Setting minimum and ideal goals

A while back, I mentioned in a post reflecting on my research sabbatical that in addition to celebrating the things I was able to accomplish during that time, I was also going to talk about some of the challenges and how I dealt with them.

The very first challenge I encountered had to do with being realistic about what I could accomplish in the time that I had.

As someone who’s always been pretty good at managing time and both setting and following schedules for myself, I decided early on that during my sabbatical I would have a set of monthly goals for each project I was working on. These monthly goals would then build toward the overall goals I had for the entire six months, which I’d decided on ahead of time based in part on the project proposal I’d submitted when applying to my sabbatical as well as some promises I’d made to my editor for my ALA book project.

So at the end of August, I sat down and decided what my goals for September would be. I listed all of the projects I was working on and for each, I decided what I wanted to accomplish by the end of the month. As an example, my main focus was on my literature review project—the one related to creative writing pedagogy. I had a long list of sources that I wanted to read and I decided I wanted to have them all read by the end of December so that I could start writing in January. In my reading journey, I started with the books because they seemed like the most important sources. There were about fifteen books on my list when I started. I decided I wanted to finish five by the end of September.

Keep in mind that this was not my only goal for the month, it was just my goal for this project.

I actually got off to a good start. I decided to read the books in chronological order so I could get a sense of how thinking about creative writing pedagogy had evolved over time, which meant that I started with On the Teaching of Creative Writing by Wallace Stegner. This book is pocket-sized, less than a hundred pages so I read it in about a day. Boom. Done.

But mixing in my literature review with my other projects, I realized that I could only read about 50 pages a day, especially if I wanted to be taking notes as I was reading (which obviously I did). That slowed me down a lot for the next book, which was longer and more dense than the first one. By the middle of the month, I had barely finished two books out of the intended five.

Being the type of person I am, I panicked. I was convinced that not only would I not be able to meet my goal for the month, I wouldn’t be able to meet my goals for my entire sabbatical. I already felt guilty for going on sabbatical in the middle of a pandemic. Thinking that I might not get done the work that I wanted to get done while on that sabbatical just added to my guilt.

Part of the problem here was that I didn’t have my colleagues around me the way I usually would. No one to talk me down or give me a reality check. So I had to give myself a reality check.

I did this by changing my approach to my goals. I decided that instead of having one set of goals for each month, I would have two. This probably sounds like I was giving myself more work, both in creating these goals and then enacting them, but this wasn’t the case because the new set of goals I was creating for myself were my “minimum” goals. My original more ambitious goals then became my “ideal” goals.

My minimum goals were, for the most part, all about keeping up my own morale. Which is to say, I set the bar relatively low. I figured this was the least amount of progress I could make on a project and still feel like I was on track and being productive.

For my ideal goals, I tried to make them ambitious while also making them doable. I didn’t want to be disappointed with myself for not making at least one or two of my ideal goals each month, so that meant thinking about what was achievable while still challenging myself.

I decided that my minimum goal for my lit review in September was going to be 2-3 books while my ideal goal stayed at 5 books. In later months, I would have a minimum goal of 2-3 books with an ideal goal of 2-3 books plus (for example) a summary of what I had read so far or some other piece of the project-related puzzle.

For the most part, I was able to meet at least 2-3 of my ideal goals every month (out of anywhere between 5-7). I didn’t always meet all of my minimum goals but instead of feeling bad about it, I decided to use that information to help me figure out what my priorities were. If I wasn’t meeting a minimum goal on something, that meant it wasn’t a priority and maybe I needed to table it for the time being so I could focus on other things.

Overall, this system worked well. By the end of my sabbatical, I’d completed the research and most of the writing for two big articles plus drafted the second half of a book project. I also published 42 blog posts, redesigned my entire information literacy course (…again), submitted a handful of conference proposals, and made progress on some other projects as well.

Reading this, you might think that I missed an opportunity to take advantage of the more flexible schedule that comes with a sabbatical and instead did nothing but work, work, work. It’s true that the pandemic made it necessary to table some of the more personal goals I’d had for this time, including those related to travel and increasing both social and community connections. But in getting done all that I did, I kept strict boundaries around my work schedule (basically, normal work hours only but also a lot more flexibility than I would exercise during non-sabbatical times) and as a reward for meeting a certain number of ideal goals every month, I would take a long weekend to relax and also reset my brain. It wasn’t the sabbatical I thought I was going to have when I signed up for one before the pandemic, but despite some of the challenges it definitely feels like it was time well-spent.

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