I love the start of the year because it’s a time to take stock and look ahead. A new year feels so fresh and shiny and untainted. It’s the perfect time to let our imaginations soar with dreams about the future.
Yet too often what should be a special time of reflection and aspiration turns into a time to feel anxious about what we haven’t yet achieved. As a result, many of us end up setting goals that involve sacrifice and self-control. These goals come from a place of restriction, not a place of possibility.
We might start going to the gym five times a week, or decide to cut out sugar, or start hunting for a new job. While our intentions are good, we often cannot live up to our own rigid expectations. This leads to disappointment, frustration and self-loathing. You see it as a failure. You think, ‘if only I’d tried harder, or put better plans in place… then I could have succeeded.’
What if I told you that’s not true? That your success is not measured by how many times you go to the gym each week or whether or not you eat your greens every day?
By imagining a brighter future, you are already on your journey towards success. Imagining new possibilities means that you are looking forward. By entertaining these thoughts, you are projecting yourself into a picture of a future that is better, brighter and more fulfilled. A future that holds possibility. This in itself shows your positive intent. It’s a sure sign that you are on the right track – so why derail your efforts by setting unrealistic goals?
Instead of approaching the new year as a time to set firm, non-negotiable goals that you feel you have to stick to, I encourage you to try something different.
Ask yourself: what if?
Daydream about possibilities. Ask yourself: what if I set aside time to do regular exercise? How would this make me feel? Would it make my life better? What would I need to change to make this happen? Is this something I really want?
Asking yourself ‘what if’ takes away feelings of obligation and what I call ‘pre-guilt’ – that feeling when you make a plan that you know you won’t stick to. It invites you to explore the possibility of making a change. It’s a chance to have an open, non-judgmental conversation with yourself about what you really want to add to your life.
Think of your own example. Replace ‘this year I will…’ with ‘what if in 2016 I…?’ Doesn’t that feel more relaxed and authentic?
Focus on how your goals will add value to your life, rather than what they threaten to take away, and making a change will feel less like a burden and more like an opportunity.
If the thought of writing a list of goals doesn’t appeal, you could try setting a theme for the new year instead. I first heard about this idea from Gretchen Rubin. She encourages everyone to identify one idea, “summarised in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year”.
I’ve been doing this for a few years and it has really helped me take more meaningful actions. One year my theme was ‘strength’. I had become frustrated that I kept limiting myself by thinking of reasons why I couldn’t do things. I was tired of thinking of my weaknesses. For that year, when things came up that were challenging or new, I tried to draw on my strengths. I didn’t always succeed but remembering to focus on what I could do gave me courage and helped me to do things I might not have otherwise.
The last thing I want to say about New Year’s Resolutions is to remember that there isn’t something magic about a new year which means this is the only time we can make plans. We have a brand new, fresh and shiny chance to make or change plans every day!
The start of the year is a great time to set a theme for the months ahead and come up with some worthy goals. But if life gets in the way and you need to adjust your plans, then March or July or some other month will be a perfect time to do that too.
Just remember to ask yourself… what if?