Ditch the resolutions! Try a theme instead



Happy new year everyone! Did you make any resolutions? Broken any of them yet? I like New Year’s eve celebrations; for one night at least, profound Change seems possible. It’s refreshing – even if the next day you slip into comfortable old habits. Now we are a month in I have no doubt that many people have already left those resolutions behind.

But if you are really serious about changing, what’s the best way to go about it?

Some years ago I was walking with a colleague of my husband through what passes for a quadrangle on the RMIT University campus. While I headed diagonally towards our destination, across the grass, Jason walked all the way around the edge. This was enough of an extra walk that I was forced to wait by the entrance to Mr Thesis Whisperer’s building for him to complete it.

When I asked him why he chose to walk the long way around Jason replied: “My new year’s resolution is to stop cutting corners“.

Jason’s approach was aimed at actual change, not a series of aspirational goals. He explained to me that his habit of cutting corners – sacrificing quality in favour of getting something done quickly – had developed in undergraduate years when he was juggling study and work. He explained that this habit worked back then, but now it was getting in his way. The statement “Don’t cut corners” was his way of reminding himself to take more care and time with everything he did, not just work.

I was sincerely impressed by Jason’s commitment to his resolution. My usual way of doing new year’s resolutions was to make a list full of admonitions like “lose weight” or “give up drinking”. Usually, within a week or two at most, I had failed on one or more of the resolutions and threw the list away.

This conversation stuck in my mind and later, at the start of the second year of my PhD, I made the same resolution – to stop cutting corners and spend more time and care on my work. Up till that moment I had been rushing through my reading in something like a panic; hardly pausing to think about I was reading, much less take adequate notes. My reading habits were the scholarly equivalent of binge eating and, just like its culinary counterpart, left me feeling anxious and guilty.

That second year I made the conscious effort to slow down and digest what I was reading. One of the ways I did this was to start paying more attention to my note taking practices. It was during this time that I developed the note taking practices I wrote about last month in my post on deliberate practice, which form the backbone of my scholarly practice to this day.

The other thing I did was chase down original references and even source material, whenever possible. After a memorable two weeks in the microfische archive in the bowels of the Ballieu library I discovered that one of my primary sources, Donald Schon, had (in my view) mishandled someone else’s research notes to develop his own theories. The discoveries I made in the archive ended up forming the core of my thesis and the one and only paper I published from it (shockingly poor output I know!).

Taking up a theme or a statement, rather than a list, can help inform most of your actions on a daily basis. I wrote briefly, in last year’s new year post, about how my twin, Anitra, uses this method to great effect. Each year Anitra picks a keyword to act like a rubric; a way of choosing evaluating her actions, both in advance and after she has performed them.

One year her keyword was “elegant”. Anitra applied this to dressing (is this an elegant outfit to wear to this meeting?), speaking (was that an elegant way I spoke to my boss just then?) and eating (is eating all that potato salad at the BBQ elegant? No!). Another year she chose “Brave”. The year of Brave was an excellent year for her; asking herself if her actions were brave or not, Anitra learned to speak her mind more at work, and to face up to some of her oldest fears.

I’d like to take up this keyword idea as I have a challenging year ahead: a new job in a new state some 500 kms from home. I will be commuting to ANU by plane each week and will have more responsibilities in my new role. I have been giving a lot of thought as to how to approach the year in the right spirit.

I briefly toyed with using “Control” as my keyword, but discarded it as it didn’t fit with my overall sensibility. I think control over everything is impossible and would only set me up to fail. I still haven’t really settled on a word, but at the moment the front runner is “Constructive”. I will be attempting to build new initiatives and programs at ANU, so this seems appropriate to the work I will be doing.

Once you choose your word, test it using some imaginary questions. This helps you see if it’s flexible enough for daily use. Using ‘constructive’ as an example, we could ask: What is the most constructive way to communicate with person X? Was I constructive during that meeting? Is the argument I am making in this article constructive?

Hmm – maybe this keyword needs a little more work!

So what about you? If you had to use a statement or a key word to describe how you will approach the year, what would it be and why?