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On the importance of milestones

We’re counting down the days and there’s still so much to do. It’s probably going to be updates from here to the finish line because let’s face it, there’s not much time for anything else! Since yesterday I talked about the importance of planning and why it’s good to lay things out, I figure today I’ll talk about the importance of milestones since I have about a dozen or so I need to hit! For the sake of time, let’s just dive right in.

Sometimes a project is just too big. Or maybe you’re in the same boat I am and the project is fine, the timeline is just too short. The issue in both cases is how do you keep track of your progress? How do you know how far you’ve come and how much you have left? Do you have enough time? Are you ahead or behind? These are just a few of the questions you can end up stressing about during the project you find yourself working on. Personally I needed to fight the all or nothing urge, the either I get it all done now or I put it off until I have more time thinking. Which has taken time to realize I do this and deal with it accordingly. The answer (for me anyway) is setting milestones, spoiler I know.

I want to get my PhD. That is a 4-6 year commitment depending on the person/field/whatever. I’m currently on track to do it in 5 years, which is the typical length, but with all that time (it doesn’t feel like a lot when you’re in it, trust me), how do I know that I’m on track to finish in 5 years and not 6,7,8 or even the max my school gives me 10 years? Seriously, they give you 10 years max, that’s how long you can be in the program on occasion depending on your life commitments and what not. It feels excessive, but the amount of work that needs to be done is appropriate for that kind of time frame especially when you don’t have the ability to do it full-time.

Thankfully the program has built in milestones, the qualifying exam, setting up your committee, the PhD proposal defense, and of course the PhD defense. These are all major deadlines though and ones that only moderately help you gauge your progress. For example, I know people who have done there proposal defense the term before their actual defense. So they aren’t the best milestones to mark off your progress especially if you’re more comfortable not doing things the “traditional” route.

I’ve come to love setting milestones for basically every project I take on that is going to take longer than one sitting. Frankly the more milestones the better in my opinion, it helps you keep track of your progress and takes some of the stress off when you have something so nicely laid out for you. For example for the past two days (here and here) I’ve been talking about my incredibly long and stressful list of things I need to somehow get done before Monday and Wednesday. I’m an anxious person by nature and I have small things, big things, things that would take longer than either deadline due, all on my plate right now. To be fair I’m more than appropriately stressed out by all this.

So I made my list, checked it twice (sorry I couldn’t help myself), and laid out my plan of attack (specifically covered yesterday). The next step, I set out my milestones for each thing I had to do. To be fair some of the milestones were just completion milestones. I had a homework assignment due Monday that wouldn’t take too long so I broke it up into two parts, the milestones were literally finish question 1 and finish question 2. That let me make sure that (1) I had estimated the amount of time I needed correctly and (2) let me adjust anything I needed to if I had gone significantly over the time I estimated.

Others were slightly (a lot) more complex. The funding proposal I am working on for example needs to be six pages long and I need to give my PI time to review it. So I broke it into ~2 hour chunks and the goal was to write 1 page a chunk for the past two days and today is the review before I sent it to him for his review. The only reason I’ve got anything close to finished with this is because I planned and made some milestones that I could use to make sure I was making good progress.

There are a lot of good reasons to set your own milestones for projects. The most important reason for me is my mental health. I really tend to overthink things or stress out about making deadlines. Setting milestones gives me a nice little check to make sure that I’m still on track with where I should be. Which in turn helps me stress out (slightly) less and I can use the extra mental energy I save to focus on the other projects and milestones I have to hit.

Today I’m literally not getting anything finished. I have several milestones I need to hit, but none of them will be the last milestone, the I’m finished with this milestone. Instead I need to get parts of my project three done. I need to get parts of my talk I’m giving finished (this talk), and I need to send off this proposal for review once I finish any last changes to it. It doesn’t sound like a lot when I list it out like this, but there’s quite a bit to do and the small milestones to get to that larger milestone (the need to get done by today one) are being ignored for the sake of brevity here.

As usual there’s probably the normal caveat to all this. My methods of setting milestones and what not may not be the best for you. That’s why I didn’t go into detail about how I set my milestones. I tend to try to set them based on how much work I plan to do in one sitting, but not always. I like to set small milestones along the way to make sure I’m on track, but that may get distracting for some. Basically the point is to get you to think about how you would use a system like this, not copy mine.

Well now that I’ve hit one milestone for the day (see what I did there?), I have about a dozen others I need to get working on. Just a few more days now…


2 responses

  1. Realy good blog and one that made me think! Setting milestones and targets, no matter how small can really help with motivation and keeping you on track! thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    May 1, 2021 at 11:34 am

    • Thank you! I agree, having that realization has helped me out a lot, especially lately!


      May 2, 2021 at 8:29 am

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