Seven ways to start the year off right

Dr Eva Lantsoght from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador shares her advice for beginning the year with clarity and determination. Life as an international academic and researcher can be challenging, so setting goals and identifying effective time management strategies can greatly benefit a harmonious work/life balance.

December was a month for reflecting on the past year, and for setting goals for the coming year. As the final exams are just past, I am taking time to check my goals for the past semester, and to outline my professional and personal goals for the coming years. Balancing these different facets of life has become more challenging since I entered parenthood, but it helps me to focus on what really matters.

If you want 2020 to be your best year yet, consider incorporating these seven ways to set goals and prioritise actions, so that you can start the year off right.

1. Set goals in the categories: work, self, relationships

One thing I learned in 2019, after reading Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (2018) by Laura Vanderkam, is that it is worth setting goals not only for work, but also in the categories “self” and “relationships”. Personally, I found setting goals in the “relationships” category an eye-opener: when life gets busier, it is easy to let our relationships slide to the side. But for long-term career success, it’s important to invest in your work relationships. For your overall life satisfaction, your friends are important. And of course, if you have a partner, it’s fun to set goals for things you want to achieve together as well.

What do you want to achieve in 2020 in these three categories? Make a list, but make sure you stick to the essentials, so that you can focus on what really matters. If you feel constantly pressed for time, try to do less things but do these with more attention and more depth.

2. Divide your work into separate categories

What are your responsibilities at work? Can you separate these in different general categories? For me, these are: writing, research, teaching, administration, and service. When I write down my goals, I divide them across these categories, and try to find a balance among the different categories. In addition to that, I identify my priorities at work each week based on these different categories, so that I know what I need to focus on to make progress.

3. Plan how you will achieve your goals

Do you have deadlines imposed on you for conference papers or project deliverables? If so, planning towards finalising work becomes a bit easier. For your goals that do not have a hard deadline, agree with yourself upon a deadline (for example: a date by which you want to submit a journal paper). Now, plan when you should start working on these goals, and how much time you should set aside each week to make progress, so that you can reach your goals.

4. Think 168 hours instead of 24 hours

Trying to fit in everything within 24 hours may be a struggle – so think on a weekly scale (a tip from 168 hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (2011) by Laura Vanderkam). Look at when you should be working on each of your goals (and don’t forget your “self” and “relationships” categories) and lay out how you will fill your weeks to fit all the pieces. You will find that there are pockets of time over the course of the week that allow you to spend time with friends, or exercise.

5. Track your time

If you feel like you have no grip on where your time is going, track it (another idea I got from 168 hours). For one week (or longer if you can) track how you spend your time. I’ve used a simple notebook in the past to make short notes on when I change task – information which I then compile and use for calculating how I spend my 168 hours, whereas Laura Vanderkam uses a spreadsheet with 30-minute time slots to note down what she has been doing. I’ve also recently been exploring the Toggl app for tracking time (only for work so far), as well as the Superday app to track how I spend my time across general categories.

6. Read more

If you want to write more (and consequently, hopefully publish more in 2020) you should read more. Read as a student to constantly learn more about your research topics, but also to learn more about writing: if you find a certain paper very clear, it means that it is written in a way that effectively communicates methods and findings. If you come across such a paper, take a moment to identify what makes it well-written: is it the sentence arrangements, the flow within or between paragraphs, or is the work well-illustrated? Learn from good writers to become a better writer.

7. Make the most of your weekends

From another book by Laura Vanderkam What the Most Successful People do on the Weekend (2013), I learned that planning ahead can make our weekends more satisfying. Don’t fall for the trap of keeping the weekend only for doing groceries and laundry – instead, use your weekend for making memories and actively recharging your batteries. And if you have a busy life and a family, you may want to identify 3 to 5 fun activities to do during the weekend on Wednesday, so that you indeed can make your weekends filled with joy.

Get the book:

The A-Z of Phd Trajectory (2018) by Dr Eva Lantsoght

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think  (2011) by Laura Vanderkam

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (2018) by Laura Vanderkam

What the Most Successful People do on the Weekend (2013) by Laura Vanderkam

Further Reading:

Understanding ‘desk-rejection’ — an Editor-in-Chief’s inside look

Essential tips for starting your career in STEM

Six bad reading habits that could be holding you back

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Dr. Eva Lantsoght is a Full Professor in Civil Engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador and a part-time researcher at the Concrete Structures research group of Delft University of Technology. She blogs at PhD Talk about her research and general academic topics and is the author of ‘The A-Z of PhD Trajectory: A Practice Guide for a Successful Journey’ Springer, 2018).

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