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Build a better plan: How to bounce back when your semester feels out of control

It’s the middle of the semester. You want to spend all your time writing but you have to grade midterms. You’re not nearly as far along in your articles as you want to be – that manuscript you said you’d submit in February is still sitting on your desk. There’s no end in sight – completing it seems like a distant goal. What do you do?

Good news…You’re not the only one who’s feeling discouraged because you didn’t finish a project when you thought you would. People grossly underestimate the time it takes to complete a project, and this is especially the case for complex projects. Psychologists refer to this as the planning fallacy, and it happens to everyone. Yet, while knowing you’re not alone is comforting, it doesn’t exactly help you get that manuscript off your desk.

You’re looking forward to the end of the semester, when you think you’ll finally have time to write. Yet, you have some projects you have to move forward now, and you’re feeling the pressure. You might be asking yourself, “what have I been doing since January?” It seems like you’ve gotten nothing done. This was the year you made a resolution to write every day and it’s not exactly working out. Naturally, you’re feeling discouraged and anxious.

How do you regain your motivation and develop a realistic plan for getting back on track?  After all, you don’t want to succumb to the same mistakes you made before. You also want to feel good about your writing – not like you’re crawling towards the finish line that’s the end of the semester.

I suggest a two-prong approach that is both introspective and forward-looking. You first identify where your plans went awry, then you create a better plan based on the data you collected.

Be Introspective

First, look back at the appointments in your planner or calendar to identify when your planning went astray (Of course, this assumes you are diligently documenting how you spend your time, so if you aren’t, you should start!). This will help you determine if your plans were delayed, and how.

I think that the delays that undermine our planning generally fall into three categories.

  • There are delays you can eliminate with a bit of willpower. For instance, a preventable delay is you chatting with colleagues every time you try to write in your office. You can eliminate this delay by finding a new writing location.
  • There are delays that are unforeseeable, like catching the flu and needing to rest, then catch up on your work.
  • There are delays that are you know are going to happen, but are inevitable– like the faculty meeting that always runs late. Because it’s predictable (albeit frustrating!) you can plan accordingly.

Build a Better Plan

Now that you have this data, you can focus on setting yourself up for success for the rest of the semester.  That starts with a concrete, specific plan.

Write out every task you must complete in detail, and then schedule the tasks.

This second part, scheduling, is vital – making the commitment to yourself makes you more likely to follow through. When I say schedule, I mean enter the task into your calendar the way you would an appointment.

Scheduling has a benefit beyond enforcing a time commitment: you’ll be better able to estimate how much time you have, and how much time you need. For instance, “finally finish this article” is certainly an important goal, but for your to-do list it’s a vague task. In contrast, “read and annotate three articles for my literature review on Wednesday from 1pm to 4pm” is a specific task to be completed at a designated time. Plus, at 4pm you’ll know whether you gave yourself enough time! This is especially useful if there are certain components of your project that turn out to be more time-consuming than you anticipated.

Perhaps you didn’t experience any of the delays I described above, and the project is still taking longer than you thought it would. If that’s the case, this scheduling information will be important for making better estimates in the future. You’ll be able to compare your prediction to the actual amount of time you spend, as well as the amount of time you spent on similar tasks in the past.

By giving yourself specific tasks you’ll be able to celebrate your accomplishments as you’re working. Instead of fixating on the delayed gratification of a manuscript submission that might be weeks or months away, you can have the satisfaction of checking items off your to-do list regularly. This simple act can significantly improve your mindset.

Here’s what’s most important for getting back on track: focus on the future. Don’t spend time blaming yourself for missing deadlines or making unrealistic plans. Think about what went wrong only as much as it helps you plan to do better next time. Discouragement and guilt will not put you on the path to greater productivity. Remember, the best strategies to stay on track include a combination of motivation and organization. It’s easier to implement your plan if you’re enthusiastic about it.

Jane Jones

Jane Jones, PhD is a developmental editor and writing coach. She has worked with scholars at all stages of their careers to develop better writing habits, bring their projects to completion, and publish work that they’re proud of. Her clients have published with presses including Oxford Press, University of California Press, and University of Chicago Press. You can find her at or on Twitter @janejoann.