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 ūüôā 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’

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