright difficult without writing something down. We use writing to keep track of more information than we can easily hold in our working memory. With writing, multiplying big numbers is not much harder than multiplying small ones.

What is true for multiplication is also true for scientific reasoning, argumentation and explanation. Writing lets you track and manipulate much more information than you could otherwise keep in mind. That’s why written language is typically different from spoken language-- written language has longer sentences with more elaborate structures, and vocabulary words that are longer and less frequent-- all features that would make the language hard to process as speech. One implication of this is that we can make our writing easier to understand by making it more like speech (more on this in Part III). But another implication is that we can increase own capacity to reason by putting our thinking process down on paper: That is, by writing.

What counts as writing?

You are the boss of you, so you get to decide what you will count as writing in your weekly writing plan and daily writing log. But here’s what I count as writing:

An activity definitely counts as writing if it involves putting words on paper (or onto a screen) and is necessary to produce publications with my name on them or proposals to fund my work. Some examples:

  • Brainstorming ideas on paper
  • Writing up results that probably won’t make it into the paper, just to think through them
  • Outlining
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Proofreading
  • Making figures
  • Responding to reviewers’ comments
  • Writing cover letters to editors
  • Preparing conference posters and talks

Then there are activities that I might decide to count as writing if (1) they are necessary for producing my publications and grant proposals, and (2) they are tasks that I would otherwise be tempted to avoid. If I find an activity easy to do (and especially if I tend to use it as a way of avoiding the activities on the first list), then I wouldn’t count it as writing. Some examples of items in this category of ‘maybe/it depends’ are:

  • Reviewing literature
  • Designing experiments
  • Creating stimuli
  • Coding, including debugging code
  • Collecting data
  • Analyzing data

Activities that don’t count as writing for the purposes of my daily and weekly writing goals are the ones that don’t get me any closer to a publication or a grant submission. These tend to be urgent tasks with social accountability, which means I will do them eventually. But I try not to spend my precious writing time on them. Some examples:

  • Course preparation
  • Grading papers
  • Writing letters of recommendation/references
  • Committee work (e.g., reviewing job applicants; writing up personnel cases, etc.)
  • Reviewing (e.g., manuscripts for journals; grant proposals for funding agencies, etc.)

Priority 3. Everything Else

Although your health and writing take top priority, you probably have other, urgent tasks to do as well. The key is to decide how much time you will give those tasks, and not let them expand beyond that. Personally, I do this by dividing up my day into three parts:

  1. Mornings are for writing and exercise/wellness (yoga, meditation, walking my dogs).
  2. Afternoons are for other kinds of work: Lab management, teaching, meetings, errands, etc.
  3. Evenings are for relaxing and being with my family.

When I’m in my office, people tend to interrupt me. So I write at home in the mornings, and go to campus around lunchtime. I try to schedule all of my teaching and meetings for between noon and five o’clock. It doesn’t always work out-- sometimes a class I teach gets scheduled for the morning, and there’s nothing I can do about it-- but I’m always happy when the term ends and I can go back to my habit of writing at home in the mornings.

You may be thinking, Sure, spending noon to five on other tasks is fine . . . until you have more than five hours of other tasks to do. And I absolutely do have more than five hours of other tasks to do . . . I just don’t do them. I prioritize, and I start at noon on Monday with the most important task. Then I do the 2nd most important task, and then the 3rd most important, and so on until about 4:50, when I stop working to make tomorrow’s to-do list. Tasks that never get high enough on the priority list to be done, day after day, just never get done. Oh, well—that’s life!

If the idea of leaving things undone panics you, keep in mind that your career success does not depend on any of those non-writing activities. When you are evaluated for hiring, tenure and promotion, no one cares whether you did a great job on the library committee or just an adequate one. No one gives you credit for replying promptly to emails, for grading all the students’ essays in one week instead of two, or for reviewing twenty-five journal articles a year instead of three. These are all worthwhile things to do, but they are not more worthwhile than your own research and writing, and your time is limited. So give the urgent activities their allotted time (which in my case is noon to five, Monday through Friday) and that’s it.

I realize this is easier said than done. If you are a pre-tenure faculty member, the people asking you to do service are typically your senior colleagues, and saying no to them is frightening. You are probably all too aware that those in your own department will vote on your tenure case in a few years, and those at other universities may be asked to write letters of support. But what will the real criteria for your tenure decision be? Ask around: Has anyone ever been denied tenure at your school for doing too little service? In most places, the answer is no. The hard truth is that for academics, research productivity (and possibly teaching, depending on where you work) are valued above all else. If you can learn to brave a moment of social awkwardness by politely saying no to extra work, it will be much better for your career in the long run.

When we were assistant professors, my colleague Emily and I made a pact that neither of us would say yes to any service requests without first talking it over with the other one. I learned to say, “Let me think about it and get back to you” instead of just saying yes when someone asked me to do service. Then I’d forward the request to Emily and say, “Do you think I should do this?” Emily and I would talk about it: How much time would it take away from my research? Would I learn anything useful from it? (For example, reviewing for federal funding agencies can take a lot of time, but it can also help you understand what those agencies are looking for, which helps when you write grants yourself.) Often, our conversation would go like this:

Me: So, they’re asking me to sit on this committee. . . I guess I’ll say yes, but we promised we’d check with each other... 
Emily: Do you want to do it? 
Me: Well . . . no. 
Emily: How much time will it take?

Me: A lot of time. They meet every month for three years. Plus I’d probably have to read stuff before the meetings. 
Emily: Why are you saying yes to this? 
Me: Umm . . . (considers for a moment) . . . because I’m flattered that they asked me?

Emily: OK, well be flattered, but say no. They’re not going to give you tenure for doing service. Look at [name of our colleague]. He’s obnoxious to everyone, and he just got tenure with an acceleration! You think he’s doing any service? 
Me: Well no. Probably because no one wants to serve on a committee with him. 
Emily: Right! 
Me: Right . . . but why do I have to be a jerk to get tenure? I can’t stand [obnoxious colleague]. I don’t want to be like him! 
Emily: You don’t have to be a jerk, but you don’t have to say yes to everything, either. Just say, ‘Thanks for thinking of me; I’m afraid I can’t do it this time.’

Looking back, I see how helpful those conversations were. More often than not, I was prepared to say yes to a request and Emily talked me out of it. And I did the same for her. I’m so grateful that Emily and I had each other to lean on during that early, stressful period of our careers. It’s good to have a buddy.

How to Plan Your Week in 30 Minutes

Starting in the third week of the writing workshop, we begin each meeting by making our weekly calendars. We do this quietly together, just as we did with the IDPs in Week 1 and the term plans in Week 2. When you first make a weekly calendar, you may want to allocate as much as half an hour to work on it. But once you get used to doing it every week, the whole process takes only a few minutes. To start, you just need a blank calendar (electronic or paper, whatever you prefer) and your to-do list, which may be in your head, on scraps of paper, in an app on your phone, or wherever you keep it.

Step 1. Block out fixed commitments (5 minutes).

The first step is to block out fixed commitments on your calendar. These are appointments that require you to be in a specific place at a specific time. They include classes you are teaching or taking, meetings you must attend, times when you must drop off or pick up children, and so on.

Step 2. Set aside time for health and well-being (5 minutes).

The next thing to put on your calendar are the things that are necessary for your physical and mental health. If you tend to shortchange yourself on sleep, put sleep on your calendar and set an alarm for when it’s time to stop working and go to bed. Figure out when you are going to exercise (it doesn’t have to be every day, but try for several times a week) and when you are going to spend some relaxed time with other human beings.

Step 3. Set aside time for writing and put your daily writing goals on the log (10 minutes)

Plan to write for at least a little bit of time every day. Resistance tends to build up when you don’t write, so the more often you write, the easier it is. Like many people I find that writing in the morning works best, but please experiment to find what works best for you. Some people feel antsy in the morning and have too much nervous energy to sit still and write, but if they go for a vigorous run or a bike ride, they are able to write afterward. Other people feel groggy in the morning and prefer to do less demanding tasks, such as answering email for the first hour or two after they get up.

In addition to identifying writing times your calendar, now is also the time to put your writing goals for the week on the Shared Daily Writing Log for your workshop. Recall that the first step in making a term plan was to copy over the goals for this term from the IDP. Similarly, the first step in making a weekly plan is to copy over the goals for this week from the term plan. But while we each maintain our own separate IDP, term plan and calendar, we share our weekly and daily writing goals on the Shared Daily Writing Log. This creates social support and accountability for writing.

So take your goals for this week from your term plan, and copy them over to the writing log. Then break up each weekly goal up into daily goals, and put the daily goals in the first column for each day. (The second and third columns for each day will be filled in on the day itself.)

You can define your daily goals in terms of output (e.g., ‘revise two pages on Manuscript X’), in terms of time (e.g., ‘write for 30 minutes’) or however you like. You can decide whether to work on the weekend or only Monday through Friday, and so forth. Many of us (including me) chronically set goals that are too ambitious. I don’t know why I do this; perhaps I just enjoy imagining that I will get a huge amount of work done this week. But when the goals are so ambitious that I can’t meet them, the calendar is no longer useful for planning. So over time, I have learned to set goals that are achievable in real life.

Step 4. Make to-do list with priorities and estimated times (5 minutes).

When I have a lot of tasks to keep track of, I start by making a to-do list that assigns each task a priority (A, B, or C.), and also includes my estimate of how much time it will take me to complete the task. This helps me decide what to do first. (You can see an example of a to-do list like this on Page 4 of the sample calendar.)

The first tasks I do are the Priority A ones that won’t take long. They’re ‘low-hanging fruit’ and I do them right away. Then I move on to the Priority A tasks that will take longer. If I get all those done, I start the Priority B tasks that can be done quickly, followed by the Priority B tasks that take longer, and so on.

Step 5. Put major to-do items on calendar (5 minutes).

For quick items, I don’t bother writing them on the calendar. But if I need to block out more than half an hour to do a task, I designate a specific time to do it or else I know it will never get done.

And in fact, there are always a lot of tasks that don’t get done. But that’s just unavoidable, because my time is limited and the list of to-do items never ends. So I choose the most important tasks and do them first, and I accept that I can’t do everything.

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