Can people change? A New Year contemplation.

I’ve been contemplating the question “Can people change” every January 2 for a decade now, thanks to my Q&A A Day journal. Invariably, I answer affirmatively…

  • In 2013: “Sure. Unless you try to make them or they don’t actually want to do it.”
  • In 2014: “Sure. We change all the time. Change or die, right?”
  • In 2015: “Sure. If they want to. If they make habits.”
  • In 2016: “Sure but sometimes not for long.”
  • In 2017: “Sure. If they want to and keep motivated.”
  • In 2018: “Of course. We change all the time!”
  • In 2019: “Yep. And sometimes not for the better.”
  • In 2020: “I hope so.”
  • In 2021: “Yep. And sometimes it breaks your heart.”
  • In 2022: “Yes. Although with Pandemic Year 2 happening, I’m not optimistic.”

As 2023 gets going, my answer is still: Sure. But in ways they might not expect.

You see, I shocked myself a couple days ago. As I’m wont to do this time of year, I looked back at my goal spreadsheet from 2022. I expected, as usual, to tally up how many goals I achieved—books read, recipes cooked, minutes exercised, etc. Only, I couldn’t find my spreadsheet at first. I usually keep it on my desktop for easy access. Not there. So I scoured my household folders thinking maybe I’d accidentally filed it? Nope. After a global search, I discovered it, scooped up in a “storage” folder I use to clear off my desktop clutter periodically. There it sat, amid random files, photos, and memes, untouched since… January 20, 2022.

I GASPED when I checked the file properties, thinking maybe I’d opened the wrong version. Surely I wouldn’t have just not kept track of my books or recipes all year long? Surely not. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

In January 2022, I started my first-ever sabbatical, which was apparently a big enough life shift to change the trajectory of my entire year. Everything was just enough different—no class prep, unusual work schedule, new projects, new work station. It didn’t occur to me that there would be a cascading effect on my entire year’s plans. And it didn’t help that I underestimated how much time/effort one of my goals would take, either. (It turns out, writing an NIH R01 grant is no mean feat, and it sucked up 10 months of my year.)

Painted concentric yellow circles on black pavement. In the center circle, white letters state: And So I Chose to Begin Again
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Realizing how relatively easy it is to make big changes unconsciously, I’m planning to be much more intentional about my time this year. My 2023 goal spreadsheet is saved to my desktop and open as a reminder. I’ve refreshed myself on goal setting research (see: On Actually Achieving Your Goals: How to Create Better Goals and Helpful Habits). And I’ve set monthly calendar reminders to check on my goals.

As ever, I’m prepared to learn new things about myself, but I’m hoping to avoid the unsettling feeling of being taken on a ride for a year and ending up at a destination I didn’t exactly plan.


P/S Interested in organizational change, by chance? Consider this scholarly article: How metaphorical framings build and undermine resilience during change by yours truly and some friends.

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