Planning, and Semesters

When you’re retired, not working or going to school or driven by any particular schedule, as I’ve been more or less for a decade now, you tend to mark the passage of time by the holidays or vacations or family gatherings. Or periodic doctor visits. How does one manage one’s time to get anything done, rather than just sit back in retirement, relax, and do nothing? I have *many* things I’d still like to accomplish in my life, and sometimes I struggle with how to plan and close out plans and finish things.

(What I have done since my retirement in late 2012 is virtually all of, daily posts on Locus Online from mid-2010 through late 2017 until Locus HQ decided they no longer needed my services, nearly thirty lengthy review-essays for Black Gate in 2020 and 2021, and of course this entire blog, since 2013. And read many many books, which have informed my worldview and has motivated me to work on my own essays, and book.)

Here’s an idea that’s similar to what I’ve done, or have tried to do.

My entire life I’ve spent lots of time “planning” — which books I’m going to read next; when to finish the next stage of one project or another (like; when to work on gathering family photos on my blog as opposed to working on essays or chapters of my putative book. Sometimes I worry that I spend too much time planning, rather than doing what I plan.

I’m not that good at it, in the sense that I tend to plan to far ahead — months, or an entire year. Inevitably, I follow a plan for a few weeks or months, then get distracted and change my course to something else. And revise my plans. I don’t think I’ve ever finished any one plan.

The idea here is interesting because a semester (or a quarter, 10 weeks long, as at UCLA and some other campuses) seems to have evolved as a decent amount of time to plan and finish.

Vox, Allie Volpe, 21 Aug 2023: Why you should divide your life into semesters, even when you’re not in school, subtitled “The academic calendar can help you with goal-setting, time management, and motivation.”

The great expanse of time that is a life consists of many days, weeks, and months waiting to be filled. Our earliest years are marked by formal education and structure imposed by parents and other caretakers, not to mention a dedicated break in the form of summer vacation. By early adulthood — and beyond — we’re largely accountable for our time. What to do with this time can prove confounding, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” can attest. When it comes to setting goals and organizing time in adulthood, we’re left to our own devices. “The longer away in time something is, the more abstract or high-level our conception of it is, and we’re not as concrete about what it would be,” says Anita Williams Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “But as you bring things closer, people have an easier time.”

While it’s important to set goals, the roadmap for how to attain them can be murky. Instead of embarking without a plan toward broad ambitions, there’s value in incremental objectives in service of a larger aim. Take a page from the educational system and divide the future into “semesters” — traditionally 15 to 17 weeks long at American colleges — in which to implement minigoals to help get you where you want to go. Use the traditional academic year as a guide to help you stay on track, says Rachel Wu, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. Many community classes and educational opportunities are offered roughly on a quarter or semester basis. “At the very least, it will help people, maybe, feel young again. I think that’s a huge benefit,” Wu says. “They can think back to that point in their life when they had that kind of organization and that might be something that works for them.” (You don’t need to follow a traditional academic structure by any means, but having a firm start and end date within a few months’ span in which to focus on certain skills or activities can help keep you motivated.)

I’ve tried to learn not to focus on a single goal, e.g. finish these 12 books in 2 months, or finish this essay by this date. As I’ve learned, that would require a particular kind of focus virtually every day, and that can lean to burn-out, or writer’s block. Better to have two or three parallel goals that one can switch back and forth among, depending on the mood on any given day.

One way toward better planning is to simply scale way down the length of the plan. Not a year, not six months, but one month, with incremental goals. But that’s difficult, because I’ve had such large ambitions — read these 50 important nonfiction books; revisit the top 200 classic science fiction novels, or the top 500 science fiction short stories — goals I need to finish.

Actually for many years I kept a daily journal, either on my PC in a Notepad document, or in a physical notebook that I would write in everyday (this latter began when I was laid up in the hospital for two months, about two and half years ago, and I asked my family to bring a notebook and a pen so I could write things down!). This was especially effective back in the days when I was posting one item every day on Locus Online. On the weekend I would write down headers for the week ahead — Mon, Tue, Wed, etc. — and fill in required tasks. On Monday, post weekly bestsellers; Tuesday the week’s new books; and so on. In between: on Thursday be sure to pay the utility bills. Friday: try to finish such and such a book by then. That worked quite well, but I no longer have those kinds of daily commitments.

Another way to commit to plans is to publicize them, announce the world you’ll do this by then, and that gives you a motive to do so rather that admit defeat.

Let’s return to the article and see what it says about semesters.

Why semesters are an ideal length of time to focus on a goal

Modeling your life after academic years allows you to adequately mark your process. It’s difficult to determine improvement with daily or even weekly goals, Fishbach says. But with a quarterly or biannual milestone, you’re more easily able to track your progress; you can more clearly look back on what you’ve learned after a 20-week intro to coding class as opposed to after a few days of instruction. The end of a semester allows for these report cards. “It just helps you feel that you’re growing as a person,” Fishbach says. “You’re not the person you were three months ago.”

This reflection is crucial, Woolley says. At the end of the semester, you can determine whether the minigoal is moving you toward your larger ambitions or if you’d rather focus on something else entirely. “Maybe there’s an adjustment you want to make,” she says. “Maybe you want to keep working toward the same sort of goal, but now you know more.”

Semesters can help you maintain motivation

A self-imposed semester system also lends itself to increased motivation due, in part, to the fresh start effect, where people are more driven to pursue goals after a “fresh start” like a new year or semester. (Fully embrace the back-to-school energy and buy some new school supplies, Wu says, “and then learn something.”) With goals that have an endpoint, called an all-or-nothing goal, Fishbach says, motivation increases as you approach the deadline. Having a distinct cutoff to your personal semester can help you stay driven knowing there’s an end in sight.

I appreciate all these points.

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