Plan your scientific writing for 2019 to ensure that you will be truly productive and working towards your goals instead of getting stuck in “fire-fighting” mode. This post comes with a free download: a workbook that guides you through every step of the process.
To what extent do you plan your scientific writing? I bet you write at least to-do-lists every day or perhaps every week. But are those tasks on your to-do-list aligned with your big goals — getting a promotion, receiving a certain level of funding, getting published in that high-impact journal, etc.?
If you want to make sure that every task appearing on your daily or weekly list moves you towards your goals, you need to have a plan. The most common objection to planning I get from scientists is that it’s not possible to plan in science because it’s unforeseeable how experiments will turn out. While the bit about the experiments is true, it doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t have a plan.
A plan is like laying train tracks so that you can ride the train to reach your big goal without worrying about the direction all the time. There will sometimes be snow on the tracks, a problem with the signal, a delayed train conductor or all of these things on your journey. You might be forced to hop on a replacement bus, get to your destination a little later, or build new tracks. It might even be that your destination will change while you are on the journey. Instead of going to goal A, goal B might eventually become more meaningful to reach.
So, why should you have a plan in the first place if you keep changing it anyway? The first reason is clarity: You will have to be really clear about your goals in order to create a big plan. It’s easy to just spin your wheels in the daily hustle of academia while not actually focusing on accomplishing those tasks that will allow you to reach your goals.
The other reason is saving time. If you keep up with reviewing your plan and setting small goals that can be achieved in a week or so, you don’t need to re-evaluate every day whether what you do is a good investment of your time. You can just open your laptop in the morning and start working. Differently put, you’ll become truly productive with a plan.
Preparing your scientific writing planning session
To create your scientific writing plan for 2019, you will need a lot of focus. I suggest, therefore, that you take about half a day away from the office. The change of scenery is important so that you can get a different perspective. I would recommend to turn your phone and laptop off if possible and work on your plan with pen and paper. It makes sense to later transfer your plan on to your laptop.
I created a workbook for you that will guide you through the planning session, which you can print out and take with you.
Other utensils you need to create your plan are a few blank sheets of paper or a notebook, a pen, and a one-sheet calendar for 2019. I prefer those where the months are placed next to each other like in this one.
One thing left to do, before you start planning: Decide what you want to reward yourself with once the planning session is done! This is hard work and you deserve to celebrate afterwards :-)
So, let’s go ahead and plan your scientific writing for 2019!
Step 1: Review 2018
It’s hard to plan for the upcoming year, if we don’t know where we stand right now. It also gives us a chance to look at our achievements and be proud of ourselves. If you are anything like me, you just run from one goal to the next without appreciating your wins. That’s not a healthy approach and will guarantee you to never be truly happy with your current endeavours.
Reviewing your situation is also one of the secrets to becoming productive. I have forced myself to do this every week this year, and the effect on my productivity has been phenomenal!
If you have set yourself goals at the beginning of the year, now is the time to dig them out and compare them with what happened in 2018.
What went well in 2018?
The first things we look at are the things that have worked out well in 2018. Make a list of everything you can possibly think of that went well related to your scientific writing. Did you get a lot of papers published? Or a really good one in a journal you always wanted to publish in? Did you win a prestigious grant? Did you have a good collaboration, or did you teach your PhD student how to write in an efficient way? Did you pursue a project that was a lot of fun? Write down both the big and small things.
Whenever you feel like you haven’t achieved anything lately, look at this list. That’ll help you to readjust your thought pattern and become more positive.
What didn’t go well in 2018?
Equally important is to critically analyse the things that did not go well. Did you write a paper or grant that got rejected many times? Did you have a collaboration that was a waste of time? Did you suffer from writing blocks or felt stressed out when working on a certain project?
When you have completed both review lists, proceed with step 2.
Step 2: Frame 2019
No, it’s still not time for actual planning. Let’s first establish the framework for 2019 based on what went well and what didn’t in 2018. We also want to take into account any new endeavours that you want to take on.
What will you continue doing in 2019?
Have a look at your list of good things that happened in 2018. What activities lead to the positive outcomes and which of those do you want to continue doing in 2019?
Did you use a process for writing your papers and grant proposals that was really efficient? Did you have a collaboration with another scientist you want to extend?
What will you stop doing in 2019?
Now decide what you want to stop doing in 2019 in order to avoid the things that went less well in 2018. End a collaboration? Stop teaching your students a writing process that doesn’t work for them? Not work on weekends anymore? Say no to a committee to free up time for writing?
Once you are done, this list will contain your boundaries, or your “non-negotiables”. If you have already established boundaries for yourself, e.g. you don’t write in the evenings, put them down on the list as well. Whenever in 2019 you are inclined to take out your laptop on a Saturday, or agree on working on another project with that unreliable group, have a look at this list first.
What will you start doing in 2019?
What new things are there that you want to take on in 2019? These can be either activities that will help you achieve more of the positive outcomes or to avoid the negative ones.
Do you want to start tracking the time you spent on certain writing task to be able to schedule more realistically? Try out a new writing habit? Take a scientific writing course? Reach out to a new group to collaborate?
Now you have created a layout for your scientific writing year 2019: You have determined your winning procedures, set boundaries and decided on new routes you want to take.
Step 3: Plan 2019
You have now done all the work necessary to start planning 2019. For this, I suggest to roughly outline the whole year, and to define more detailed goals for the nearest months only.
What activities in your calendar for 2019 are already fixed?
Let’s start putting everything apart from scientific writing in your 2019 calendar that is already fixed. Now it’s time to use the one-sheet calendar for 2019 (download it here, for example).
Mark any holidays you have already planned or that you typically take, as well as birthdays, weddings and other family gatherings you will attend. If you have signed up for conferences, workshops, group retreats or similar, make notes of them in the calendar.
Even if you don’t have the exact dates yet, mark the days when these events typically take place. For example, conferences often take place during the summer and early autumn months, so you can block off a week in August already. The same holds for courses you teach or take, and the weeks or days you will be busy preparing and grading.
This does not need to be exact. However, mapping out when you will be busy with other things than scientific writing, will give you an indication of how many and how big writing goals you’ll be able to accomplish in a certain period.
What are your big goals for 2019?
Next, think about the big goals that you want to achieve in 2019. Do you want to get a promotion, publish six high-impact papers or receive a prestigious grant?
Choose measurable goals that are ambitious but still realistic, meaning achievable for you. Glance over to your calendar sheet while you define your goals for 2019 to get a feel for whether you will have enough time to accomplish them all. Doing this, you might realise that you have either set yourself too many big goals or that you need to cut down on activities you have already committed to.
Make sure that your list of big goals does not get lost throughout the next year. Once you have settled on your goals, put them up on a wall or your desktop where you can see them every day. I know of people who write down their big yearly goals every day on paper. That might sound exaggerated but it ensures that you won’t lose sight of your big goals. It’ll simply be less likely that you spend time on activities that don’t bring you closer to your goals if you have to engage with them daily.
What are your intermittent goals for 2019?
Now we need to slice the big goals into smaller chunks that we spread as check points throughout the year. For this, I suggest to cut up the year into a few seasons. For many academics, it makes sense to divide the year into three periods that have slightly different rhythms.
Period: Spring (January — May)
Period: Summer (June — August)
Period: Autumn (September — December)
For each period, you then define a few intermittent goals that are needed to achieve the big goals you defined in the previous step. You could for example have the intermittent goal to publish two high-impact papers or to submit a grant proposal.
What are your monthly goals for 2019?
That’s it for the rough plan of the whole year. Now we are going to focus on the first three months of 2019. It’s hard to foresee how likely you are to achieve any monthly goals of the later part of the year — especially if you are not used to planning, tend to be overly optimistic about your time, or haven’t been in academia for long. Therefore, define monthly goals for January, February and March 2019 that are aligned with the intermittent goal of your first period. Would you like to have a paper draft ready, or submitted a grant proposal?
What are your weekly goals for January 2019?
For January, you will now cut this monthly goal into even smaller pieces: Your weekly goals. There are five weeks in January 2019 (if you don’t take any holidays). Decide what you want to achieve in each of these weeks — write the introduction to a paper, contact a suitable editor for your grant proposal, or book a scientific writing workshop? ;-)
Congratulations, you have just created your scientific writing plan for 2019! Time to reward yourself and celebrate!!
How to plan throughout the year
Planning only once a year won’t help you to accomplish your scientific writing goals. Instead I recommend you take some time (typically 15-30 minutes) on Fridays to review your week. If you want to commit to staying on top of your goals in 2019, schedule a weekly planning appointment with yourself, for example just before lunch.
In these weekly planning sessions, you check whether you have achieved you goal. If you have, reward yourself — if you haven’t, analyse where you went wrong: Was your goal too ambitious or did something else come up? Then your upcoming goals might need adjustment.
Repeat this exercise also at the end of each month and at the end of each period and adjust the monthly and intermittent goals in the same way.
If you have worked through this with me, you’ll find how easy it will be to create daily to-do lists with tasks that get you closer to your goals.
About the Author:
I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.