Thursday, January 8, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to set goals and resolutions for the New Year

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


The beginning of the year is the moment when millions of people swear they will make this year better than before. We decide to change some of our habits, live healthier lives, become more productive and -generally- become a better version of ourselves.

The new year is associated with setting resolutions and goals, both for our personal as well as our professional lives. I myself have come a long way: originally, I never set new year's resolutions (because everybody always seems to focus on wanting to lose weight, something which is completely out of my range of interest - I don't even own a scale). A few years ago. I started to set goals and resolutions at the beginning of the year, inspired by all the productivity blogs I'm fascinated by - and I ended up making the typical rookie mistake(s): setting too many goals, and not having a focus in these goals. I ended up with my own method for setting goals, which involves a good deal of self-reflection, and which attempts at finding a balance between focusing on priorities in life and still finding space for an array of different interests.

In today's post, I'd like to walk you step by step through the process of setting achievable goals, and turning these goals into reality.

1. Review your year

Before you enthusiastically start making a list of all the things you want to achieve in the new year, I recommend you reflect on the previous year first.
If you need some inspiration for this review, you can start by replying these questions:
* What are your 10 top achievements of the last year?
* What are your 10 top failures of the last year?
* How would you summarize the past year in a single sentence?
* What do you wish you would have done in the last year, but didn't?
* What did you do in the last year, that you wish you wouldn't have spent your time on?
Alternatively, you can free-write or journal about your past year for a given amount of time, and then reread what you wrote and summarize the major points for further reference.
Once you start setting goals, you can use your list of goals at the end of the year to reflect back upon your successes and failures.

2. Analyze the different areas of your life

You can't review your year solely based on your academic performance. If you were not living under a rock for the past decade, you should know by now that your physical and mental health deeply influence your productivity and academic outcome. Therefore, I strongly suggest you carry out your annual review and set your goals based on the different categories in life. If you need some guidance, you can use the following categories:
1. Health and fitness
2. Intellectual life
3. Emotional life
4. Developing your character
5. Love relationships
6. Spiritual life
7. Parenting
8. Social life
9. Financial life
10. Career
11. Quality of life
12. Life vision

You can carry out your annual review, by thinking about each of these categories, and giving yourself a grade for each of these categories - this exercise helps you to see which areas of your life might need a little more attention in the following year.

3. Identify your priorities and values

We're not at the point yet of listing down goals and resolutions... First, I want you to think about your priorities in life, to get the correct mindset for listing your goals. Limit yourself to somewhere between 3 and 5 priorities. Again, these priorities are broader than your academic life; your career might be one of your priorities, but should not fill up your entire priority list (if that's the case, go back to step 2, and realize that your career and intellectual life, which both encompass your academic work, are just one aspect of life, and that you need to add some juice to the other categories to stay balanced).
Do not come up with more than 5 priorities - you risk spreading yourself too thin and losing focus.

Next, take some time to reflect on your personal values. Which personality traits and characteristics do you value most? What makes your heart sing? How do you want to live your life? Do this exercise to make sure that you stay close to yourself and your core, and avoid losing yourself.


4. Define your goals, based on your values and priorities

Now it's time to list your goals! Stay close to your values and priorities to identify your goals. Limit the number of goals you set for the year - you're not superhuman, and you don't want to be spending a little bit of energy on a 1000 different tasks - if you want to make a difference in your life or in the world, you'll need to pour a good amount of energy in a limited number of tasks.

I've set 15 goals for 2015 because I like the symmetry in the numbers, and I'm working on developing/strengthening two habits this year (meditating daily, and practicing the cello daily). That's already more than enough for me (and I do am someone who likes to raise the bar for myself to challenge myself to perform better and better).

5. Make a plan

Setting goals is one thing, but turning them into reality requires some planning. If you are working on building habits, such as exercising or playing an instrument, I recommend you build these activities into your schedule. You can check out this post if you want to learn more about developing a weekly template to fit in all your activities. If you want to write a certain number of journal papers during the year, set deadlines for yourself by when you want to finish each manuscript, and plan your writing accordingly. To keep an overview of your planning, you might want to use a yearlong calendar that you stick to the wall in your house and/or office, or you can use a digital calendar (I use Google Calendar). To keep track of the activities that you need to do, one by one, to reach your goal, you can use a hand-written task list (again, I recommend you put it somewhere in your house and/or office where you can actually see it, to remind yourself of your goals) or use a digital version (I use Todoist).

6. Track your progress

If you want to build better habits, it helps to track your progress, and see your chain of days in which you "did" your new habit. The longer you grow your chain of days on which you fulfilled this habit, the more of a pity it becomes to actually break this chain. You can use a paper calendar on the wall, and mark every day that you "did" your habit, or you can use one of the many apps that are geared towards this purpose (I use Lift).
Don't beat yourself up if you drop the ball somewhere during the year - we all get sick, face family emergencies and the like. Just remember that when you build good habits, it's much easier to pick them up again if you've wandered off, and if your habits are geared towards building a healthier, happier and more focused version of yourself, you will become a wee bit more resilient when you need to face hard times.

7. Find an accountability partner (or talk to yourself)

See if you can find a partner (or more partners) who share one of your goals. You can partner up with a friend who wants to get in shape, and work out together, or at least keep each other motivated by sending WhatsApp messages. You can see who else in your research group or university wants to find more time for writing, and organize a #shutupandwrite meeting once a week in your university. You might have heard this piece of advice a number of times before... What I like to do, is a technique that is slightly more geared towards the quiet among us. I, for one, enjoy the silence of working out on my own from time to time. I also find it beneficial to reflect on my days and progress at regular intervals. As such, I've come up with my "internal coach". In my journal, I reflect on my progress, and analyze what is not going very well, why things might be more behind than I would like, and think about strategies to improve the situation.

Happy New Year - may this year your most productive, most focused and most enjoyable ever!

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