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Feb 8 / Sarah Sheesley

A New Year and a Smarter, Easier Way of Reaching Your Goals

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

The new year is a good time of year to check in with yourself and see if you’re on track with your job search and career goals.

And by goals, I don’t mean resolutions. Research shows that those fail 80% of the time, often by mid February, leaving you feeling guilty and remorseful. Part of the problem is that instead of making small, easily attainable goals that could lead to advancement down a new path, we often get swept up in the contagious zeal for potential change the holiday season promises. As such, we end up making lofty declarations that are unlikely to reach fruition.

The desire for self-improvement and change, especially if we’re not particularly happy with our current situation, is a wonderful and admirable thing to want for ourselves. And with a few tweaks in the way we think about enacting this change, we can surely make it happen. The key is simple: set small, quantifiable, daily goals that you are sure to accomplish. And perhaps most importantly, these goals cannot be vague.

Examples of vague goals are:

“I want to publish more.”

“I want to graduate.”

“I want a job outside of academia.”

Wanting to publish more is important, but it lacks specifics. A goal with a clearer vision requires some true soul-searching and objective assessment. This will help us to create a clearer vision of the steps necessary to get there. Those steps then become your specific, quantifiable goals. For example, what particular findings do you want to publish? Do more experiments need to be done, first? Where do you want to submit for publication? Who will you ask to help you write and edit the manuscript?

Depending on your answers to these questions, you can begin to design a plan. A more specific (and more likely, attainable) goal will look like this:

I will finish the two experiments required to complete this project in three months.

Do you see how we’re breaking down the lofty, “I want to publish more”? And if finishing those experiments feels overwhelming, break that down, too. Ask yourself: What materials do I need? Do I need help to do these experiments? Who will help me? Do I need to do more research? There is absolutely nothing wrong with breaking down a project, no matter how small, into simpler components. Doing this will help you to better understand your research, yourself, and what really needs to be accomplished. Doing this will help you to move forward, instead of simply languishing at the bench and daydreaming about better days to come.

A tiny step is still progress

I was just beginning to think about how to transition out of academia to a writing career when a fellow-member of my writing group introduced me to the philosophy of Kaizen. Kaizen is Japanese for continuous improvement. What this means is when we don’t know how to get started with a new goal, instead of being paralyzed, we take tiny incremental steps in that direction.

Let’s say you want to start doing yoga but feel very out of shape or unmotivated. Make a goal that is easily attainable, even if it feels ridiculous. You could say to yourself, “I am going to do one yoga pose tonight for 20 seconds.” The point is that every little step (no matter how small) counts.

I’ve written about the importance of taking small steps towards larger goals before here. And perhaps that’s a good place to start: Choose one item on the list and take one small step towards completing that task. The only thing you must do is complete that teeny tiny miniscule task today.

There are days when I have an article to write or a deadline looming and my brain is just not cooperative. These are the unmotivated moments when I truly cling to the Kaizen philosophy. Remembering that every little step is still progress, I open a new file up and give it a title (even if it’s not a very good title). It may not be much, but it’s an acknowledgement of the task at hand. It is movement towards the goal. Sometimes I take it a step further and do stream of conscious writing on my new document. Any idea I have that is even marginally related to the overarching theme of my work is quickly written down. Again it is progress. Sometimes one of those tangential ideas turns into something fascinating in its own right, something that I can get excited about. That’s when progress becomes exponentially faster and I am back on track.

That is what will happen to you. Tiny steps that seem inconsequential at the time will suddenly amount to something far grander and you will gain the momentum needed to propel you forward. By being consistent, you can turn 2018 into the most meaningful and accomplished year, yet.


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