By Troy Headrick
It’s that time of year again when people think about the new year and how they’d like to make changes in their lives going forward. We often refer to these proposed life modifications as “new year’s resolutions.”
The other day, while stepping out of the shower, the idea hit me—insights come as flashes of insight and often at the strangest times—that the way we verbalize or frame such goals often makes all the difference in whether they are meaningful and can be operationalized.
I suddenly realized—while I was toweling off—that many of the tricks I teach students in my research methodology courses would be applicable to the making of resolutions for the upcoming year. Research writing, after all, is about problem solving. The researcher has an issue that she wants to learn more about. The person seeking to learn more has a knowledge deficit and that’s the thing that stands in her way—that’s the problem that needs to be solved. Once the learner develops an adequate knowledge about her subject, she can then present that understanding in the form of a research report.
The first steps in doing research (and in making new year’s resolutions) is to focus one’s thinking and to frame the issue in the way that makes learning possible. For example, if a research student came to me wanting to know about “recent politics in the US,” I’d say that the subject was too broad and vague. I’d help the learner refine such a subject until it became something like “the reasons so many Americans find Trump and Trumpism attractive.” Compare the latter with the former. The latter is focused enough to be something the researcher can explore and write about. The former is way too general. A researcher who starts with such unfocused thinking will soon realize that she has to either more accurately describe her subject or abandon the project altogether.
The new year’s resolution is also about solving a problem. If a person has the problem of being out of shape, she might resolve to live healthier.
But notice how “live healthier” is too vague. What is meant by “live,” and what is meant by “healthier?” Living involves the intake of food and how one spends one’s time, among other things. Without some very specific goals, defined very precisely, the person making such a vague resolution won’t know whether she is doing the right things (to the right extent) or not. Thus, “live healthier,” a resolution that is too vague, can be improved by putting it this way: “I resolve to live healthier by becoming a vegetarian and exercising, including jogging, riding my bike, and lifting weights, at least four times each week.” Such a resolution has clearly expressed goals and actions that have a kind of legal clarity. Without fulfilling the “terms of this contract” in very precisely defined ways, the participant will be in violation of the requirements of the resolution.
The older I get, the more I need to make resolutions for the new year because I find that I’m becoming something of a slacker. I try not to be too hard on myself, but I know it’s equally bad if I let myself just skate through life without any set goals. Because I believe in moderation in all things, I have to work hard to find a nice middle ground. Making precisely worded goals seems like a good approach for me at this time in my life.
Do you have any thoughts on new year’s resolutions or on what I’ve written? If so, I’d love to read them.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.