As a distinct marker in time, the new year is a great time to reflect and to plan for the coming year. You may view it as an arbitrary date and therefore rebel against setting goals as the new year approaches. It is arbitrary, but isn’t it as good a time as any? Give it a try!
In this post, I want to go far beyond new year’s resolutions and offer some different tools for you to use to reflect on this past year and to plan for the coming year. Polls show that most people who make resolutions (only about 44% of the U.S. population) make very general resolutions such as to lose weight, save more money, or get a better job. Of course maybe that is because those are the questions that were asked; perhaps most people actually do set more specific goals. Anyway, here are some tools for you to re-think resolutions if you are stuck in a cycle of vague goals that you don’t keep; or maybe you don’t even know if you keep them because they are too vague.
A theme for the year
Last year, on the recommendation of professional organizer Jes Marcy, I decided on a phrase that would be my focus for the year, and then I set or reset passwords to a take on that theme. This serves two great purposes. 1) You are reminded of that theme every time you log in. 2) It is good security hygiene to change passwords regularly. My theme for last year it was to be aware of how I spend my time.
I really like this idea. It is simple but directive.
Here is my experience with my theme of focusing on time spent. At the start of the year I set some new schedules for my time. For example, two nights a week I put on my calendar that I would spend from 7-7:30pm working on something I wanted to get done (these were very specific – I was typing notes from a course and working on planning a race). I didn’t usually sit at my computer for that exact time, but for many months I usually did spend 30 minutes doing the task on the day of the week I set. They were tasks I didn’t want to do, and the projects I had to do were not urgent. But I wasn’t going to get them done if I wasn’t intentional about it, and 30 minutes was a short enough time that it wasn’t too painful. If I just said I would sit down and do it, then it probably would have felt more cumbersome, but with a set time it was far more doable.
Similarly, I scheduled 30 minutes of morning reading time 2 or 3 days a week where I would sit for that amount of time and get into a non-fiction book. Something that wasn’t good for pre-bed reading. I got through a number of books I wouldn’t have otherwise read through this routine. Indeed, I’m sure I read more this past year than I ever have.
I didn’t stick with either schedule all year for different reasons; but they are tools that I discovered work, and I will use them again. I am already trying to bring back the reading, though I’m undecided on a schedule for it given other weekend obligations.
Overall, through this focus for my year, I have discovered that I have an overblown sense of what I can get done in a day. I was fortunate to spend many days working for myself, and I would finish the working day and feel that I had accomplished little. I worked all day and sometimes very effectively, but I think my idea of a productive day is usually impossible to actually accomplish. On the flip side, I also saw the power of getting through a task with just a little bit at a time with those 30 minute segments I set aside for something. It seemed so small, yet now I have projects completed and books read because of it!
A Happiness Project
Named for the book by the same name, Gretchen Rubin spent a year trying different things each month to improve a certain area of her life. I tried my own far simpler version this past year as I wrote about here (and each month – search ‘happiness project’ on my blog for more). I recommend the book and the experience. I am not going to carry it over for my coming year, but I am glad I did it and may pick it up again. It pushed me to do and try some things within a focused period of time to decide if I wanted to keep up the practice. As with the time set for projects and reading, these were personal experiments or behavior changes that I would not have otherwise done. Examples of items in this category include doing something out of my comfort zone or routine every day, keeping a gratitude journal, and doing something kind for someone else every day. I enjoyed all of these months and more. However, many months weren’t so positive. I pretty much universally failed each month where I had planned to learn something new. This included focusing on swimming, learning how to garden, and writing a book in 30 days. If I were to do this again, I would probably leave such things out and focus on the habits, practices, and routines that do not take much time but that I want to try out to see if it has an impact on my overall happiness. As for the bigger things like gardening and swimming, I think those are better as an overall year goal instead of just a month! They also clearly are not as big of a priority for me.
Reflecting on the year behind
I think this is one of the most important aspects of any transition planning for the new year. In fact, even if you don’t set goals for the coming year, I would still sit down and reflect on the year behind. To do this, first just write down a list of all that happened over the year to jog your memory. What did you do, what happened at work, what trips did you take, who did you have lunch with that you haven’t seen in awhile, what plays did you see, did you visit family, did friends visit you? Big and small, good and bad, just write what happened. Going back through your calendar will probably help with this.
Then write a list of all that you accomplished that you are proud of.
Then write a list of things that didn’t go so well. For each item, indicate what you learned from it.
This reflection is 2/3 of the questions that Marie Forleo says we should ask ourselves; and she also includes a list of what we are ready to let go of for the coming year. Tim Ferriss talks about a similar reflection, though he has used this to replace the forward-looking goal setting as well. He recommends taking your list of all that happened in the year and splitting it into things that are particularly noteworthily positive, and then another list of what was negative. And this isn’t just your accomplishments, but who did you enjoy meeting for lunch, etc. He calls these “peak positive or negative emotions.” Then, look at the activities that created the most peaks, and schedule them into your calendar immediately. And actively do not schedule/do not do what you have in the negative column in the coming year.
Planning for the year ahead
You could just choose a theme. You could do a happiness project. Another option, also from Gretchen Rubin on the Happier podcast, is 18 for 2018 or now 19 for 2019. That is just a list of 19 things you want to do in the coming year. They can be really small or bigger, but they have to be a thing that you will know when it is done. Lose weight or save money do not count here. They are not specific enough.
This year I did something even broader based on a review process written about by Chris Guillebeau. For this, you write out 3-5 goals you want to accomplish in each area you care about. His categories are: Writing, Business, Friends & Family, Service, Travel, Spiritual, Health, Learning, Financial (Earning), Financial (Giving), Financial (Saving). Then you can take it a step further and schedule how and when you will accomplish these goals through the year. For example, let’s say you want to write a book in 2019. What has to get done for that to happen? Do you need to find an agent? Write a book proposal? Write out each step, in order if there is an obvious order, and figure out estimated timelines for each, and write it all out.
I should say that I have started this, but am continuing to think of new things and I haven’t fully gone through each item to look at a schedule. I recommend giving yourself time to think through any project you try; not as an excuse not to finish, but set a schedule that allows you to work on it slowly over a weekend or a week.
For something totally different (but also similar because you will still make lists), try out this guided visualization from meditation teacher Emily Fletcher. You will walk through both the past year and the year ahead. It’s fun. Her voice is phenomenally relaxing.
Go big…why not reflect on your life thus far
I love this. My husband doesn’t like staring at his death. So apparently it isn’t for everyone…but Tim Urban provides us with a visual of our life in weeks, if we live the length of life of an average American. He also writes a great blog post about it. You can even buy a poster (yes, yes, I did! Actually it was on my Christmas list).
In the middle of our life, years can fly by without us realizing it. So why not look at a poster of our life in weeks and take an honest assessment as to whether we are happy at what we have accomplished? What do we want to make sure we do in the years ahead? As I learned this past year, I cannot do as much in a day or in a year as I think I can.
I value that each of us is very different. Certainly don’t try all of these tools, but I hope something resonates with you. Living intentionally is powerful stuff, and so too is looking back at the past year to celebrate what you actually have accomplished! You may be surprised. (Even if it takes a few days to settle in. I initially wrote down what I had accomplished this year and was surprised at how little it was. As I have reflected further on this, I have to realize that it was an educational if not outwardly productive year. I started a business, started two blogs, changed careers, and tried out two different careers that I realized were not for me. That’s a lot emotionally to deal with even if it isn’t a lot on the day to day). Happy New Year!