The bestest of plans


Welcome to 2020! I hope you managed a break of some form because we know that rest and recuperation matter. For me, it was good to kick back and disconnect from the work-a-day load and anxieties, and focus on recharging in my own way – here’s how I went.

Seeing the year out in 2019 with a few scholarly ‘presents’ from Twitter colleagues was lovely. If you missed them, here are two to check out: Bronwyn Eager’s Academic Paper Tracker and Pat Thomson’s Checklist for revising methods chapters.

Every year, many people make resolutions and commit to habits that they hope will make them happier, more productive, healthier, and/or a combination of these.

Miraculously, some of these survive more than a few weeks. Most, however, do not.

This isn’t always a bad thing. For researchers who are planning their year and working out realistically what they might achieve (without habitual overwork/extreme hours), it can mean an early, sobering stocktake of how much time they actually have to do things. For example, last year, I decided that I was going to focus on getting my research planning more developed and to add more substance to the project ideas I had. This meant a necessary reduction in time away and prepping for other things so I drew the line early (in Feb, I think it was) flagging that I was booked up for talks for the year. So, it wasn’t just a case of deciding what I would focus on but also ensuring that I wasn’t setting myself up to fail. Most of us are already over-committed so wanting more time for one thing must mean less time for other things.

Resolutions that focus on ‘being open to opportunity’ or ‘doing new things!’ are fine, as long as you find a way to fulfil (or rationalise, or deal better with) existing commitments. Snazzy new things may sometimes have to make way for more prosaic but important ones like ‘move X projects along before taking on anything else!’…

I know, I’m a party pooper. But I say these things with love (as my buddy Inger Mewburn would put it).

It’s tempting to be distracted by shiny things, and to start projects or new activities, but successful resolutions don’t need to re-invent you or your life. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. Katherine Firth’s post about “Turning the dial” is an excellent way to conceive of changes and intentions that stick. It means “orienting yourself towards your values, and then [to] start making small choices that take you a little bit closer to them.” Katherine very helpfully goes on to spell out how you can do that, and it’s a useful way to plan and also to work out what your approach to the year actually is. More often than not, we become reactive to perceived demands around us and may not take the time to think about how we want to manage and pace ourselves in a given year. Working out our core priorities for the year can go a long way in making choices for us (e.g. if you want to prioritise balancing your life, there may be hard choices to make in terms of pushing back on workload or career steps; if your priority for the year is boosting your writing, you may need to decide what is not being focused on as much this year). I like the ‘turning the dial’ approach because you’re giving yourself the chance to ease into where you’d like to be.

In a similar vein, Hannah McGregor’s early #SecretFeministAgenda mini-sode this year focused on survival strategies into the new year. Hannah’s talking specifically about coping with the Northern hemisphere context of a cold, dark January, and I’m all for sustainable ways to ease into the coming year. I think they’re valuable for people all over (and possibly especially so for those in Australia who are living with the extended trauma of the bushfires and their aftermath). Hannah discusses a preference for “cosy resolutions” rather than the resolutions that are too much about “self-optimisation”. This aligns with Katherine’s encouragement to step – rather then leap – towards the changes or habits you’d like to cultivate. Having survival strategies that can buoy you throughout the year and beyond, and to sustain you when stress builds, are worth working out for yourself.

While this post and its links has focused on individual plans and strategies, these things can be scoped up to be relevant to your research or colleague group, or even departmental and school levels. The structural issues that require ‘survival strategies’ are stubborn, no doubt about it, but research leaders and our senior colleagues could do their own levels of ‘turning the dial’ and providing cosy resolutions for their staff in terms of making their surrounding research culture a stronger, kinder one. As Kylie Ball and David Crawford argue in their recently published article How to grow a successful – and happy – research team, research leaders should:

Seek ways to reduce, not increase, staff workloads. Allow staff to set their own schedules and enable uninterrupted times for scholarly contemplation and research. Encourage and model a balanced perspective, with sensible working hours, in which work is not the only or most important component of life.

A good way to cut through the static that besets your beginning-of-the-year perspective is to stay true to your work and remind yourself why you do it. There’s a lot to think about for yourself and your career, and there’s also lots to consider about our roles as citizens and scholars in society. It’s a tough time for many in research, and to contemplate the place of research and how it’s being used (or not) in the world around us. In her poignant and angry thoughts after an extreme, disastrous summer for Australia, Inger wrote, “Holding on to hope and encouraging other people to be hopeful too is now a political act. We must believe every ‘little’ thing we do for the positive matters. We must do the work” (You have to believe that what you do matters).

I’ve often felt that my job (across various roles) is to encourage hope and action. I want to centre this much more this year.