Did you ever make a New Year's Resolution, thinking that a year would be plenty of time to reach your goal, and then find yourself making the same resolution a year later? The three primary reasons that many resolutions do not become reality are 1) lack of clarity about your goals, 2) lack of a plan of how you will achieve your goals, and 3) not following through with your plan.
As an example, let's take one of the favorite resolutions for graduate students: "I will graduate next year." Did you ever meet graduate students who said that year after year? I know I have, and every year I was a little saddened that they were still in school. As a former graduate student, I know how challenging it is to finish your thesis. There were times when I thought I would never finish and, honestly, I did not even know what I needed to do to graduate. I had collected a lot of data, but I could not make a coherent research study out of it.
The turning point of my graduate school experience came one day, when I had an epiphany. All of a sudden, I had an image in my mind with the Table of Contents for my thesis. I did not have data for all the sections, but I now had a vision for what my thesis would be about. Finally, after many years of trying to bring my data together, I had a story to tell. Not all the pieces of the puzzle were there, but I knew what was missing. On this day, I completed the first part of a resolution: setting a clear goal. I knew what I needed to do to finish. (Some minor changes had to be made after discussing it with my advisor, but the basic blueprint was there).
If your goal is to lose weight, to make more money, or to spend more time with your family, how specific are you? How much weight do you want to lose? How much more money do you want to make? How much more time do you want to spend with your family? The more specific you are, the more likely it is that your dreams will become reality.
The second part of turning a dream into reality is to develop a plan. In the case of my thesis, I worked out this part with my supervisor. There was still a large chunk of my thesis missing, and I had to learn new skills to acquire the necessary data. Furthermore, I set milestones and deadlines for many smaller goals.
Finally, it is essential to have the perseverance to follow through. Although I had a plan, obstacles came my way nearly every day. Experiments did not turn out the way we wanted them to, reagents were backordered, machines broke down, and computers crashed (yep, I lost an entire chapter of my thesis and the automatic backup system did not work either- I had to retype it!). Yet, every day (the key here is every day), I made an effort, a small dent in finishing my thesis. Many days you will not feel like working on your goal. But, if you commit to 15 minutes a day, you will find that by the end of the 15 minutes you will be motivated to keep working. This is especially a great technique for overcoming writing blocks.
Need some discipline to follow through? Support groups for thesis writing, weight loss, and exercises are probably the best way to get a little inspiration every week. It is hard to slack off when others check in with you every week or multiple times a week.
Now, think about the goal that you would like to become a reality in 1 year. If you had a clear plan of action, and committed time to this goal every day for a year, where do you think you would be by the end of 2011? What about 2012?
Wishing you the best,
Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet