Why I Use a Goal-Setting Journal as a PhD Student

In addition to sharing pedagogical resources, I also want to use this blog to share resources and information that I have found useful in my grad school journey. This is the first post in this category.


Skip to goal-setting journal “reviews”

I know, I know. Half of you who saw “Goal-Setting Journal” in the title just went “eew.”

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I had an aversion to all things related to goal setting. It felt like an empty exercise since I never saw results. I had a change of heart during my first semester of dissertating, which also happened to be the semester I participated in a support group for PhD students on my campus. Our assignment after the first meeting was–you guessed it–setting goals for the semester, and I was incredibly resistant at first.

However, we didn’t just set goals; we broke our goals down into measurable milestones and actionable steps. We also used backward-design to figure out when we would have to accomplish each step and milestone in order to reach our final goal by our deadlines. For whatever reason, these components of goal-setting had never been introduced to me before, and they turned out to be game-changing.

If you’re thinking, “This sounds too good to be true,” you’re not wrong. I didn’t become a goal-setting wizard overnight. (In fact, I’m still not a goal-setting wizard.) Nor did I actually achieve my major goal that semester, which was to draft the first chapter of my dissertation (turns out, I underestimated just how hard it is to write the first chapter, but I’ll save that discussion for another time).

Even though I didn’t accomplish my goal, that doesn’t mean the semester was a failure. I still made progress–more progress than I had been making previously. By breaking down my larger goal–writing the first chapter–into smaller, measurable, pieces, reaching it seemed more possible. And because it seemed more achievable, I actually did something, instead of avoiding it altogether.

So, where do goal-setting journals come into play?

Photo of journals
My small collection of goal-setting journals, from left to right: Panda Planner Classic, SELF Journal, and Get Stuff Done 13-Week Planner.

Something else I realized during that semester was that, after four years of grad school (plus 4 years of undergrad plus 12 years of school before that), I had become dependent on the structure of coursework to get things done. Now that I was suddenly managing my own multi-year project, I was struggling to manage my time without an external deadline as motivation.

I realized I needed an accountability measure to help measure my progress and motivate myself to incorporate regular dissertation writing into my schedule. I use Google Calendar for meetings and appointments, but I wanted something physical for keeping track of my goals and daily tasks: cue goal-setting journals.

This post isn’t intended to recommend particular products–there are tons of goal-setting journals on the market, and I think the differences between most of them are negligible. I’m going to share my thoughts on the ones I have personally tried in case such information is useful if you’re considering taking the plunge and want a place to start. I also hope that my “reviews” are more relevant to the average grad student’s experience than other reviews that don’t share my orientation. However, if you’re looking for more guidance, Trent Hamm over at The Simple Dollar has a great post on 12 goal-setting journals. In fact, I used his guide before buying the SELF Journal (described below).

Panda Planner Classic

I had bought a Panda Planner Classic on a whim the previous year and never used it, so I decided to start my experiment with what I already had. Like the other journals I have tried, the Panda Planner Classic is organized around an undated, 13-week (roughly 3-month) block of time in which to execute goals. I was skeptical about what I viewed as such a short-term journal, figuring it was a scam to get me to buy four a year.

Maybe it is a scam, but I learned from my experience with the Panda Planner that the 13-Week timeframe worked really well for me: it was long enough that making significant progress on a large project like a dissertation chapter seemed realistic, yet short enough that I still felt some of the same time-pressure that was so motivating during coursework. Plus, it maps pretty closely onto a semester (in my dream world, these would be 16-week planners; if you find such a thing please let me know). You, however, might find that you prefer a longer time-frame, like 6 months or a year.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the Panda Planner:

  • The amount of space it dedicated each day to writing down what I was grateful for or excited about. Maybe I’m ungrateful and unenthusiastic, I don’t know–it just rubs me the wrong way.
  • I remain confused about the difference between the “Focus” box and the “Today’s Priorities” boxes. I also felt there were too many Priorities boxes (five), which made it difficult for me to prioritize tasks while not also overloading my day.
  • While the Weekly Pages have a space for writing down new habits, I wished there was a way to evaluate whether I’d practiced my habits on daily basis (aka a habit tracker).
  • There seems to be an imbalance between the number of Weekly pages (enough for 13 weeks) and the Monthly pages (enough for 6 months).
  • Despite the fact that this planner is quite similar to many goal-setting journals in its daily/weekly format, there isn’t any space to actually articulate your overarching goal(s) for the 13-week period.
  • $25 (the current price on Panda Planner’s website) was a bit more than I wanted to spend per planner on a grad student budget.

While many of these are small annoyances, when that journal was full I decided to see what else was out there instead of just buying another Panda Planner right away.

SELF Journal

Next I tried the SELF Journal by BestSelf Co. I liked it slightly more than the Panda Planner, but it still wasn’t quite right. I was pleased with the quality of the journal itself and liked that the fabric-feeling cover did not show smudges or pick up stains easily. The paper was also lovely and thick.

Here were what I saw as improvements in the SELF Journal over the Panda Planner:

  • The “13-Week Roadmap” (goal articulation) pages at the beginning of the journal. There are pages to set up to three large goals to work towards over the 13-week period.
  • The Weekly pages had a full-blow “Habit Tracker,” with the space to indicate your progress on a day-by-day basis.
  • The large amount of free space on the Daily Pages for “Notes and Ideas,” which I used for writing down daily tasks that weren’t my three main priorities.
  • The Daily Pages had dedicated space for three priorities (called “Today’s Targets”)

However, there were several things that I didn’t like or didn’t meet my needs:

  • I found the location of the daily schedule on the left-hand page of the two-page daily spread to be annoying (I’m right-handed though, so lefties you might love it).
  • It’s expensive, even by goal-setting journal standards (currently $31.99 on Amazon).
  • The sections for both morning and evening gratitude on the Daily Pages–so even more than the Panda Planner.
  • Daily “Lessons Learned” instead of weekly (apparently I don’t learn things every day?).
  • Being expected by the format to repeatedly write my “goal” on each daily page, as well as the space and language suggesting I had only one goal or could focus on only one goal per day, which was not the case.
  • I didn’t find the day-by-day “preview” on the Week pages particularly useful–I couldn’t fit much and I would rather rely on my Google calendar for that kind of preview.
  • The journal does not have a little pocket inside the back cover, which both the Panda Planner and Get Stuff Done Planner have. This is a nice little storage feature, but not essential in my opinion.

Like the Panda Planner, none of these are inherent deal-breakers. The style just didn’t quite mesh with my needs and preferences.

Get Stuff Done Planner

My current preferred goal-setting journal is the Get Stuff Done 13-Week Planner. Here’s what I like about it as compared to the Panda Planner and the SELF Journal:

  • The space for articulating a Ten-Year Plan at the beginning of the journal.*
  • The formatting of the goal articulation pages (with space for setting four goals).
  • The “Year At A Glance” pages, which give me space to record important dates, like birthdays, all on one two-page spread (as someone who’s trying to wean off of Facebook, this is a nice feature).
  • The “Lessons Learned/How Will I Improve?” section is located on the Weekly Pages rather than the Daily Pages.
  • Space on the Weekly Pages for setting goals for the upcoming week as well as space for listing “How [You’ll] Make This Week Great/Fun.” I think this is an important reminder for grad students, for whom overwork can be such a problem.
  • The Habit Tracker is very similar to the one in the SELF Journal.
  • The Daily Pages only ask you to record one thing you’re grateful for and one thing you’re excited about each day (which is apparently manageable for my Grinch soul).
  • There is SO MUCH SPACE for recording and organizing your daily to-dos. On top of designated space for listing your Top Three priorities for the day, there are sections for “Important” tasks (those that will help you reach your goals but aren’t necessarily a top priority for the day) and “Immediate” tasks, which are for more time-sensitive items. Then, there’s a fourth section for recording “Other Tasks”–stuff that would be great to get done but aren’t necessarily time-sensitive or goal-oriented. This breakdown has helped me tremendously in learning how to prioritize my daily work, rather than treat everything as equal.
  • The “Schedule” on the Daily Pages is broken into half-hour increments and takes up most of the second of each two-page spread.
  • The huge bullet-journal style section of pages at the end of the journal for notes and misc. The Panda Planner and SELF Journal also have these pages, but they aren’t as numerous. I love using these pages for taking notes during meetings and presentations because it’s one less notebook I have to carry!

As much as I like it, this journal is still not perfect. Here are things I don’t care for or find useful:

  • The “Vision Board” space at the beginning of the journal is not particularly useful to me. I just don’t think of my future and goals in a visual manner. However, I can easily imagine someone feeling the exact opposite of me and loving the Vision Board but hating the Ten-Year Plan.
  • There is a “Big Wins/Made Me Happy/Lessons Learned” section on the Daily Pages that I rarely ever use. However, this section doesn’t take up much space, so it doesn’t feel wasteful to skip over it.
  • It is a little bit annoying not to have the hours written in on the Daily Schedule (you have to write them in yourself). However, this gives you flexibility to start and end your day on whatever timeframe is natural for you, so some might see this as a perk.
  • The cover shows smudges and fingerprints more easily than the SELF Journal (about on-par with the Panda Planner).

Common Features

I have mostly discussed the differences between these three goal-setting journals, but there are several similarities as well (which is due in part to my filtering system before buying any of them). All of them have covers that can be secured with an elastic strap and three ribbon bookmarks for easy access to relevant pages. In my experience, all of their bindings have held up well, and I haven’t had any problems with pages getting loose or falling out. And, as you might have inferred from my like/dislike lists above, the structure of these journals is quite similar and they are clearly modeled on similar time-management and goal-setting philosophies. I think the Panda Planner, SELF Journal, and Get Stuff Done Planner are all quality options if you want to experiment with goal-setting journals.

*Like goal-setting, it took me a while to come around to the idea of a Ten-Year Plan. In fact, trying to imagine my future ten–or even five–years down the line at first literally made me panic and cry. I think this reaction is part me and part the nature of graduate school and a terrible academic job market, so it is a topic I plan to write about in a future post.

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