Before beginning this blog post, I had written 14,754 words in the month of April, which is not bad, as I’d only had 11 days in which to work. On the other hand, if I had met my goal, I would be almost 3,300 words higher, at 18,000. That’s only 80.4% of my goal. Not bad, I guess. I’ll give it a “B.”
I tell you this so that you understand that I by no means have my life together in any way shape or form, something which I am openly acknowledging as I start handing out advice on the internet.
Second point: there’s a ton of useless advice on the Internet. This is probably adding to it, but, for one of the first times ever, I’m ahead on my blogging, which means I’m beginning to outstrip the generation of ideas for blog posts. This was a problem I never anticipated.
But, here we are.
I’m working on a couple of side projects right now, one of which is a book on strategies for college success. One of the recurring themes, which is recurring more than I predicted it would, is that planning ahead is essential. I think a big problem that plagues college students, in general, is that they take a chaotic approach to their work, which often leaves them stressed out, sleep-deprived, and unhappy.
Of course, I’m not promising that I can eliminate that, but I think that I can at least alleviate it. I also think that not planning ahead means that you’re going to end up working harder than you have to, so my sales pitch is that I think that many or most college students can work less and get better grades at the same time. That sounds like a win-win to me.
But, let’s get back to the bigger picture.
Goals. There are two systems at play in goal-setting that are constantly working against each other.
The first is that humans tend to overestimate what they can do in a short period of time and underestimate what they can do in a long period of time. For instance, we often guess that work will take less time than it does, and as a consequence, we overschedule our days.
The second is that we almost always fall short of our goals. Sometimes, the failings are really major. Other times, it’s relatively minor. The downside to both is that we’re hardwired to be down on ourselves when we fail at our goals. That’s a good thing, as it can motivate us to be better in the future, but it also feels bad in the moment.
So, for better or worse, something that’s worked for me is to try and trick myself.
Let me explain.
The fact that we overestimate what can be done in a short period of time means that we shouldn’t ever try to do large projects all in one chunk. That’s going to be super stressful, and it’s going to stress us out badly, especially if the deadline is near.
The solution to this is to break the project down into parts.
The fact that we underestimate what can be done in a long period of time means that we should spread those chunks out as much as possible.
I think a lot of people don’t have a good handle on how to spread those chunks out. A lot of times if the deadline is too far off, they won’t begin working at all, as stress is absent.
The way around this is to set goals which provide “mini-stress,” which can be used as motivation.
How do you figure out what a chunk should be and how they should be spread out?
Something that has worked for me is to determine what a very accomplishable daily goal would look like. If I were writing a ten-page paper for college, then writing a page a day would be very accomplishable. If I did less than a page, I’d feel like I hadn’t done much at all.
So, we’re going to set our timeline like we’re only going to do the minimum every day. It takes 10 days to write a paper at 1 page a day, so we’re going to write the paper in 10 days.
Now, we’re going to solve that other problem, that we always fall short of our goals. How do we finish a paper in ten days if our goal is to write a page a day?
Easy. We set our goal higher than a page a day. Say, two pages a day. That way, if you only accomplish 50% of your goal, you’re still on pace. If you write more than 50%, you’re ahead of schedule, and if you write a full two pages, well, you’re killing it.
I typically come to a hard stop if I reach my full goal for the day, not because I can’t go on, but in order to reward myself for working hard. Make that larger goal mean something, and you’re more likely to hit it in the future.
In summary, set the length of the project as though you’re only going to do easy days, and set your daily goals as though you’re going to be more productive than you expect.
I think this works because you end up ahead of schedule in the long run, which really, really reduces stress, but you have a new goal to hit every day, which gives you a nice, little motivational stress bump to use while you work on that day’s portion.
One other piece of advice: try to finish the first draft of the project at least a few days before it’s due. That way you can take a break, and come back to it with fresh eyes in order to catch mistakes. You’ll feel way more confident going in if you have the time to edit.
So, I hope you can get some use out of these tips. If you’re currently procrastinating from something you’re working on, now is the time to get back to work. 🙂