Planning with Uncertainty

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Zoë McLaughlin, South and Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries. 

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Virtual Minnesota Institute, which was a condensed form of the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians that was organized once it was clear that meeting in person wasn’t going to happen. As part of the institute, participants were asked to think about where they would like to be five years from now, along a variety of axes—professional and otherwise.

I found this exercise to be surprisingly eye-opening. While many of the things I want to have accomplished professionally over the next five years were easy to identify, I had a much more difficult time putting the pieces together into one cohesive narrative. I’d like to develop more subject expertise and significantly improve my abilities in a few regional languages and become involved in national conversations about accessibility. I’d like to contribute meaningfully to the professional organizations that have really supported me and engage community members and work seriously with librarians from overseas. All of these things are connected, but many of these things are connected only because they are all interests of mine.

In my final post for ACRLog in the first year academic librarian experience series, I wrote that one lesson I learned was to be intentional in selecting and agreeing to projects. Putting this lesson together with the five-year visioning exercise, I’ve come up with a new method that I’m at least trying to use to organize and prioritize my projects.

My job responsibilities are already organized into three main categories: collections, cataloging, and accessibility. I spent my first year trying to figure out how to balance these different responsibilities, and if I’m being honest, I’m still working on it. What I learned, though, is that it helps to really break down my projects into these separate categories so that I can make sure I’m spending time on everything. The new layer I’ve added on to this system is to think about goals within these separate categories. What do I want to have accomplished in my collecting five years from now? What competencies in accessibility do I want to have developed five years from now?

Thinking of concrete, long-term goals has been made trickier by the realization that nothing is certain. Back when I wrote my final blog post, I did not think that I’d be spending a year working remotely. Sometimes goals have to change. Imagining the long term, however, has also helped me to realign my work with my values. What will I be proud of accomplishing five years from now? That’s likely much more aligned with my values than all the emails I should be writing that I keep ignoring.

So then how have I moved from thinking about goals and values to organizing my day-to-day work? Essentially, every time a project or task comes up, I ask myself whether it advances my progress toward one of my goals. If it does, great! I say yes to working on the project and I make a note of which goal the project relates to. If something isn’t actually related to my goals, then that’s a good sign that I should be saying no. Of course, I can’t say no to everything (I really do have to write all of those emails), but it is a way to make me feel a lot better about declining to participate on another committee or deciding not to submit to a semi-interesting conference.

This summer, I’m going to hit three years in this position, which means that I need to start thinking about promotion and tenure. My hope is that in conceptualizing my day-to-day work in terms of long-term goals, I’ll also be able to build a cohesive and logical promotion/tenure dossier. Thinking about how each task I complete relates to a larger plan means that all my tasks are building upon one another and that I am continuing to make progress, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

So where am I now? Like everyone else, the past year has hit me hard. But I’m lucky enough to still have a job and with a fair amount of security and the space to work from home comfortably. I’ve had to make adjustments and relearn aspects of my job when I’d only just felt like I’d gotten my feet under me, but I do feel like I’m learning and growing and am more confident in my work. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.

And for you? It’s a new year, so now might be the perfect time to look at your own goals and consider the ways in which you can make your everyday work align with your values.

How I’m setting my goals for this year

When I started at my job four months ago, one of my first tasks after getting settled was to write out a list of goals for the year. All the librarians here do this as part of the evaluation process, and for me personally I’ve found it very helpful to be able to look back at my written goals in order to figure out what I should be working on during any given day. That said, what with the new year and the new semester fast approaching, it felt like it was time to reevaluate my priorities in order to assess the progress I’ve made so far and to work better next semester.

My first step in this process was thinking about where I want to be at the end of the semester and in a year’s time in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience. For the most part, this has meant figuring out what I need to learn to feel more capable of carrying out my job. For me, this covers all sorts of things: learning more about faculty research interests, learning more about the collection I manage, learning more about South Asia, learning more about LibGuides. Basically, I started out by thinking about where I want to be and what I need to learn to get there.

Then comes the part I’m more excited about. For every goal, I’ve made a list of actions to complete in order to achieve it. For most of these actions, I’ve made them general enough that they can be repeated over and over to build experience or knowledge. For example, in order to learn more about my subject areas, I’ve decided to read at least one monograph per month (that I would not otherwise have set aside time for) and one journal article per week. Or, in order to increase accountability, I’ve decided to update my work journal every Friday. I’m now working on scheduling recurring reminders for these tasks in my to do list so that I can better integrate them into my work week.

Since I’m still new, a lot of my goals have to do with learning and exploring, but so far I’ve found that this method of scheduling repeating tasks works for other goals as well. You can schedule time to review calls for papers or book chapters or time to work on developing instruction skills or working on lesson plans. In the same way that some people schedule every task on their calendar in order to make sure they get done, this method makes sure tasks appear on my to do list consistently. It also helps to establish a routine so I know that, for example, I’ll be reminded at the end of each month to organize my reading for the next month.

For me, this technique also works because (as with so many people before me) I’m still working out how to deal with all the freedom my job affords me. With this method, I’m able to divide up my time based on priorities to make sure things don’t fall by the wayside (as definitely happened sometimes this past semester).


What about you? How do you like to organize your time and goals? What new resolutions do you have for this semester or year?