My name is Inger and I have a commitment problem

Happy new year everyone!

Today is my first day back after 5 weeks overseas and powering up the Whisperer is the best thing about being back at work 🙂 But before we get into all that thesis-y goodness I’m wondering: are you still sticking to your new year’s resolutions?

When I asked on Twitter last week most PhD students said that “finish my thesis!” topped the list of goals for 2012. The second most popular resolution was “write something everyday” closely followed by “publish some articles”. A couple of people said they planned to tackle their ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) pile – which is a goal of mine too, but already I am falling behind.

I don’t know about you but I have a habit of creating long lists of resolutions and, inevitably, disappointing myself by not sticking at them. It really takes the fun out of New Year’s eve. The first few seconds seem so full of promise of change and renewal, but really the clock ticking over heralds just another day. I wake up with the same problems as well as, perhaps, a raging hangover to complement them. To tell you the truth I have given up on trying to be cheery and almost always go to bed before midnight.

So what’s the trick to making sure you do finish your thesis, see the end of your TBR pile or write everyday? How do you make those New Year’s resolutions last?

I don’t think there’s easy answers, but while I was away Kati at the SGR office sent me a link to an excellent blog post called “Your problem isn’t motivation” by Peter Bregman which I think helps us understand the problem better. Bregman starts by clarifying the problem of the resolution in a succinct sentence:

“We have a misconception that if we only cared enough about something, we would do something about it. But that’s not true”

He goes on to point out that the real problem we face is not motivation, but commitment. The problem is that thinking is easy; acting on thought is hard. Deciding to get through your TBR pile can happen in your mind where with little effort and cost; actually reading it all and making sense of it is a practical problem involving both effort and cost.

Bregman goes on to argue that thought is the enemy of action. Let’s take the TBR problem as an example. The TBR is the dirty laundry of academia. If you are anything like me, that pile of articles, book chapters and text books grows daily. Unfortunately that unread pile is more likely to provoke feelings of guilt than pleasurable expectation. It’s easy to be motivated to want to get going on it, actually doing it is kind of … dull. I would rather do something else, so my mind starts making excuses:

“I could read another chapter of Foucault’s “Birth of the Clinic” … OR…. I could catch up on all that email…”

Although the email is no doubt the more boring of the two, it does have the advantage of being easier and, seemingly, more urgent. So I clear out the email, but by then the Procrastination Fairy has sprinkled her Can’t Be Bothered dust. The last thing I want to do after replying to 30 emails is read heavy post structuralist theory. “Tomorrow” I promise myself.

Yeah right.

I think Bregman is right – we don’t have motivation problems, we have commitment problems. Committing to something means setting tangible goals and working out the practical details so lists need to be carefully thought out. PhD student and productivity literature junkie (and I mean that in the nicest way!) Jason Downs, was kind enough to send me his list of resolutions which I think are instructive:

1.  Download an read an article every day.  Do this first.  Everything else can wait.
2.  Write 250 words every day.  Do this second.  Everything else can wait.
3.  Create milestones with supervisors.  Attach dates.  Hit.
4.  Publish progress publicly.
5.  Raise profile within and beyond School.
5(a).  Connect with luminaries in sub-discipline.  Begin the courtship.

Most of the items on Jason’s list are actions, not aspirations. Clearly Jason is having trouble with the reading, so that comes first. Reading one new article each working  day means 5 a week, around 20 a month or 240 a year – impressive. I know I don’t have 240 things on my TBR pile. If I commit to one a day I can get through that sucker in about 6 weeks.


Cleverly, Jason also sets a time frame and a simple statement of the priority on the action items. He commits to write 250 words and, although he notes this will be the second thing he will do each day, he makes sure to remind himself that ‘everything else can wait’.  250 words a day is approximately 65000 a year; that’s a whole thesis without having to work on the weekends. Notice what Jason doesn’t say – he doesn’t say those words will be good or even what they will be exactly: drafts, notes, reflections are all possibilities. In this way he keeps the goal of 250 words a day both modest and approachable.

If I have any problem with the rest of the list it is that the last three items are conceptual aims, not tangible actions, however there is a simple way to convert concepts into actions using keywords.

My sister introduced me to the idea of generating a key word for each year instead of a list of resolutions. One year her theme was ‘brave’; another year was ‘elegant’. When she had to make a decision she would test it against her keyword: “is this an elegant pair of pants to wear to the staff meeting?’ or “Is that a brave way to speak to my boss?”.

The keyword idea is simple, but powerful. Jason’s last three resolutions could be grouped under a keyword like “connection”. Jason can ask himself: “what is the best way to connect with the people who matter?” and use this to start generating a list of actions, or even make everyday decisions: does attending this conference / writing this book chapter / going to this meeting  help to connect me with people who matter?”. In this way his efforts build incrementally towards his overall goal.

Bregman also notes the power of accountability – telling others your goals is one way to make yourself commit to them. So why not share them in the comments section? What are your new year’s resolutions, or the things you would like to achieve in 2012? Do you have a list of actions to go with them or a keyword which might help you reach them?

Related posts:

A visit from the Procrastination Fairy

Why you might be ‘stuck’

38 thoughts on “My name is Inger and I have a commitment problem

  1. Susan Mayson says:

    Welcome back! We missed you Thesis Whisperer! My students always benefit from your wise counsel and I do too!

  2. angelala1 says:

    Hi Inger and HAPPY NEW YEAR TO you TOO and all your readers! It’s nice to have you back.

    I read your post with much interest and always a smile as you touch upon the things which help, challenge, entertain and also depress PhD students 🙂

    The need to commit and shoo away the thinking which leads to procrastination by taking action hit the nail on the head.

    But, there is also another form of thinking we should not throw out with the baby’s bath water. I am in the final, I guess six months of my thesis writing which has been interrupted on a number of occasions for a variety of reasons, some of which were beyond my control. If I think about them- apart from the anxiety they certainly did cause me – what they helped to do, among other things, was to get me to think about what I have read or written, which is different from the thinking we do because we are looking for ways to procrastinate and avoid working on our research. Those interruptions have also given me what I now realize were a necessary and enforced break from the writing. They helped to clear my head, allowing me to get into my next burst of writing, which is how I seem to best approach my writing. I acknowledge this is not everyone’s approach but it seems to work for me in the end.
    And so does going into my garden, weeding, mowing the grass etc until a ‘good’ idea floats to the surface, courtesy of the reading and the writing I have done 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    ‘A commitment problem’ – sounds just like me… Why would I rather knit baby socks than work on my thesis? Though my husband suggests it’s all part of being pregnant.
    Jason Downs’ list is good, but I do not think I would be able to complete all things on it… A more practicable goal would be to write and read out to my family those 250 words a day – that would take care of communicating your research to both academic and non-academic public, would not it? (The husband would be the academic part, and the baby – the non-academic :)).

  4. yenooi says:

    Hi Inger,

    Great post to start the year… very apt. As a new-ish postgraduate student (I just finished a term on my MA), I am finding that my dissertation ideas are being met with some caution by tutors as it is too interdisciplinary – a fashionable word to use but not to put into action, it seems.

    So, I think to help me through this year and to push myself towards a possible PhD after, my word this year will be ‘remember’. Changes in my life in the last few years helped push me towards doing this MA and considering academia, which has been very important and fulfilling to me. If I remember what has been my driving force and where I was at before that, I believe that it will help give me the energy I need to keep ploughing on.

    Jason’s list is good too. Will definitely think about a small achievable daily task list to help me on my way.

    Happy new year and I look forward to another year of advice, stories and info from the Thesis Whisperer!


  5. caridwen says:

    I have been using and to great success both the explicit and hieratic list suggested by Jason, and the keyword concept.

    My “to-do” list is: write for one hour every morning, perform one physical action above and beyond daily living each day, and read for twenty minutes before bed each evening. This keeps me from using research/writing to procrastinate staying healthy and active, which in turn keeps me from feeling sluggish and as though I am sacrificing myself at the altar of academia. It also permits the flexibility I need – “write for one hour each morning” can be drafting, revising, editing, proofing, answering emails, blogging, taking research notes – it’s anything to do with the writing process. The reading is also anything – articles, books, emails, blogs, something purely for fun, etc. I have been much, MUCH more productive both as a reader and writer since doing this.

    The keyword concept doubles as a spiritual thing for me. I have a list of words – inspiration, intuition, success, creativity, honor, strength, commitment, joy, action, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, energy etc. etc. etc. – there are probably about seventy of them. I type them and print them out and then cut them into slips. I draw one slip from a container each month, and that’s the word that I focus on both as a writer/teacher and as an individual trying to be my best version of Self. There have been many “Wow, I had no idea that was in me” moments both in my writing and daily life from this practice, and I look forward to the new word each month as a min “reset” button for my psyche.

  6. Vijay says:

    Hi Inger,
    Happy New Year Wishes:). I was thinking yesterday night “why am not getting Thesis Whisperer post” – here you are:)

    After having new year holidays am struggling with coming back to PhD “work” mode:(. I hope after reading the post my little brain get back to work mode.


  7. Jeffrey Keefer says:

    I approached my goals in more of an appreciative inquiry mode, something I have not tried before to avoid the things I won’t do. I also found that having too many become unworkable. Putting a link to them on my homepage is also something I am doing to maintain my efforts. They are all doable, though I have intentionally omitted getting so specific that I would get discouraged; too easy to let the commitment go at that point!

  8. MrsH says:

    Hi Inger,

    I’m glad Thesis Whisperer is back!

    My family has a number of big life changes coming up this year, such as an international house-move, so my New Year resolution is to try to manage my stress well.

    If I reframe this as a key word, the choice might be


    And I’m a bit worried that might not encourage adequate thesis progress!!

  9. Judy Redman says:

    Thanks Inger

    I have just returned to my PhD after 18 months on suspension because life got in the way. I work full time and study part time, so I need to make sure that I use my study time in the most productive way I can. I had been thinking that I need to create some small, achievable goals, so this post has galvanised me. I know that there will be times when my work gets in the way – for example, over orientation and the beginning of semester, I work very long hours, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to work productively on the thesis as well, but there are other times when I can spend more time.

    I think I need to look at time rather than task each day. I am going to try:

    1. spend 15 minutes each day on revising my Coptic grammar and vocab (I can do this one even on days when I am working long hours)
    2. spend an hour each day on my research, during which I either read a paper or a chapter or write 250 words
    3. (borrowed from Caridwen) perform one physical action above and beyond daily living each day
    4. review at the end of month to see if this needs tweaking. 🙂

    But I can’t start this until Thursday, because I am using my ‘research’ time to complete the book chapter that has very little to do with my PhD, but will look good on my resume. I need to have this to the editor by Wednesday.

  10. erraffety says:

    I really like your sister’s idea about the key word. Despite what Bergman says about attitude not being everything, I do think you can trick yourself into getting things done (, and I think the zenhabits point about setting less goals and creating better habits is helpful ( They’re also all about starting on what you need to do first thing in the morning and having basically one task per day (I have three per week). Finally, I find reviewing where I’ve been and where I’m going from year to year helpful in terms of understanding how I work. I’ve posted a bit about this on my own blog (, and keep up your posts. I enjoy reading them!

  11. Tseen Khoo says:

    One of my NY’s resolutions is to write more and regularly. Part of this resolution means blogging on my personal blog more regularly (i.e. weekly); at the moment, I’ve written posts two weeks ahead of time + scheduled them. This is unheard of in the 7 or so years of my blog’s life!

    I’m making myself accountable by tracking the writing project’s progress on my blog, and holding a weekly writing night with a neighbourhood buddy (I think she’ll be doing aca stuff; I’ll be fiction).

    I like your sister’s word for the year idea, but am so indecisive about what that word should be that it’ll be June before I settle on one… 😉

  12. Trish McCann says:

    Dear Inger,

    Have a look at the ‘Immunity to Change’ website as the notion may help your understanding as you have arrived at some of the thoughts yourself,


  13. Anuja says:

    Hmm… I agree in theory with the concept of what you are saying here, especially about commitment. However, while reading, I also kept think about the concept of a SMART goal, which stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Tangible. They will vary for each person, and it is important to know what works for you.

    I think the two biggest mistake people make with resolutions is that they see a ‘year’ as an entity, but it isn’t, it is just a label. The other is that people want to be able to run before they can walk. If you haven’t done something before, or you are used to putting it off, then don’t expect to be able to do it every day in the new year, start of with trying to do it weekly. I think new years resolutions should be changed to new years SMART resolutions.

  14. Eljee Javier says:

    Happy New Year and thanks for this post – a very good mid-January reminder. I’m a second year PhD student who generally lurks on your blog. I recently posted my thoughts and goals for 2012, and after reading this article, looked back and realised my goals need to worded to convey actions rather than vague goals. Breaking them down into manageable goals looks much more doable, or rather I feel more positive towards committing to something small than wandering about wondering how to go about achieving the massive goals set for myself.

    You should do a follow up post “When commitment wavers…” 🙂

  15. Shinyi Chin says:

    I will be officially starting my PhD in semester 1, 2012 (unofficially already started last Oct, since preparing for my application) and have recently discovered this blog. I LOVE IT! Your articles are very relevant, witty, informative and inspiring all at the same time. Keep up the good work!

    I never really believed in ‘The New Year’ and resolutions, as I believe a ‘new year’ can start whenever you want it to start (ie when a significant, life-changing, or ‘eureka!’ moment happens), it doesn’t have to be the 1st of January. I am a goals person, weekly, monthly, yearly, 5-year plan, 10-year plan… you get the picture. Anyways, I really like the keyword idea. I think my keyword for the year will be – INSPIRE. 🙂

  16. Sarah Jameson says:

    Great stuff! I have adopted the word “be brave” since reading your post Inger. It works! The private coaching college where I work part time told me classes as normal on Australia Day. I complained nicely when I was told but then wanted to ring and say I was not available. I asked myself if I was “being brave” by not ringing and the worst was they could say don’t come back. I got up the nerve and rang with the words “be brave” ringing in my ears. They said OK we will get another teacher!! It works!

    • ingermewburn says:

      It sure does – I’m glad to hear you have chosen Brave. It was mine last year and it really worked for me. How about writing a post in a little while about it? Brave post PhD?

  17. Chintan Sheth says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer,

    I’m a master’s student having motivation(?), I think commitment issues with my work. I suppose it was a mix but your blog is giving me some direction to revive and wake up.
    Thanks a ton….
    2012 is going to be a “commitment” year and I think Jason’s list is widely applicable, I will try it.

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