The two habits that help me focus my work.

Over the past few months, I have found one consistent habit that helps me focus my work – the habit of writing down my top 3 goals.

Firstly, I have a top 3 goals list for the long-term. This is a yearly goal of sorts.

Secondly, I have a top 3 goals list for the medium-term. This is a monthly goal, in which the three goals I list for the month are goals that help me achieve at least one of the yearly goals.

Thirdly, I have a top 3 goals list for the short-term. This is my weekly goal, in which the three goals I list for the week are goals that help me achieve at least one of the monthly goals.

Finally, I have a top 3 goals list for the day. The three goals I list for the day are goals that help me achieve at least one of the weekly goals.

I learned this system from a book I read titled ‘Getting Results the Agile Way‘ by JD Meier, and I would highly recommend it to anybody in graduate school. Graduate school is a long journey. As a training time for future creative and intellectual work, it takes a long stretch of time and it takes discipline to complete the journey. Having a good system to help one focus that journey can not only yield much fruit in the short-term (results for publishing papers, that is), but also yield long-term sustainable habits for success.

When I first implemented the system in the summer after 2nd year, I initially found that it was hard to set goals at the right level. For the programmer who might read this, it’s like not knowing what the right level of abstraction is.

However, I soon found a second habit that helped me set goals at the right level, and more. That was the habit of reflection.

At the end of each day, I would invest about 10 minutes evaluating what went well for that day, what didn’t go so well, and what could be improved for the next day. This would help me set goals for the coming day. I would also take some time to make sure that the goals set for the next day were still aligned with the weekly goals, and that the weekly goals were still the most important goals for the week.

At the end of each week, I would look a bit farther, and make sure that the yearly goals were still the most important goals I wanted to achieve. (For me, “important” goals are valuable, challenging, and novel.) Only then, I would calibrate my monthly and weekly goals to make sure that they were aligned with the weekly goals.

In some ways, given the nature of my work (computation, analytics etc.), the “week” is a natural unit of time on which long-term goals and long-range progress can be evaluated. That is why my monthly and yearly goals are re-evaluated every week. For some of my colleagues who are bench scientists, the “month” is a more natural unit of time, given the time scales on which their experiments operate.

In summary, the two habits are:

  1. Writing down 3 goals for the day, week, month and year.
  2. Reflecting and re-calibrating my goals for the next day, week, month or year.

To make this happen, start by setting some goals. Don’t be afraid that the goals will change. Let your reflections dictate whether they will change. I hope for you as much productivity as I have gained!

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