A Plan for Getting Unstuck

Do you ever feel like you’ve been busy all day without actually accomplishing anything? Examples include:

  • Checking email and responding to other people’s priorities
  • Endlessly rewriting the first two sentences (or paragraphs) of a document
  • Falling asleep while reading
  • Getting distracted by social media
  • Hanging out in a shared workspace
  • Any other form of “pseudowork” (Cal Newport)

Or perhaps you’re stuck in the doldrums, and don’t feel like you’re moving forward on any of your top priorities.

I’ve developed a tool for when the going gets tough. It bakes in research-based strategies for making good plans and following through on them. These tactics can be hard to remember when we need them the most.

I call this tool the “Getting Unstuck Work Session Plan.” You can download it here. Go ahead and print it out. The rest of this page will walk you through it.

Step 1: Start with the basics

Fill in the date & time of your next planned work session, and—even more important—make a plan for when and why to stop. This step helps guarantee that you won’t wander away from your work partway through.

Valid reasons to stop include:

  • Pacing your work
  • Getting exercise
  • Regular meals
  • Calendar appointments
  • Going to bed (at bedtime)

Stopping because of boredom or feeling frustrated or falling prey to distraction? Bad idea. Working until exhausted? Avoid that, too.

For more information on the importance of stopping, check out Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (2000).

Step 2: Define which project you’re working on

Out of the infinity of possible tasks awaiting your attention, choose work that matters. Effective academics work hard at the right tasks.

Avoid scaring yourself by naming too big a chunk of work (link to ABDGS #220 coming soon). That means projects spanning months or years like “dissertation,” “book,” or “website” are all too big. If you’re working on a big project, note which sub-subsection you are planning to tackle. Pick a part or step that you think will take a week (or less) to complete.

Step 3: Think about what process to use

Few academics document their own work processes. Doing so may feel a bit awkward at first. Name the tools you will use and the steps you expect to take.

For example, here are some writing processes:

  • Use word processor to capture my current thinking about _______. NO STOPPING TO EDIT!!!
  • Use spreadsheet to classify my ideas and uncover gaps
  • Use white board, sticky-notes, and dry erase markers. Brainstorm themes and draw connections between them. Move things around as needed.

Coming up with a specific plan ahead of time will help you save your brainpower for the actual work during your planned session.

Improving Your Efficiency

Over time, set the goal of refining your processes. There are a couple of ways to going about doing this.

  • One method is to spend a little time each week reading about how other people work (I recommend starting with Boice, Belcher, and Newport when reading about academic process).
  • Another method is to become a scientist of your own work habits: make observations, develop hypotheses about whether particular changes might be helpful, then collect data about what happens (and you’ll find a spot for doing so on the worksheet).

Step 4: Set product goals for today, and make them S.M.A.R.T.

It is possible to focus on process so much that you overlook the goal-oriented reality of your situation. Academic work has its deliverables, too, like:

  • 90 essays to grade and return next Monday
  • Full text of the conference paper to panel moderator by Dec 31
  • Index due to press in 6 weeks

While these are too big for a single work session, what amount of work can you finish in the time you’ve defined? Perhaps it’s:

  • 12 of the essays graded in 2 hours
  • This morning, draft three paragraphs about three coins and create one slide per coin.
  • Index “D” today.
  • Prep a list of questions for my next meeting with ____________.

When considering deliverables, remember that anything that moves your project forward is fair game.

You’ll know you’ve described your goals in sufficient detail when your plans are S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timed. There are many variants on this acronym; pick one that works for you.

Improving Your ability to Judge How Long to Allow for Tasks

Many people never compare their time estimates with the actual amount of time a task takes. But developing this habit is critical to improving your time management.

Expect that at first your estimates will be wildly off-base. Kerry Rockquemore’s rule of thumb for academic work is to multiply an initial estimate by 2.5 to arrive at a realistic estimate. Short tasks tend to be easier to estimate than larger tasks.

Don’t worry about how long a task “should” take; how long does it take YOU to do it? As you keep practicing this skill, you’ll get better and better at knowing how much time to allow for tasks, even in the “messy middle” of a writing project.

Step 5: W.O.O.P. your S.M.A.R.T. plan

Have you ever made a plan but then wandered off to do something else?

Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intention (MCII) can help you stay on track. This research-based strategy comes with an awkwardly compelling acronym: W.O.O.P.

In brief, visualize your:

  • WISH (to follow through on the elaborate plan you’ve created using this worksheet)
  • OUTCOME: what awesome things will happen once you’ve done the work you’ve planned?
  • OBSTACLES: what internal obstacles might mess things up? What would be the terrible consequences of getting sidetracked?
  • PLAN: when those internal obstacles you just identified come up, how will you respond? (For example, if the urge to check a website comes up, I’ll write it down and batch my Internet usage from 4:30-5:00pm. That way I won’t get lost down a rabbit hole.)

Don’t be surprised if using W.O.O.P. inspires you to modify your original plan in some way (usually for the better).

After the work session, now what?

Some clients only use this worksheet when they need a boost to exit chaos. Other clients find that they find it tremendously helpful to use this planner for every work session. One client keeps a 3-ring binder of her filled-out worksheets to review her dissertation progress over time.

Experiment to see what works for you; and feel free to adapt this worksheet to incorporate the productivity elements that help you the most.

Wishing you a wonderfully productive week!