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Making Positive Changes in the New Year

Setting three-word resolutions.

December 18, 2016

Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her on Twitter, @HVanMouwerik, and check out her website.



Every year on Christmas Eve, I (or Neil Gaimen) read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a short novel about Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts who visit him. Each time I come to the same conclusion: the novel is only superficially about Christmas and the personal redemption of Scrooge. At its core, A Christmas Carol is actually more about New Year’s, about marking the past, evaluating the present, and turning towards the future.


When Dickens starts his novel with “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that,” he is making sure his readers understand that the past is done and cannot be changed--literally buried away. Instead, he wants his readers to use this knowledge, not as an excuse to stagnate, but to propel them into a more productive and fulfilling future, to throw open our metaphorical windows and get a street urchin to buy us a giant turkey!


This year, especially, I have been returning to this idea, because 2016 seemed, for most people in the United States, to be particularly difficult. For me, I have had to deal with personal loss and professional setbacks; as a society, we have had to bury too many cultural icons, been entrenched in a vicious political battle, and watched people commit hate crimes in America and war crimes in Syria. It is enough, in my self-indulgent moments, to bring me to despair.


But Charles Dickens wouldn’t like that! Rather than focus on the failures and the heartbreaks (alongside, of course, the successes and victories)—in other words, letting the past dictate your future—he wants you to reflect on what happened, learn from it, and move on into the next year with clear goals, an open mind, and a song in your heart.


Three-Word Resolutions


In the past, I have resolved to keep the typical New Year’s Resolutions—everything from lose weight and exercise daily, to drink less coffee and work harder. And, like everyone else who makes these sorts of vague, sweeping, “life-changing” resolutions, I have failed to keep a single one of them much beyond MLK Day.


Last year, however, I came across a new idea called Three-Word Resolutions. Instead of a typical resolution, this exercise instructs you to choose three words (no more, no less), which you will use to guide you through the coming year. Ask yourself: What changes will I face next year? How do I want other people to describe me to their friends? What sort of concepts do I want to embody? How do I see myself interacting with the world around me? The answers to these questions will inspire your word selection.


Once you have them, you will carry these words around with you like a personal mantra for a whole year—post them by your computer, write them at the top of your agenda, or say them to yourself every morning. They also act like a rubric, the measure against which you evaluate your actions, your growth, and your outlook in the coming year.


Last year, I needed words that would help me through all of the transitions I anticipated for 2016, so my words were flexible, observant, and outspoken. This year, I want words that will help me process the world around me more critically and break me out of my insular cocoon, as well as words that will help me explore different facets of my personality.


This year I resolve to be:


Kind. This word will remind me to empathize deeply with others, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to try and understand things from their perspective. I will embody this word when I volunteer my time, donate to charity, interact with strangers and friends, and consume media.


Creative. I have always been a creative person, the arts came easily to me, but that side of me got lost for a while in graduate school. Although taking seminars and teaching undergraduates allow for an intellectual creativity, they don’t allow for the dexterous side of art, the colorful or beautiful results more physically demanding art can supply. This year I want to look at the world from the perspective of a creative person, to find ways to add to its beauty, and to appreciate more fully the creative additions of others.


Bold. I, like almost all of you, suffer from some form of impostor syndrome. This word is meant to counteract that inclination. Everyday it will remind me to be my naturally funny, opinionated, and colorful self and to share that self with friends, coworkers, and strangers. It will also remind me that I do not need to put up with social vampires who suck away my time and energy, to own my opinions and my feelings, and to recognize that I am the only one who has authority over my body, mind, and soul.


Build Positive Habits, A Link Roundup


Whatever route you take for your New Year’s Resolutions, it is important to include one or two specific habits you wish to adopt in 2017. Rather than spend your limited reserves of holiday good cheer on planning a puritanical January as penance for last year, I recommend making your resolutions forces for positive change in your life.


And GradHacker has you covered! Here are a few of my favorite posts that offer specific advice on building these sorts of positive habits:


- Start Keeping a Journal! Making a habit of recording your experiences, ideas, and inspirations will allow you to hold onto your ideas and use them more effectively in the future. In his post, Justin Dunnavant talks about how keeping a journal can help you keep track of your research, health, and productivity. Also, Julie Platt discusses how keeping a teaching journal has made her a more effective teacher.


- Focus on Writing! GradHackers have a ton of helpful ideas about writing! Need help avoiding distractions and maintain focus? Productivity? Want to break the binge-writing habit? Want to create a writing group? Strategies for completing your dissertation? We can help! Building a positive writing habit is an investment that will pay off for years to come.


- Add Some Healthy Routines to Your Day! Whether it is concern for your waistline or more specific health problems, get back into healthy physical activity a little bit at a time. For people who want to start small, I have written about simple ways to improve your back health, Kayla Solinsky has written about finding joy in exercise, and Shira Lurie has given some great advice on fitting exercise into your busy life. Or, if you need help with food, here is Katie Shives on eating on a budget, Liz Homan on using food as brain fuel, and Hanna Peacock on eating good food.


- Take Time for Yourself! Your well-being, especially during graduate school, needs to be priority; however, there are many ways you can go about doing this. If you struggle with burnout, Katie Shives offers some fantastic self-care advice. In addition: DeWitt Scott can help you prioritize, Anne Guarnera can help the introverted TA, Danielle Marias can help with Work-Life Balance, Stephanie Hedge can help with adding creative hobbies to your self-care routine, and I can help you have fun rediscovering your intellectual side.


Hopefully a couple of these links will resonate and set you up for some new positive habits. If Scrooge can keep the spirit of the season as well as anyone and avoid seeing any more ghosts, then I think we can all likewise learn from our past and build a better new year.


So, from me to all of you, a hearty Happy Holidays! And an even Happier New Year!


What are your resolutions for the New Year? How do you approach making and keeping them? Please let us know in the comments!

[Image provided by Flickr user yb_woodstock and used under a Creative Commons license]


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