Less is more?

Welcome to 2017. It’s started in an odd way hasn’t it? When the world seems topsy-turvy, I find it’s even more important to take a moment to pause. To think. To take stock, re-orient, reassess and set new goals. I hope many of you took a break. I’ve had a month off and it’s been very refreshing.

Following my sister @anitranot’s advice, I don’t make new year’s resolutions anymore. I choose a keyword to guide my actions. The year @anitranot encouraged me to choose ‘brave’ as my keyword was interesting and difficult, but ultimately worthwhile. I tried to be brave with my choice of clothes by giving up wearing black — a habit I picked up when I studied architecture two decades ago. The Year of Brave was when I started reading all the feedback on my teaching, especially the negative stuff, with a really open heart.

Being brave at work meant saying no to some things and yes to others. It meant being honest and saying what I really thought in meetings, even when I felt intimidated. This sometimes worked against my basic impulse to please. One of the downsides of trying to please at work is over promising and under delivering. I learned that people respect you more if you set clear boundaries and expectations, rather than try to be super woman.

By the end of the year I think I was certainly a better teacher and a better colleague. I’m still working on this stuff obviously, but the Year of Brave got the ball rolling.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-4-12-45-pmThe idea for 2017’s keyword came when I was listening to the ‘Fresh Air’ podcast by NPR. The interviewer was talking to the comic Stephen Colbert about, amongst other things, taking over the Late Show. Colbert talked about the challenge of taking over an interview style show that was already so well established.

For the first six months, Colbert struggled to live up to other people’s expectations. This attempt to please others made it difficult to find his own style of doing the show. Trying to be something he was not took a lot of effort. Eventually he couldn’t keep it up and something great happened when he stopped trying, as he puts it:

“There’s a great gift of exhaustion that comes on you from doing a show like this over and over and over again (…) you actually lose all those second thoughts. And then you’re allowed to sort of be yourself with your guests, finally. And again, about six months into the show, I went, OK. I don’t have any – I don’t have any energy left to overthink this. I just have to do what instinctually feels good to me. And every aspect of the show got better and got easier and became more like me because I didn’t have time to think about – I didn’t have the energy to think about it anymore.”

So, in the spirit of letting go a little, this year my keyword is ‘Less’.

I’m going to aim to have less stress and worry. I would like to buy less, so I can have less of a mortgage at the end of the year. I want to eat less so I can lose this last 5 kgs of my post-pregnancy weight (when your teenager is nearly a head taller, it’s time). I want to be less lazy about exercise. I’d like to work less hours, but I don’t want to achieve less, so I’ll need to look for ways to be more efficient. I want to do fewer projects, so I can spend more quality time on the ones that are important to me — especially my “How to be an academic” book for New South Press (it’s on its way Phillipa, I promise!). I want to talk less, which means I will listen more.

Of course, it’s the height of first world (white) privilege to be able to aim for less, but my hope is that by doing less, I hope to make space to give more.

I asked people on my various social media channels if they would like to what keywords people had in mind for 2017. The Facebook post ended up being viewed by over 11,000 people and got 178 reactions. There were 79 comments – a record for my Facebook page incidentally, and way too many to report here. I encourage you to have a look because there was an interesting and enlightening range of responses.

Quite a few people liked my ‘less’ idea and talked about various ways they might implement the idea in their lives. Research Voodoo blogger Katherine Firth said “live within my energy, be less wasteful of the environment, less focus on extra stuff”. @TEPORAteach wanted less second guessing of herself. My old friend Matt Kennedy picked up on the ‘less is more’ sentiment in his comment: “Less worry: more acceptance. Less sitting : more standing. Less wishing : more trying. Less screens : more sleep”.

Other people were aiming for more balance. My friend Deborah Lupton, sociologist and blogger is looking for ‘Perspective’: “don’t sweat the small stuff” (it’s always good to hear a famous and well respected scholar say they sweat small stuff — it makes me feel much better). Belinda Judd also wanted Perspective, while Wendy Balassa opted for ‘Confidence’: “Believing in me is my goal this year”. Similarly, @jodie3735 opted for ‘Focus’.

In contrast to my ‘less’ aim, @shilpa_Madan wanted ‘more’: “Be more, challenge limits, do more and get more out of life”. She wants to start the year of ‘more’ by finishing her PhD — a great idea. My friend Evonne Miller pushed the boat out further with ‘Extreme’: “Living to the extreme, engaging and enjoying each moment of leisure, friends, fun, family and work”. I also liked @rebecca_jarvis’s idea of ‘Voice’: “Finding and developing my own voice. I hear about it being a big challenge for ECRs”. I think @mmrtinio is on to something with ‘Persist’: “no matter the distractions, write for at least 30 minutes daily.” Similarly, Lussa Artemisia went with ‘Tenacity’. My sister is starting the year with three: ‘Generosity’, ‘Nuance’ and ‘New’. It will be interesting to see where those words take her. Similarly, Bec Thornton nominated Gratitude’: “I aim to appreciate everything I have and to recognise opportunities as they arise”. Joan Carlini and @grahamm44 both nominated ‘Kindness’. Joan said: “No matter what happens around me, to always respond with kindness” and Graham said: “Be kind to strangers, workmates, friends and family – but most of all yourself. I loved this – we could all do with more kindness after 2016, right? Elizabeth Chamberlain wanted ‘Community’: -“learning more together” – an aim I fully endorse. Amie O’Shea dived into 2016 by finishing her PhD and having a baby, so I think her word ‘Regrouping’ is definitely appropriate.

Other people had more unusual words. @icesheetmike went for ‘Truth’. Kate King said ‘Synergy’. Feier Hou just said ‘Job’ and Gillian Perry said ‘Help’: “I’m going to need lots of it (I like to offer what I can too). @effie_Im just wanted ‘Thesis’. And why stick to English if other languages capture your intentions better? @Roopitt decided on ‘Na’au’: “Hawaiian for wisdom/gut instinct. Trusting my gut and taking more time to ‘digest’ (reflect). she followed up with “Fortunately ‘Aaargh WTF I don’t know what I’m doing next with my life waily waily’ is too long to be a keyword…” I hope that works out for you @Roopitt!

How about you? What’s your keyword for this year and why? Do you relate to any here — how might you implement the principle in your life? I’m particulary interested in words from other languages that might express sentiments that are difficult to capture in English. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

The original Thesis Whisperer Facebook post where lots of PhD students left their keyword resolutions

PhD Detachment

PhD Grief

39 thoughts on “Less is more?

  1. Supervision Whisperer says:

    Great post Inger… I love word of the year, and already my January is EXTREME.. in a good way 🙂 Evonne
    P.S. I have heard of people changing their word each season, and I might try that in 2017.. enjoy your year of LESS.

  2. amanibell says:

    Awesome first post for 2017 Inger! I enjoyed reading everyone’s words. I love ‘kindness’ and am intrigued by ‘nuance’. I’m with you on the baby weight thing. My ‘baby’ is six. I’ve actually signed up for one of those 8 week online programs. It’s going well so far. There’s something about the commitment of paying $100 that’s making me stick to it.
    I hope you have a wonderful year.

  3. Michael Healy (@mojohealy) says:

    I might be accused of cheating the word limit, but mine is ReadWriteReps. That represents a goal that I’ve set myself to do at least 30 minutes of academic reading, 30 minutes of academic writing, and 30 minutes of exercise (reps) each day. The goal is to get me to start; I seldom stop at just 30 minutes but having the option helps me defeat my procrastinatory proclivities. I’m at 80% adherence so far in 2017, which isn’t perfect but it’s a far sight better than my previous efforts.

  4. Leah Heiss says:

    Thanks Inger. My word for the year is ‘steady’ – some friends thought that wasn’t so aspirational but I feel it captures my need to steadily work, steadily write and steadily be in the world…as opposed to racing through life like a cyclone!

  5. Deb Smith says:

    Great post! We did a similar thing last year with the ‘Lean In’ group at my institution. My word last year was productive. I wasn’t completely happy with it initially, but it was about not wasting time and making the most of my time. And it did make me more conscious about making choices around how to best spend my time. I am about to move to a new area for my husband’s work, so I have chosen EMBRACE….I will have so much to embrace this year ….change, new challenges, risks, opportunities, (finishing?) my PhD, important relationships, moments in time…

  6. drmutluturan says:

    Less is definitely more!!!!
    I have a suggestion after hearing about your book “How to be an academic”!!!!! I really wish to translate your book into Turkish when it is finished!!!! Please contact me personally via translatorpinar@gmail.com.
    You were a great inspiration for me during my PhD years!!!Maybe the reason I did not quit is 10% because of you. I’d like to contribute to your book becoming worldwide.
    As a professional translator (English-Turkish-German), I offer you the collaboration opportunity:)
    Hope to hear from you very soon.
    Thank you for being there for all of the PhD sufferers:)
    Pinar MUTLU TURAN, PhD

  7. Stephen Jasper says:

    I’ve gone with the Swedish word “lagom”, which means “just the right amount”. There isn’t an equivalent word in English, so we’ll probably end up stealing it. As I approach the final year of my PhD, the temptation is always to over-write, exhaust myself, or become a complete perfectionist, get overwhelmed, have a meltdown. Now I’m just pacing myself — writing a little every day, planning a little every day, and hopefully by the end of the year, I’ll have my PhD.

  8. joannawolfarth says:

    This is a very timely post as I was pondering a personal mantra on a very anxious commute this morning. So, my word of the year is ‘trust’ – trust that I’m making the right decisions (listen to my gut), trust in my abilities, trust myself to say no, trust in the support of others, trust that everything will not fall apart if I stop stressing and take some time out.

  9. Chijioke says:

    I like “brave”. And that’s my word for 2017. I will be myself, speak my mind (kindly) and not people-please as much. Inger, I have enjoyed your blog from the first day I got on here. Your consistency, unpretentiousness, writing style and engagement are qualities that you have shown which I admire. Keep up the good work. Blessings xx

  10. Zoe says:

    Enjoying reading about everyone’s words! I have a few – I haven’t been able to find exactly the right word – maybe there isn’t one in English? I’m gearing up for submitting my thesis, so I’ve been playing around with “create”, “deliver” and “execute”…also “launch” and “release”. I think I’m at the stage now where it’s not just about doing the research/writing, I also want to focus on getting it out the door and into the world.

    And when I’ve handed in my thesis I have a few DIY jobs around the house which I put on one side last year – it will be great to get those completed too!

  11. Olga says:

    Thanks for the post, Inger! I typically choose some special word for the year, like year of sport or year of challenges. But I prefer to combine it with my not a resolution list, but to-do list for the year. Of course, I finish up with 50-70% completed, but at the end I feel very proud and motivated to do more and go higher!
    This year is the year of searching a balance between independence and being social and fragile. I find it very hard to ask for help and I feel too strong emotional connection to other people, that is rather unhealthy and detrimental for relationships. This balance is extemely important to have in life and I hope I will tackle it one day. 🙂
    Good luck with your year of ‘less’!

  12. postgradpanda says:

    My word for the year is “Complete”. My thesis is due to be submitted in the middle of the year, so allowing for marking and emendations, completion of that this year is my top goal. I also want to complete a lot of my half-finished knitting projects (and start new ones, and complete those too). There’s also something in there about being complete, in terms of balance – developing my “complete self”. So: working, resting, creating, exercising, giving, caring, and having fun.

  13. Angela Savage says:

    I’m with postgradpanda. My word for the year is “completion”. I want to complete and submit my PhD for assessment and my PhD novel for publication. I also want to complete projects I’ve started and promises I’ve made to loved ones.

    I like the idea of the “complete self”, too. All postgradpanda’s suggestions — working, resting, creating, exercising, giving, caring and having fun — apply. Plus I’d add travelling, reading, and eating good food.

  14. figuringmylife says:

    I totally agree with you less is always more. I feel like sometimes people just set really high goals and they can’t stick with it. Please could you check out my blog thank you

  15. Jennifer says:

    Great post which really inspires me to think harder what I want to achieve this year. My first word that comes to mind is ‘focus’ because I find myself easily distracted. I might need to think harder on this or change my mind on the word. Again I’m so distracted with choices. Haha!

  16. ded8 says:

    Third world countries has their own struggle and so the same with developed countries. The nice thing in my mind is go and don’t mark time. Am I correct?

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