Summer plans

One of the first things I do, or at least try to do, in the transition from Spring Term to summer is sit down and make a concrete work plan for the summer. Doing so prevents me from falling into the trap of “It’s summer and I am now going to Do All The Things!” and then hating myself at the end of the summer for doing None Of The Things, or Only A Small Portion Of The Things. I still tend to overestimate what I can do, because that’s my nature, but over the years I do think I am getting better at being realistic.

(As a semi-related aside: Those of you familiar with Sarah Hart-Unger — blogger, host of the Best Laid Plans podcast and co-host of the Best of Both Worlds podcast — know that she plans in quintiles instead of quarters. I just realized that I, too, have a de-facto quintile planning system! Three of the quintiles match up with our 3 academic terms (Winter, Spring, Fall), and the other 2 are summer, and winter break, our 5-week break between Fall and Winter Terms.)

I was a tad late with the planning session this year, because it didn’t happen until the end of my first week with my summer research students. But hey, better late than never!

What does this process look like for me?

Step 1: Capture. I always start with a brain dump of everything in progress, everything I meant to get to but didn’t, every “hey, it would be nice if I could do X when I have a bit more breathing room”. I do a pretty good job of keeping track of things that fit into this category, although they’re not all in one place. I go back to meeting notes, look through my notebooks (paper and Evernote), look at my research Trello boards, review emails I’ve flagged, and glance at my yearly goals list. This year, I’d already done a bit of this processing before sitting down to plan. One of the productivity tools I was using to keep track of projects and tasks no longer worked well for me for that purpose, so I’d already transferred all of that information into a paper notebook while I figured out a new system. And, as I transferred info, I did some organizing and re-evaluating and triaging of tasks and projects.

Step 2: Summarize. Once I have this all on paper — writing things down helps me process them — I look for larger themes. Do distinct projects emerge? What concrete things are due, and when? I make a list of things that are due, projects in progress, workshops or conferences I’m attending, and so on.

List of things that are due and projects in progress
Second step: organize the brain dump.

Step 3: Confront the calendar. I didn’t have my trusty big-ass desk calendar handy during my session, so I printed out regular-sized blank calendar pages for June-September. Referencing my Google calendars, I wrote down all of the big stuff happening this summer: kids’ camps, trips, conferences, due dates, and so on. It might seem a bit ridiculous to write things down that are already on a calendar, but again, writing helps me process, and having things on paper that I can then spread out on my desk helps me see the bigger picture of the summer more clearly.

Step 4: Schedule in the projects and triage. To the whiteboard! Armed with a list of projects and the reality of schedules, my next move is to assign projects to weeks. Doing so forces me to be realistic about what can get done in a summer by looking at how many weeks I have and thinking about what I can reasonably accomplish in any given week. I try to do this in order of priority, starting with the project(s) I deem most important to do now. If I run out of space before I run out of projects, I might re-prioritize, but whatever’s left over at the end gets moved to the fall (or even further in the future). I also try to have a mix of projects each week so that I’m not spending weeks “bingeing” on a particular project. (Gradual progress for the win!)

Since making this chart, I realized that textbook orders are due a week earlier than I thought. Whoops.

Step 6: Transfer. My final step is to make sure my project grid is somewhere accessible to both work and home. Evernote is my organizational tool of choice right now, so I repurposed a yearly goal-tracking template to store my summer project grid.

Grid in Evernote of my high-level tasks for the first few weeks of the summer.
Final step: transfer to Evernote so I have access at work and at home

Of course, the most important step is the step that follows all of this: actually doing the work! So far, the grid has kept me on track this week, and while I might not fully complete everything, I’ll have made really good progress on each of the focus areas for this week. The act of putting this grid together also helped me get out of a really bad headspace and restored a sense of (at least a bit of) control over my work to-dos. And finally, the act of putting the grid together helped me solidify my summer goals. For instance, what exactly do I mean by “finish Card Sort 2.0 draft”? (Answer: Finalize the results and analysis and write enough of the supporting sections to form a coherent story, so that I can start figuring out which venue(s) we should target first.) How about “plan A&I seminar”? (Answer: Finalize the learning outcomes, the central course question, and the major assignments / due dates, before September.)

How do you keep track of your summer projects, or projects during less-structured times in general?

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