When I read Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, one of the things I noticed was the way that expectations affect stress. I’ve been a fan of low expectations for a long time and there is an entire chapter in that book that summarises the science behind this practice. I encourage you to read (or listen to) this book if you haven’t already. It’s really good.
One of the ways your expectations create stress is evident when you get frustrated with being behind. You are not actually behind. You are where you are. We can’t predict the future nor do we have enough control over all the factors that will lead to a particular outcome, so being in a particular place at a particular time was never guaranteed.
In the Nagoski book, they use the example of driving to the mall and getting stuck in traffic. The level of stress created in this situation is related to how quickly you thought you’d get there. If you said “It’ll take 10 minutes” and then you get on the main road and there is a lot of traffic or an accident or road construction, it’s going to take more than 10 minutes. You can’t control that. You can control how you feel about it and what you do in response to this change in circumstances.
The same applies to your writing, your career goals, or any other plan you’ve made. You may be behind where you expected to be. That’s not the same thing as being behind. You have control over your expectations. You can change your expectations. The quickest way to do that is to catch yourself thinking you are behind and remind yourself that you are not behind. You are where you are. You no longer have any control over how you got here. The next part of your journey starts here.
This is why I send out prompts to review and adjust your plans at the end of every month. You don’t have to wait for the end of the month though. You can do this any time something happens that affects your plans. You realise you completely forgot about one of the things you absolutely must do this week? Adjust your plans. Addressing that comment one of the peer reviewers made about your theoretical framework is going to be more work than you’d hoped? Revise your plan. You (or your kid, or your elderly parent) gets sick? Revise your plan. The university closes due to extreme weather and you lose a class session? Revise your plan. You realise you’re overcommitted? This one is more difficult but it may be possible to renegotiate deadlines or even drop one of your commitments. (I wrote about that further in It’s never too late to adjust your plans.)
In the planning class, I encourage Studio members to allow some slack in their plans to buffer against some of these eventualities. (see Slack: the key to successful plans) Sometimes you don’t have enough slack. Sometimes it’s impossible to allow enough slack. You make good plans. You can’t anticipate everything. You are not behind. You just need to revise your plan (and expectations).
You are not behind. You don’t have to catch up. You are where you are. Revise your plan to start here.
P.S. I may have already recommended this podcast by Tara Swiger. In it she talks about the purpose of goals in a way that I completely agree with. What she says reinforces what I’m saying here about not being behind.
This article was sent to the Academic Writing Studio member newsletter on 20 September 2019 and to the non-member newsletter on 11 October 2019. It has been lightly edited. I also send an email at the end of every month with prompts to review what you’ve done and make reasonable plans for the month ahead. Sign up for the Academic Writing Studio newsletter.