What do you really want to accomplish this year?1
If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, hopefully one of the things was that we really don’t know what’s coming down the pike. There’s no way to tell what might happen over the next 12 months. Similarly, there’s no way to know what adjustments or pivots they might require you to make, however large or small.
Yet that’s no knock on the value of setting clear intentions for the year. In fact, quite the opposite is the case.
Why You Need to Think about What You Want to Accomplish
Without clear intentions, you’re liable to get to the end of it having done plenty of things except give enough attention to what you’d otherwise select as most important. And that likelihood only grows as a given day, week, month, or year requires more and larger pivots due to unforeseeable circumstances.
Sure, such circumstances might require changes in your intentions. But to change an intention implies both that you had a prior intention that you’re departing from and another intention that you’re adopting instead. That “adopted instead” intention could even be reducing the number of things you’re trying to fit into a given time frame.
So, in all likelihood, plans made will need to change more as the period of time they’re intended to encompass grows. But that’s not a reason not to plan—it’s just a confession that humans aren’t omniscient.
If you want to avoid being swept along by the “tyranny of the urgent” and look back on this coming year (or your whole life) and see that you’ve done what’s important, it’s key that you take some time to identify what exactly that is.
How to Think about What You Want to Accomplish
How you do that will likely look a bit different from how someone else does it. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d like to suggest 5 steps to get you going:2
- Reflect on your experience.
- Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
- Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
- Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
- Each week, ask how you can move toward one or more of your goals.
1. Reflect on your experience.
At least for me, when I take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned from a prior year, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.
So, before you start planning the year, it might help to try some similar reflection. You’ll have your own lessons that you’ve learned, but let me share an example of my own to help get your wheels turning.
1.1. A Professional Example
I’ve sometimes found myself with one or more goals that’s too large to accomplish in any one time period. (I structure my year into quarters. Semesters work great too, but more on that below.)
That meant larger—but possibly more important—items could get lost in the shuffle (e.g., finishing monograph). So, in response, I’ve tried to be more mindful about chunking down larger projects into smaller units that can fit into single quarters (e.g., finishing a monograph chapter).
This naturally means a larger project will have more discrete goals that lead up to its completion. But that’s part of the point. Larger projects are larger and take more time and effort to complete.
So, having any given quarterly goal be achievable within that quarter has been helpful. It gives me a better sense of just how committed the year and its quarters are. It also helps me see better throughout the year how I’m progressing on larger-scale projects.
1.2. A Personal Example
This is true whether that larger project is professional or personal. For instance, if I have a goal to take a certain number of days out of the office with my family by the end of the year, it does some good just to plop that goal down into the fourth quarter.
But if that goal is requires meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, might be more helpful again is to segment that larger goal down into those major per-quarter chunks.
2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
You’ll certainly accomplish many more things this year than you can count. But what are the most important things for you to accomplish?
2.1. Make a list.
Make a list of what you think of. Be sure to think both personally and professionally.
As you do so, it can be easy to think about professional goals and ignore personal ones. But biblical scholarship isn’t about being an academic automaton.
So, it’s important to have a mix of both personal and professional goals that you’re working toward.
Do you want to write an article? Spend more time focused on your family? Take a class? (As a hint, if you’re a student taking a class, completing that class successfully should be one of your goals. 🙂 )
It might take a few minutes for you to get going. But once you do, your list is liable to grow pretty quickly.
Keep brainstorming until you have at least 10 items on your list.
2.2. Subdivide your list.
Once you get to this point, carefully review your list. As you do so, you’re asking one question: What items on your list need to be subdivided?
Don’t worry about making these subdivisions too detailed. All you’re trying to get a handle on are the major component pieces of any larger goals on your plate that are too large to fit into a single part of the year (e.g., a quarter, a semester).
As an example, you might have on your list “Write my dissertation.” That’s not something you’ll finish all at once. So, you’ll want to subdivide this project. As you do, you’ll start to see your list better reflect the complexity of what writing your dissertation requires.
You might subdivide this project into
- completing your prospectus,
- completing each of the individual chapters, and finally
- editing, proofreading, and submitting your project.
So, for instance, if you have five chapters, “Write my dissertation” could immediately become seven discrete activities (one for each of the chapters, one for the prospectus, and one for final editing).
2.3. Focus your list.
Now, out of your subdivided list, you only get to pick 12 items at most to really work on.
If you only have 10–12 items, that’s great. But what happens if you find yourself with more than 12 items in your brainstormed list (like I usually have)?
It’s tempting to think you can do it all or fit everything that you want into the scope of a year. But that’s rarely realistic, and if it is, your goals probably weren’t really stretching you to begin with.
The beauty of limiting yourself to no more than 12 major objectives over the coming 12 months is that it helps you feel at the planning stage the strain that these goals will put on your time, attention, and resources as the year moves along.
Anything on this list ultimately means something else can’t be on it. So, to come down to your most important objectives for the coming year, you might need to reflect, write down, scratch out, reorder, and otherwise hash and rehash your list over a few days until you’re satisfied with it.
That’s okay. Whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can save for another time in a list of possible future goals. The important thing is to intentionally commit to no more than 12 major objectives to focus on for this year.
3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
Having these objectives, however, will do little good if they’re fuzzy or just going to be aspirational expressions. So, once you’ve identified the essential core of what each one will be, take a few minutes to turn them into SCHOLARLY goals that are
- On your calendar,
- Linked to each other,
- Realistically risky,
- Limited in extent, and
- Yielding important outcomes.
Doing so will help you crystalize for yourself exactly what you’re committing to accomplishing by when.
“Write an article” or “spend more time with my family” are too general. Aiming at them is much like trying to hit anywhere in a target rather than in the bullseye.
“Write an article about the land promise to Abraham” or “Be home by 5:30, and give my full attention to my family each weekday evening” are much more specific targets to try to hit.
A good goal should be doable but stretching. For instance, you might have been comfortably writing academic papers at 200 words per hour.
But how would things be different if you tried to stretch that to 300 words per hour? That 50% increase sounds stretching. But what kind of time would that free up? Or what additional writing would you be able to do?
As you made your initial goal list, hopefully, you took the opportunity to include both academic and personal items. Because you’re a whole person with a multifaceted life, it’s important that your goals are holistic.
Goals like “Write my paper for SBL” and “Take X days off by the end of the year” are both worth including. So, survey the 10–12 prospective goals you’re working on, and ask whether the balance of academic and personal looks appropriate. (If you’re married, you might also want to ask your spouse for his or her input on this mixture.)
On Your Calendar
When do you want to have this goal complete? Or how often do you want to do it?
For example, do you want to “Spend two hours a day, five days a week writing my dissertation”? Or do you want to “Finish drafting my last dissertation chapter by 30 June”?
If you’re using a recurring activity schedule, you’ll want to make an appointment with yourself by blocking that corresponding time off on your calendar. If you’re using a “due by” schedule, you’ll naturally match that time to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.
Linked to Each Other
Your goals shouldn’t pull against each other and make life harder for you. Instead, they should mesh well with and support each other.
For instance, dropping in only one goal to “Finish my dissertation” and then having 9–11 other goals for other projects or other areas of life is bound to create problems. All those other goals don’t sufficiently support your aim of finishing your dissertation because they’re not linked closely enough.
“Draft the first chapter of my dissertation,” “draft the second chapter of my dissertation,” and so on do much better.
To “be less distracted while reading” is a great idea, but what do you need to do in order to be this way?
By clarifying exactly what action you need to take to achieve a given outcome, you’re that much more likely to make good forward progress on that goal.
If you’re working full time in a non-faculty post outside Europe, have an active family life, and have ongoing commitments in your community, it still might be a lot of fun to “Spend the semester at INTF.”
But it might not be realistic to pull up stakes and start actively moving on this goal in your current circumstances. At the very least, you could back off this goal to something more preparatory like “Plan a semester abroad at INTF.”
Limited in extent
“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague. What counts? How do you know if you’ve successfully achieved the goal?
In principle, one additional character in your dissertation file could count as “progress,” but at that rate, your project will outlive you and still not be finished.
“Submit my prospectus” is much better.
Yielding Important Outcomes
If you look over your goals list and you find something that makes you yawn, ask yourself why.
Should you remove it to concentrate on something more important? Or should you reframe it in a way highlights why it’s important?
“Spend less time on email” isn’t particularly inspiring. “Recover 30 minutes a day for writing by reducing how long I spend replying to email” clearly shows what the important end game is.
4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
Academic life typically revolves around quarters or semesters. And that natural structure is something to consider when you think about how to segment your year—whether into 3 or 4 major parts.
Either should work. I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful. But they sometimes overlap in odd ways with academic semesters. So, choose whatever approach seems most natural and least likely to create friction for you.
4.1. Spreading Your Goals throughout the Year
In either case, avoid letting your goals slide in either planning or execution. The more of your important objectives get lumped into the very end of the year, the more likely they are to still be incomplete at the start of next year.
Instead, from your list of no more than 12 SCHOLARLY goals for the year, assign
- No more than 4 to each semester (fall, spring, summer) or
- No more than 3 to each quarter.
4.2. Two Options for Recurring Activity Goals
A possible exception is if you’re running a goal that’s a recurring activity throughout the year, like “Bike for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”
In this case, you need to decide whether that goal—when recurring like you’re planning—is a big enough commitment to occupy one of your 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly goal slots. It is, you’ll schedule it in each of the year’s quarters or semesters. If not, you’ll at least want it to show up in the year’s last quarter or semester since it’s at that point that your commitment to that practice over the course of the year will be complete.
4.3. Benefits of Assigning Your Goals to Parts of the Year
Just like limiting yourself to 12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3 per quarter or 4 per semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.
Reckoning with those constraints ahead of time can be key to helping you avoid larger-scale scheduling crises. After all, your time actually is limited. So, you want to grapple with that limitation as best you can on the front end.
5. Each week, ask how you can move toward one or more of your goals.
If you only have 12–16 weeks to complete 3–4 major goals, you need to be intentional about what you do each week.
So, however works best for you, schedule time each week to review your goals for that quarter or semester. Then, ask yourself, “What do I need to do this week toward completing the goals I’ve set?”
You might not be able to work on everything for that quarter or semester in a given week. That’s fine.
The point is to make regular progress, even if it’s on only a small handful of meaningful tasks. Over time, those small handfuls add up to much larger results.
If you want some ideas about how to structure your time, and your goals in it, see my complimentary guide, How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.
By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to change much of what it involves. So, don’t wait.
Instead, “begin with the end in mind.”3 Intentionally decide what you’d like to have done this year once it’s at an end.
Then, you’ll be ready to start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.
In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018). I’ve found this guidance hugely helpful for myself. And I’ve tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of life in biblical studies. ↩
Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. ↩