5 things that had the biggest impact on my happiness this year

As I’ve worked this week to put the finishing touches on my 2023 goals (yes, I decided to go back to my goal-setting ways this year, albeit with a lighter touch), I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on, and dissecting, 2022. In examining the ups and downs, the accomplishments and setbacks, the messiness and the serendipity, I discovered a number of small things that had an outsized impact on my overall happiness and well-being this year. They range from the truly mundane to the take-a-leap-way-outside-my-comfort-zone, but they’ve all had a profound effect on me this year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Masters swimming. I’ve come a looooooooong way since showing up at my first practice in May. I’m a much stronger, more efficient, and more confident swimmer. Some days I actually get through the entire workout! (And if I don’t, that’s ok, too.) I’m currently attempting to learn a proper flip turn. I signed up for extra coaching with a smaller group once a week. I watch swimming videos on YouTube for fun. I crave the challenge that every day in the water brings, and I love the new community I’ve found of people who willingly get up at bonkers early hours to jump in the pool.
  2. My morning ritual. I always start my day with a cup of coffee, writing out my intentions and to-do list for the day, Wordle, and a bit of reading. Mundane? Very. But whether I spend 15 minutes or 45 minutes on this small and basic ritual, the quiet time to myself where I get to ease into the day sets me up to successfully face the rest of the day. Even (especially!) if the day goes south, at least I had this bit of solo time.
  3. Planned / effortful fun. Fun fact: I participated in the study that formed the basis for the book Tranquility by Tuesday. One of my biggest personal takeaways from the experience was that it pays to be thoughtful and deliberate about how you spend your leisure time. (Sort of a mix of the rules “effortful fun before effortless fun” and “one big adventure, one little adventure”.) So now, instead of thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to go to the art museum again someday?”, I’ll check the calendar to see if we have a few free hours in the upcoming weekend and schedule it in. I’m more likely to pick up a book and read a few pages, or pick up my latest crochet project and stitch up a row or three, rather than scrolling social media when I’m bored. The study experience primed me to think more specifically about my free time, and my free time’s been much richer as a result.
  4. Teaching taekwondo. I started teaching once a week at my studio this spring, and I also teach a special black belt weapons class once a week. It’s fun using the teaching skills I’ve honed over my career in a different context, and fulfilling to share my joy and passion for taekwondo with others.
  5. Scheduling the thing before you leave the thing. I am notoriously bad about calling to make an appointment, whether for doctor visits, haircuts, or what have you. I just hate talking on the phone! I’d already gotten in the habit of making my next dentist appointment at the end of my current dentist appointment, and this year I started doing that with haircuts, too. (Which is important because I have short hair that grows fast so I really do need to go in every 8 weeks.) Sounds trivial, but it’s made such a difference — I don’t spend mental energy wondering when my last haircut was and stressing about calling to get in before my hair gets truly shaggy and unwieldy. And it’s a bit of regular self-care for me, too.

What’s had an outsized impact on your happiness and well-being this year?


Reflecting back on a year without goals

Last December, burned out and exhausted, I decided to forgo setting goals for 2022. Quite the departure from normal for me, as I live and die by my goals list each year. While deep down I trusted my decision, I still had my doubts. How would I keep myself accountable? Would I completely slack off? Would I drift, rudderless, through the year?

Would I have an existential crisis if I learned that I don’t need constant achievement and striving to feel like a whole, worthwhile person?

So, how did it go? Rather well, as it turns out.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t completely throw all goal-setting and planning out the window. I did set goals (or, I guess more accurately, intentions), just on smaller time scales. I set intentions for each academic term and each longer break (summer and winter). I set goals each month and priorities each week. The goals and intentions definitely reflected larger themes, indicating that I did have larger arcs in mind and wasn’t completely going by the seat of my pants.

What I did find is that having smaller horizon goals / intentions helped me be more flexible in life overall. If I failed to meet a goal or complete an “important” task in a particular week or month, I reflected on why that happened and whether I should roll the goal / task over or let it go — and felt more comfortable doing that sort of accounting. If circumstances changed mid-month or mid-term, I felt ok redoing the goals for that cycle, or letting them go altogether. (Case in point: summer, when hiring our new STEM Program Manager crowded out most of the other things on my priorities list.) Did this mean that sometimes I chose not to push myself to meet a deadline where I probably could have pushed to make it (e.g. conference deadlines)? Yes. Do I feel bad about that? Kind of, but way less so than Past Me might have — perhaps because I realize there are other deadlines and other venues and rarely will I completely miss out on an opportunity because I passed on a deadline.

Does this mean I won’t be setting yearly goals this year? I’m not sure. I do miss the process of dreaming about the near-ish future, and the community aspect of setting and sharing goals lists. I think I’d benefit from some structure as I figure out what’s next (career wise and personally). And part of me really wants to make a “23 in 2023” list.

Right now I’m leaning towards this strategy:

  • Select a one word theme for the year. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 finalists for 2023. I find one word (or phrase) works well to center and focus me on what’s important — particularly this year’s phrase, “gentle serendipity”.
  • Make a 23 in 2023 list — focused on experiences instead of accomplishments. I’m still a bit afraid of creating any sort of written accountability record that the darker side of my brain can use to flagellate me in my low moments. But I did miss the parts of lists from previous years that pushed me to try new things and engage in new experiences. So I’m going to make an experience-focused 23 in 2023 list. I already have a few ideas (a couple for summer and one for winter) and may enlist my kids and partner for help on this one.
  • Set lightweight intentions for the year. Rather than focusing on “what do I want to accomplish this year?”, I’ll lead with “what kind of person do I want to be at this time next year?” I’ll set shorter-horizon intentions and priorities that move me closer to this vision.

I’ll share wherever I end up — a yearly theme, a 23 for 2023 list, and maybe a list of intentions — in early January, with the start of a new year, a new academic term, and a new phase in my career.

How are you approaching goal setting in 2023?

What’s next?

Fork in path - geograph.org.uk - 2523137.

Sometime within the next couple of weeks, I will finish all of the remaining documentation, attend my final set of meetings, and sit down for a long and candid conversation with the incoming STEM Director — and officially transition out of that position. And at the end of the academic year, I will also step down from directing the Summer Science Fellows program, a program I’ve led since 2017.

For the first time in literally years, I will not hold a formal leadership position on campus.

Naturally, the number one question people ask when I run into them on campus is some variation of “So, what’s next?”

My official answer is “I have no idea.” Which is partially true. I don’t have specific plans at this point to pursue a specific type of position, or step immediately onto another path, although I do have plenty of things to fill that space in the interim. I serve on the faculty promotion and tenure committee through 2023-24, which will keep me plenty busy between now and then. I was tapped as a community advisor to the Community of Belonging Task Force for the Carleton 2033 Strategic Plan process. I’m conducting a meta-assessment of all the department assessment we’ve done over the past decade. And I’m slowly re-immersing myself in the NCWIT Academic Alliance community — I’ll be serving as an Ambassador for new members, something that really excites and energizes me. I won’t exactly be sitting around eating bonbons, but I’ll still have a bit of a breather from the intensity involved in directing programs and initiatives.

My unofficial answer is that I plan to use my freed-up mental space to contemplate some bigger, broader questions, with an eye towards advocacy and/or developing some kind of concrete action plans where applicable. Some of the questions I’m contemplating:

  • What would a computer science program centered on ethics, justice, and civic engagement look like?
  • Is there a scalable way to design student assessment, and courses as a whole, that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly favor previous experience?
  • What does a sustainable faculty workload look like? How can we get there as an institution?
  • How can we more effectively, and systematically, mentor mid-career and senior faculty?

I’m also hoping to write more, both as scholarship and for broader audiences. My civic engagement work, and my current research project, lend themselves to wider dissemination beyond academia, and I want to figure out ways to get those stories out to a wider swath of people. Plus, I really, really enjoy writing, and want to find more ways to work that into my workflow.

I’m excited to start this new chapter, and look forward to seeing what roads emerge.

Image credit: Fork in path by michael, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons