As we begin a new academic year, it can be tempting to be really ambitious about what we want to accomplish in our teaching, scholarship, service or leadership commitments. A new start is always brimming with opportunities. Unfortunately, focusing on too many of them means that you’re less likely to be effective in any.
I’m particularly conscious of this as I’ve just stepped out of a largely administrative position to go back to my full-time faculty role. As you can imagine, I’m really itching to get back to teaching and research. Over the last few months, I’ve identified far more opportunities than I can reasonably take on. Coupled with a desire to “re-calibrate” how I approach my career, I’ve been thinking a great deal about this over the summer.
Essentialism offers a different path
The first day I was really on summer break, I cracked open (or downloaded to my Kindle) a book I’ve been wanting to read for several months – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. It’s an excellent book and I highly recommend it. McKeown’s thesis is basically that when we pare down our focus to only those activities where we can make the biggest and most unique contributions to our families, careers, and communities, we are much more effective than when we try to do it all.
This sentiment is strangely liberating. Rather than feeling the pressure of trying to do more and more, essentialism offers a different path and challenge. What we really need to do is to figure out what our best contributions can be and try as best we can to eliminate those that divert our attention. The challenge then is to learn to say no and be disciplined with our commitments. One suggestion that McKeown offers to help in this regard is to pick a word for the year.
Why you need to pick a personal word for the year
A word for the year is simply a way to direct your energy to what is most important for this year of your life. This one simple word can help you to be disciplined and quickly decide whether taking on a new opportunity is in line with your values and priorities. For my pre-tenure readers, the word might be something like “publish.” With a focus on teaching, your word might be something like, “listen” or “creativity.” For leaders or administrators, it might be something like “delegate.” Whatever the word, it should capture your core values and priorities in a simple, tangible way.
My word for the year is “discernment.” I’m naturally both a people pleaser and an achiever. So, as you can imagine, my inclination is to say yes to any and every new opportunity – particularly if it’s a request from a friend or colleague. With McKeown in my head this year, I’m going to really try to stop and think about what I commit to. I’m going to leverage a simple phrase from Essentialism: “let me think about that and get back to you.” I think just having a little distance between request and response will really help me.
The other benefit of this word for me is to encourage me to really reflect on how a particular request or opportunity fits into my priorities and greatest contributions. I know this will be a challenge for me, but I think this word, posted in my office, on the homescreen of my phone and on the background of my desktop, will help me to make the most of my new opportunity as a faculty member.
What will your word be for the year?
Please post your comments below.