‘Turning the dial’: a more sustainable way to make New Year plans

It’s the beginning of the year, and some of you are heading back to work already. I certainly am. Not only is it a new year, but a new decade and, for me, a new job. This is a moment for many of us to think about our big picture plans and hopes–what we often call ‘New Year’s Resolutions’.

Now ‘Resolutions’ are really useful for some people, so if you enjoy them and find they help you, you can skip this post.

But for many people, New Year’s Resolutions are not very helpful. They get to the end of February, and they’ve already discarded them. My partner likes to go for a run occasionally, and he notices that the tracks are really busy with people in beautiful new sports gear from the 2nd of January until the Australia Day long weekend at the end of the month. After that, everything settles back to normal. Those people made a resolution to run, and then school and work and life and the weather get in the way and they revert to their usual patterns.

This is because Resolutions usually fall into two kinds:

  1. The first kind of resolution is unrealistic and you are very likely to fail at it. It expresses a fantasy about the kind of person you might be if you weren’t you.
    For example: “I will write every day.”
    And then semester starts up and you get sick and you miss a couple of days writing and BOOM, it’s over. 
  2. The second kind of resolution is too vague, and you can’t really tell if you have succeeded or not, or how you would achieve the goal.
    For example: “I will write more.”
    How can you tell if you are writing “more”? Do you mean “spend more time writing” or “produce more words” or “get more work published” and what’s the plan to do that?

To combat these problems, lots of people have other strategies. I love Inger’s strategy of “setting an intention” or “naming a theme” rather than making a resolution. She finds a word that will inspire her year, like “Less” or “Care“. I used that strategy in my “Year of 80%” and more recently with my “Magical Unicorn Year” of professional exploration (which turned into 3 years and which still needs a blog post!).


But the strategy I’ve been using longest, and one that you might also find helpful, is “Turning the Dial”. 

I got this idea from a cookery book (of all places!). Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall moved to a cottage in the country and tried to live fully sustainably and seasonally, and the River Cottage books tell the story of his journey.

But as HFW points out in the introduction to the first book, most of his readers can’t follow his example. We will be living in towns. We have jobs that require us to be present in offices, classrooms, hospitals and other places. We might live (as I did in those days) in a place without any room for a veggie garden and where the only food you can buy comes from a supermarket. You might not have a huge budget, so more expensive ethical food choices might be unaffordable.

Instead of acting as if it is ‘all or nothing’, HFW suggests, you might just turn the dial towards sustainability. Take one or two small steps in the direction you want to go. He suggests buying veggies from the supermarket when they are in season (which is cheaper too) or growing some fresh herbs in a pot on your windowsill.

There are a plethora of similar small steps, just find one that you can do now and do it. If you can’t do it all the time, do it sometimes. 

“Turning the Dial” means orienting yourself towards your values, and then start making small choices that take you a little bit closer to them.


So how do you do that?

First of all–what are your values? 
It’s unlikely that your academic values are actually ‘write a lot’! They are more likely to be something like: ‘I think it’s important to share my knowledge to make the world a better place’; or ‘I value a stable job, and I need to publish in order to get or keep one’.

What you value might change! In 2011, I really wanted a full-time, ongoing job where I didn’t have to submit a timesheet. In 2017, I wanted to explore, create and say yes to fun professional opportunities.

Secondly–what do you have choices about?
You will have many things that are not in your power to change. Your manager, terms of employment, commute, teaching load and other things may be fixed, or at least difficult to change for now. But there are definitely things you can make choices about, even if they are ‘pot of herbs on the windowsill’ tiny.
If you want to share your knowledge, you don’t have to become a full-time science communications or policy advocacy person. Perhaps you could send out the occasional tweet explaining your research, or do one guest blog post.
If you want to publish enough to be employable, you can decide which writing tasks are most likely to achieve that goal, and focus your time on those ones.


Thirdly–“Turning the Dial” means turning towards your values, but also turning away from other things.
I find it really powerful to recognise I can’t add this new thing on top of everything else. I need to do less of something, as I do more of the new thing. And the doing less is an integral part of the doing more, as the dial turns around!
For example, focusing your time on tasks that will help you meet your publication goals means you will have to spend less time on other writing tasks.

If you are going to be successful in turning the dial, you need to identify what you will be doing less of, and be okay with that. Otherwise the dial will be stuck where it currently is.

It may also be that you have to turn the dial up and down, especially in the early days. It’s better to turn the dial towards your values sometimes than never!

Finally–“Turning the Dial” is ongoing. 
Over time, you might be able to turn the dial towards your goals more frequently, even it it’s only from ‘once in a blue moon’ to ‘most weeks I have a go’.
Over time, you might be able to turn the dial up a little bit higher, from putting in 1-2 of commitment to a 5 or even a 7. (You don’t have to go up to 11!)

Over time, you might even be able to make major decisions like changing jobs, moving house, or renegotiating your contract. These major changes can really shift the dial towards living your life according to what you value.
If you’ve slowly been turning the dial for a while, you will then be in a much stronger position to get the most out of these major changes.


Personally, in 2020, I’m starting a new ongoing contract, really settling into the things I care about: academic development, inclusion and diversity, working with students. My day job is part time, something I was looking for, so I could continue to write books, be a mentor, and run writing workshops. It also gives me the space to look after my health, stay engaged with my community, and get out to cultural events. It gives me a balance of stability and adventure. I’ve loved the last three years working in this way, but I was putting it together through a patchwork of short-term project contracts, and I wasn’t sure it was sustainable.

So my plan for 2020 is to keep turning the dial towards this way of working, in a way that might work for the longer term.

I hope you found this reflection useful, and that for some of you, ‘turning the dial’ might be a helpful way of beginning your year, and making you realise just how much progress you are making towards your hopes and big picture plans! 



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