My New Year’s resolution for 2016.

“If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” – Will Rogers

“Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you are getting.” – widely quoted, with slight variations, by management experts; sometimes but not always attributed to Edwards Deming.

Slide1In 2016, I will do less digging.

The resolution would seem to have much to commend it – for each of us as individuals, and for the larger institutions and communities within which we live and work.

Let’s begin at the personal level.

First, the resolution entails doing less of something. In the 21st-century, with its 24/7 work culture and with stress and over-commitment a defining feature of everyone’s life, adding on an additional task of any sort is not an option. Less-of-something – less of anything – thereby freeing up time and energy – is the only viable starting point.

It gets better! Will Rogers reminds us that hole we’re in is truly a trap. Every effort to deepen it is adding to our future woes. Each shovelful removed is making it tougher to throw the dirt up and out of the hole the next time around. At each step, clambering out grows chancier. By contrast, when we stop digging, we’re freeing up time and energy extending days, weeks – maybe even years – ahead. That time and effort can then be put towards something entirely different – something more positive, satisfying, allowing us to fulfill our truest destiny.

The second quote, this from the business world, reminds us that even at a personal level, it’s not a series of single, unconnected actions – but rather our daily routines, our habits, our approach to getting things done, the structure we provide our lives – that is the root problem. The typical New Year’s resolution chips away at the tip of the iceberg instead of addressing the more fundamental causes. Overeating and eating the wrong foods is the end result of a long chain of practices including grocery shopping and the route you and I choose for our daily commute. Relating to each other – choosing between affirming or confronting, collaborating or competing, balancing listening with talking, empathizing versus problem solving, and more – is shaped more by systems patterns of thought and behavior we’ve programmed in our minds as much or more than by any spontaneity of the moment. Procrastination is an end product usually achieved not by any single cause but rather by concatenating an entire series/fabric of time-wasting habits, many of which, in moderation, are meritorious – staying abreast of local and world news, boning up on major developments in our field, maintaining contact with friends and colleagues, keeping up with household chores and office administration, etc. In each instance, causal chains such as these in turn typically manifest unresolved psychological, spiritual issues that lie deeper still.

But enough – better that you start with little more than the general premise – dig less – and work out your own specifics. What does this mean for your life and circumstance… and your 2016?

Three final considerations. First, put don’t try to solve the problem by getting better or faster at hole-digging. A bigger shovel, or a jackhammer, or a backhoe is not the answer! To illustrate, if you’re spending all your time responding to other people’s e-mails instead of proactively getting your work done, getting faster at responding to e-mails is not the answer.

Second, improve your skills at “early detection of hole-digging.” Too often we fail to notice we’re digging a hole until the top of that hole reaches eye level. We can work on that, maybe catching ourselves before we’re knee-deep. Maybe even at the sound of the first shovelful of dirt hitting the ground. Ultimately we might get good enough to turn our back on the shoveling while it’s still only in a gleam in our mind’s eye.

Third, as you give up vain hole-digging, don’t leave all that freed-up time hanging. Identify and adopt tangible alternative uses for it. Time for personal reflection. Intentional, thoughtful goal-setting. More listening, more collaboration, frequent self-evaluation, early detection of progress… there are endless possibilities; you get the idea.

Let’s turn now to the community level.

In geosciences and science-based services, we’ve been wrongheadedly digging several misplaced holes. Here are two examples; you can easily come up with your own, better additions or alternatives.

The climate-change debate.

From history’s rearview mirror, it seems we may have placed too much effort too early trying to jolt political leaders and the public into specific actions with respect to climate change. Hard to tell but it seems some of our exertions polarized and alienated these audiences rather than unifying and galvanizing them. The result may have been a delay in the kind of global groundswell that may finally be materializing from the Paris climate-change summit. In any event, this seems to be not just a hole but a vast pit where as a community we might stop digging and return to our science and see where that takes us.

Seeking resilience to hazards primarily through improved forecasts and emergency response.

We’ve worked hard to improve the accuracy and specificity of natural hazards forecasts, to move from predictions of environmental variables to impact-based watches and warnings, and to communicate these more effectively to those in harm’s way. More hard work remains to be done! But the fact is that community-level resilience is closely tied to land use, building construction, robust critical infrastructure, and distribution of wealth/poverty. Improved forecasts and emergency response are most effective when dealing with the residual risk remaining after these core issues have been tackled. We might do more as professionals to point to the fundamental limitations of emergency response when coping with natural hazards. When vexed by the continuing rise in property loss and the stubborn refusal of deaths and injuries to decline, we might acknowledge along with those management experts that [our approach] “…is perfectly designed to achieve the result we are getting.”

Another invitation to stop digging?

May your 2016 be prosperous and meaningful, both professionally and personally.

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