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?

craneSome 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?

Related posts:

Hogmanay and ne’today

My name is Inger and I have a commitment problem

17 thoughts on “Ditch the Resolutions! Try a Theme instead

  1. School of Smock says:

    Wow, that’s an amazing idea! I’m a doctoral student in education policy, and I am hoping to defend my dissertation this spring. I’m also a new mom, and it’s been tough to finish my dissertation, move to a new city, and take care of a new baby. I think my word will be “fresh.” I just started this blog, and I’m thinking of ditching academia altogether in hopes of a freelance career in education journalism. “Fresh” doesn’t work with your questions, but that’s the approach I’m going to take this year. Fresh starts and fresh approaches!

  2. Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

    Since I have mostly been the person who walked all the way around the grass, stepping on the paving stones (never on the cracks), twice just to be sure (but quickly because I like to be on time too)–this year is turning into The Year of 80%.
    80% = Excellent. Therefore 80% = good enough!

    I’ve found it’s already making it’s way into other parts of my life beyond writing–eating ~80% of what’s on my plate for example. Also, I’m not being so finicky about *exactly* 80%, but you know, 80% of 80%…

    But next year, I’m stealing ‘elegant’. I love it!

  3. Amanda says:

    Ha ha ha I thought that I was being so unique this year. That’s just what I decided to do after reading it on another blog. My theme for this year is “Simplify”. I can get too wrapped up in unimportant things and I really want to simplify everything thIs year – PhD work, household chores, clutter at home, what I eat, etc. So far, so good. It’s definitely easier to remember than a whole list of resolutions!

  4. Kelly Dombroski says:

    What a great idea! I’m tempted by the no cutting corners idea, but I think with two young kids and a fulltime job I might still be at the stage where cutting corners is necessary! I will put that one on hold for another 4 years or so…
    I’m thinking ‘take responsibility’ — not blaming my lack of time or difficulties on others, but taking responsibility for the things I can. Eg. although my teaching schedule sucks, still taking responsibility for putting aside time for exercise during work time; although my kids are messy and wastfeul, taking responsibility for gently teaching them to clean up and/or reduce stuff/food.
    But then I am fairly responsible so maybe this is too boring. Maybe ‘constructive’ could do a similar thing for me. Would certainly reduce wasting time on the internet!

  5. ailsahaxell says:

    I gave up on new years resolutions last year, the failure was too much. Instead I took a value in line with being the change i want to see in the world. This year is graciousness.

  6. mickeyonacoustic says:

    Great post! A forum member at the Phinished.org forum posted a similar prompt back near the beginning of this year.
    Back then I chose a theme, but your post and folks’ comments have prompted me to think again about this. I’m thus now updating my theme: This year’s theme is “instrumental.” In goal form, this would be: “I maintain an 85-to-15 . . . or better . . . instrumental-to-expressive SPLIT of my thesising activity!”
    I choose this theme because it’s most pressing for me as a grad student at this juncture. Here is a quote to explain what these terms mean:
    “Instrumental behaviour consists of actions leading toward a stated goal; for instance, the goal of learning to drive a car might involve the instrumental behaviours of booking driving lessons, buying a copy of the Highway Code etc. Measured against this criterion, the de Leonists’ behaviour appeared senseless. Expressive behaviour, on the other hand, consists of actions demonstrating to other people what sort of person you are; for instance, sitting in the front of a lecture theatre and taking copious notes in a very visible manner to show that you take your studies very seriously.” Source: Petre, Marian; Rugg, Gordon (2011-03-28). The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (Open Up Study Skills) (Kindle Locations 366-370). McGraw Hill International. Kindle Edition.
    THAT all said, “instrumental” may suffice to capture my theme for the year. “Is what I’m about to do INSTRUMENTAL?” would be my litmus test question. 🙂 Very helpful post, Inger! Thanks!

  7. BananaFurby says:

    Great idea! As I’m about to finish my studies and hunt for a PhD/job, I have to steal “brave”. I need to be brave to write applications and go to interviews for the first time, so that’s a perfect one for me 😀

  8. Ju says:

    I have had such wonderful success in recent years from using a theme, I find that if I think on it and let things tick over in my mind, then the right keyword will come. Also, I have found that you can’t ‘hack’ the process easily to engineer a particular thing. That is, you can, but the nature of this as a year long enquiry if you will, is that there is much that is unexpected that you learn, that you perhaps wouldn’t have noticed in conjunction with your theme, had it not been in the back of your mind all along. Last year for me was ‘Renewal’ it was recovery and rejuvenation after pain, hurt, stress and burn out. It ended up being an incredible year – and I did no less work, but it was concentrated in places that were fulfilling and refilling of my inner concept of a ‘well of energy’ for doing things, for people, for projects, for relationships. This year I have moved across the country, little money to my name and job hunting hoping that things just somehow go right with this move. This year’s theme is ‘bravery’. It’s already been a year where I’ve learned much, been confronted, and also had to bend, to be flexible and let go. Themes, much of the win and where I’ve had the best success in going well beyond what I thought I was capable of.

  9. Elen says:

    Really good idea, thanks, and timely! I’ve been trying to stop biting my nails since the new year. In the process I’ve found out that I’m quite a fidgety person – if I’m not biting my nails I’m clicking my fingers or toes or something. I’ve realised that it’s not biting my nails per se that’s the problem. That’s just one manifestation of my general fidgetyness. I have to tackle fidgeting. So is that the theme? …Well no. I think the theme may be more aptly RELAX. When I fidget, I think my body/mind is in a state of tension. Since I fidget most of the time, I’m more or less permanently tense. So making a conscious decision to relax my body/mind should help me stop fidgeting. But it goes further, right? I hope the relax theme will help me in all sorts of ways, most importantly right now in my studies and completing my thesis. My general reaction to my PhD, more or less from the start, has been panic – a form of tension – which I think has seriously hampered my progress. So I’m going to start asking myself…is this a relaxed way of thinking about my thesis? Or, is this a relaxed response to feedback? Of course, there are times when tension can help us. Like last night in the gym I had to mentally shout at myself to keep going on the treadmill. But I’d rather call tension to action when I need it than being in a permanent sate of tension. That’s unhelpful. And when shouting at myself failed, what worked was to force myself into mental relaxation by counting my breathing.

  10. cheri says:

    Great post! My theme for this year was to take better care of myself (academically, physically, emotionally, etc.) since I was already seeing numerous effects of not doing so, especially in my writing. I love the keyword idea! I might try that one next year. Love your blog! It provides a much-needed solace from the rigors of writing.

  11. Judy Redman says:

    I need to think about a theme for a while, but I want to reinforce the need to try to find the original references and source material. I have found on quite a few occasions that either I have felt that someone has misrepresented the original material, or that the surrounding material in an article is more useful to me than the bit that was being cite, or that taking the cited material out of context could have meant that I would have tried to apply it in ways that weren’t appropriate if I had simply relied on my reading of the citing article and I would have looked stupid to anyone who *had* read the origina. 🙂

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