Why Most Plans and Goals are Like an All You Can Eat Buffet

More often than not people take the all you can eat buffet approach to planning out their research. Read on to find out a healthier approach.

Why Most Plans and Goals are Like an All You Can Eat Buffet
There are so many moving parts in most plans, that it becomes quickly overwhelming

Making a plan for your PhD may seem daunting but it can be super helpful to have something that help keeps you on track. However, doing it right, in a way that is focused on your own aspirations, will make it useful rather than overwhelming and pointless. The aim is not to plan the specifics of your PhD to the nth degree, but to build up habits that feed into the larger goal.

Most plans are set-up for failure because the goals are not set up to be successful no matter the outcome; this is the all-you-can-eat buffet approach.

This post is part 1 of a three part series:

How to Set SMART(-YO!) Goals For a PhD
In this epic second part I share how to go about setting goals that mean something to you and the people around you.
Example Goals and Sub Goals For a PhD Researcher
In this post, I have outlined my overall PhD goal, my sub-goals and how these might map onto a monthly task list. I hope this example will help you in designing your own series of PhD goals.

The series discusses how I go about setting myself goals and plans to help keep my PhD on track and my motivation up.

But for now I want to set the scene with the 'all-you-can-eat' buffet.

The all-you-can-eat-buffet

Let's picture the scenario. You've been asked to go to an all-you-can-eat, no expenses spared buffet. Or you're away from home and the hotel is a help yourself, eat-as-much-as-you-want restaurant. Oh, it sounds wonderful. There's no need to think about cooking, or whether there's something that you'll like. It's a whole mental load off your mind.

So, you grab your plate and get stuck in. You finish that first plate off, probably leaving a few bits you didn't like, then make another trip to the counter to pile another plate up with food. There's so much variety, that you want to try everything. A little bit of this and a little bit of that.

And so the process continues until you're so stuffed with food that you wish you had a mobility scooter to roll onto.

This may not be everyone's approach, but I'll bet you've done it at some point in your life; binged on something you love to the point it's unhealthy and you regret it afterwards.

Planning can be like an all-you-can-eat-buffet

If healthy food, home cooking and meal planning are how you like to go about your food, then the the all-you-can-eat buffet is the equivalent of how most of us go about planning. It's a once a year (if that) attempt at deciding how we're going to go about the rest of our life. It's a one size fits all approach that is lacking in rewarding and focused targets.

It's a rich plethora of items, laid out logically in sections, with everything on view. A lot of behind-the-scenes-effort went into producing that spread; lots of money, analysis, time and other resources to optimise the items for maximum fullness at minimum cost. But after that, it was just rinse and repeat. And there it is, all there available to you, staring you in the face; no strategy, just a free-for-all.

It all starts with gusto. Everyone is excited, happy; a new project. Just the thought of getting to eat all that food after you've probably starved yourself for at least a good half of the day fills you with a childish glee; feeling motivated for new experiences. You, and many others, sample all the items, or focus on what you like, leaving the salad for another day; that's easy, I'll do that one first. Finished items are quickly replenished; does my task list ever end? There's an excess of foods that will fill you up; the carbohydrates like noodles and potato products; or is that bureaucracy? The staff quickly remove plates and leftovers go straight in the bin; so what exactly did that achieve?

Woman with decision fatigue
The choice is overwhelming

As you get towards the end of your meal you're disappointed with the desert options, and after a while the food all tastes the same; the rewards are not worth the cost. Perhaps if you're a lighter or pickier eater, then at this stage you probably feel like you haven't got your money's worth; why am I doing all the hard work? It doesn't feel like such a good idea when you think about how much food you've eaten and how much you've wasted; it cost how much? Your lungs feel cramped and you long to laze about in a food-induced coma; I'm stressed over taking on too much. The next day, dealing with the after effects of excessive consumption, you regret it. One week later, you can still see and feel the evidence of that event in your body; i can't stop thinking about work. And one week later, you're still burning off the extra calories; was it really worth it?.

Now it might be a while before you go again, but you do and the process starts all over again; well we moved forwards didn't we? Those of us who are in tune with ourselves and the future repercussions may be able to avoid some of the issues. But the likelihood is, you will find yourself in that situation again.

So you can see the problem with using the all-you-can-eat approach. It may please the many in the short term, but it's inefficient and wasteful in the long run. It leads to a rollercoaster of emotion, unhealthy practises and no learning outcomes for future improvement.

How to get round the all-you-can-eat buffet approach to planning; meal planning

For me, I like the, 'decide what I like beforehand and head there' approach. A much healthier way to approach it, is deciding what I like beforehand, heading straight to that section then making sure I have a healthy selection of 'food'. (How often to the veggies look unappetising, but we add them in anyway, because we know we should…).

To keep with the food analogy - it's also like heading to the supermarket with a list. I want to eat healthily (my main goal). I know what proportions of veggies, carbs and protein my meals need to have from reading around (my sub goals). I find recipes I like (these have numbers and ingredients which could be tracked if desired) to inform my weekly meal choices (the monthly goals). So I go to the supermarket with a list of the things I need to make the recipes (the weekly part). I then work back the way, of using the ingredients (the weekly part) to make the meals (the monthly goals) so that ideally they all turn out healthy (the sub-goals and ultimately the main goal).

Man contemplating his options more carefully
Take a more strategic approach to meal planning and you'll feel healthier for it.

It doesn't always work out that way of course. Takeaways and cakes are always there and tempt me, but as long as the backbone structure is there I know it will keep adding into the healthy eating lifestyle. And it's a whole lot less stressful for me because I don't need to think about what I'm going to have for tea tonight and whether I have the ingredients and how long its going to take or whether its healthy. Instead I spent 30 minutes deciding what I was going to eat that week, considered what worked and what didn't in the last week and set the plan for the next week (my weekly review).

An example of real-life meal 'Planning'

I use the meal plan approach for this blog:

  1. It's a two year project; it will probably be two years at the current writing rate before the entire blog is recognised as something of value by Le Google and things start appearing regularly in search.
  2. It's a year project; I want to start seeing site traffic after a year.
  3. It's a three month project; it will be one to two months before this blog post shows up in Le Google search results under a useful search term. I typically have about 3 months of posts planned.
  4. It's a weekly project; I post at least once a week
  5. It's a daily project; I get up most days at 5am to write

Compare this to the all-you-can-eat buffet approach

  1. I need to have 100 posts (I picked a number) for a successful blog and I'll write 1 a week to get there.

Compare the two; if I don't get up at 5am, I've failed at 1 of 5 in the meal plan approach. In the all-you-can-eat approach, I don't know; am I on track? If I don't post in a week, I've failed at 1 of 5 in the meal plan approach. In the all-you-can eat I've failed at 1 of 1. If the site is not successful after 2 years, then I've failed at 1 of 5 ... you get the idea. See how it's set up for success, even though the ultimate goal and method is the same? It's easy to get lost and de-motivated if you use the all-you-can-eat buffet style of planning to reach your goals.

Try applying the meal planning approach to your PhD and see where it gets you. In the next post, linked below, I want to share how to do this.

Next -> How to Set Specific Goals for a PhD, then -> My Goals and Sub-Goals for My PhD