Happy 2016!

Happy New Year!

2016. Another year. Another year older. Another year wiser? Another year closer to the end, at least, of my thesis.

Blue January skies and fresh starts

Every year I make New Year’s Resolutions. I love making them. They generally get a lot of criticism for being silly, naff, improbable, impossible or downright self-shaming – a way of putting pressure on ourselves to be people we’re not. However, I think if you make reasonable resolutions that are manageable and realistic, they can make the gloomy, post-holiday days of January full of optimism for the future. A small way of believing in yourself.  What’s so bad about that?

I often stick to mine – because I generally make ridiculously achievable goals as a way of looking forward to the year ahead. One of last year’s resolutions was to “live in Paris for a few months” – quite exciting, but not that unexpected considering I was already on my way to Paris, with several heavy suitcases in tow when I committed to the resolution. Another was to “have a 24th birthday”. Note the lack of adjectives. Just, a birthday, of some description. (It ended up being fabulous. I had oysters and cocktails. And promptly discovered I’ve become allergic to shellfish in my mid-twenties).

This year I have a few New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Finish writing my Ph.D.
  2. Improve my health (I’m recovering from a neurological condition that causes falls, collapses and balance problems)

Simple! Right… off I go and do that then!

My dad always reminds me that any goal, including New Year’s Resolutions need to be S.M.A.R.T. Specific, Meaningful, Action-Orientated, Realistic and Timely.

Be S. M. A. R. T. 

How are you going to achieve your goal – other than by having an utter change of personality? Let’s be realistic – if you currently do zero exercise you’re not going to stick to your new plan of going to the gym for 3 hours, 5 times a week, overnight. Instead: build up to it. Set a definite goal (e.g. a local 5k event in the late Spring perhaps, if you’re into running), commit to it (publicly if necessary) and start small: just getting out, walking perhaps to start with, ticking it off your to-do list, and slowly increasing your activity level. Find a podcast or a friend. Make it enjoyable.

I find, when I’m teaching, that my students who practice a little bit everyday like clockwork or teeth brushing – even if it’s only for 10 minutes – will improve and develop their skills much quicker than those who “blitz-practice” for two hours just before the lesson.

It’s not all or nothing though: just because you’ve slept in and missed a day of goal-achieving three days into 2016, doesn’t mean you should write off the rest of the year (“Wake me up in 2017, I’ll try again next year instead!”). Remember you can start again at any point in the year if you want to. But you really have to want to: that’s the key thing to making a successful resolution. You have to really want to do it – not because marketing campaigns are telling you to, but to be happier. Self-control is a limited resource, so focus on the small number of things you really want to change, and revisit the others in a few months when you’d like another fresh start.

What about completing an entire book of writing on original research? How do you break down a PhD? Start small. Start with the words, and the chapters and books will write themselves (at least, I’m hoping so – ask me again in about 354 days).

  • How many words can I realistically write a day?
  • How many words is that in a week, not including weekends?
  • How many chapters (and predicted words of each chapters) do I have left to write?

After figuring out how long that will take, add a little more time – for those days when I’m ill, or it takes me 16 hours to trace down a source that ends up being unhelpful, or those days when I stare blankly at the screen, unproductive, because the coffee has run out (it happens to us all).

Having mapped out the year, I can then focus one day at a time, on just plodding forward. Getting stuff done, and within a much clearer framework of exactly how much I should be doing each day to achieve that. I’m aiming a little higher each day: if I need to write 500 words a day, five days a week for one month, then I’ll set my goal at 1000 words. If I want to take few weeks off to focus on some other work then I’ll get ahead beforehand, rather than get behind afterwards. Leave the weekends off: they’ll undoubtedly get filled anyway, and its better to use a Saturday or Sunday as days to catch up on other things: every time I catch myself getting distracted, write it on a weekend (or evening) to-do list, e.g.: Focus on writing now, because on the weekend I can:

  • Do the laundry
  • Catch up with admin
  • Work on side projects (like Noise & Silence!)
  • Have that delicious 3-hour brunch you reckon you deserve at 9am on a Thursday when you should be in the library even though literally no one will know whether you’re in the library or getting brunch
  • Read that article you saw on Twitter that will distract you mindlessly when you could be getting down to some serious word creation
  • Online retail therapy. Really, researching bags on ASOS doesn’t count as PhD research.

Really: we all know how to improve. We’re already doing it. It’s not about changing who we are overnight: it’s about continuing to be kind to ourselves, broadening our horizons and improving where we can. A New Year’s Resolution is simply a commitment that you’ll stick at it everyday, and be accountable to yourself: your end-of-2015, nostalgic, optimistic self who dreamt of achieving new things in 2016.

At the heart of a New Year’s Resolution, no matter how impossible or unlikely it is to be achieved, is the dream that we can do better, improve ourselves, learn more, achieve more, reach higher and be happier. Hold on to that goal. Don’t be ridiculous, keep it realistic, and don’t let the hurdle of a failure stop you from keeping at it. This is not a #NewYearNewMe: you’re already great, so this is simply a fresh start if you want it, a new page, learning and committing to being the best, happiest version of yourself.

Happy 2016!

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