The beginning of a new year always holds so much promise for better things to come and a chance to "start fresh". This year in particular, at a global level, we seem to be fully embracing the notion of saying goodbye to 2016 and hello to 2017. From the moment it arrived, it seems 2016 brought an onslaught of constant challenges and sorrows with it (Brexit, American election process, death of Leonard Cohen and so many other talented artists, ongoing escalation of international terrorism, ongoing Syrian not-so-civil war, etc. etc.) We are definitely happy to welcome a fresh and innocent 2017 into our lives, embracing it with open arms, as if it could function as a "do over" for last year. Of course, it isn't really possible to have a re-do of last year, but we do hold on to hope that things will settle down all around us and that our world leaders will guide us peacefully through a less shocking and troublesome 2017.
While we cannot predict or manage the world's affairs at large, we most definitely have the capacity to influence our own individual lives to positively affect change and limit damage from unexpected events within our own little microcosms. At this time of the year many of us are well motivated to engage in some soul searching, reflecting on our past year's experiences, successes and failures, and deciding what we want our future to look like. We may set some specific goals and intentions for ourselves as New Year's resolutions, or we may just make a general commitment towards healthier living, work-life balance and kinder relationships. It is estimated that approximately 50% of us will in fact make New Year’s resolutions as a way to reinvent, motivate or challenge ourselves towards some degree of personal improvement, but very few of us manage to follow through on our intentions. Sadly, approximately 88% of us will fail to adhere to our hopeful resolutions. There are all kinds of reasons for these failures and all kinds of worthwhile advice on how to ensure greater success with achieving our goals. I cannot offer you anything new or different as far as that goes, but perhaps I can offer you a different way to experience 2017, regardless of whether or not you have made a list of goals and resolutions, and regardless of whether or not you achieve any of your goals. What if I could offer you a strategy that would guarantee that you experience a more gratifying, more rewarding, more creative and less stressful year, regardless of your success with resolutions AND regardless of what the new year actually delivers to your doorstep? Would you be compelled to at least try the said strategy for 66 days? (Sadly, the 21 days to a new habit is a myth. Scientific investigation pegs the average habit-forming time frame at 66 days).
Life Hacks for Greater Success
This year, I am recommitting myself to the practices of Reflection and Mindfulness and I am recommending these little "life hacks" to anyone who will listen. By "Looking Back “and "Looking In" on a regular basis, we will improve our ability and our resolve to stay on track with both our simple and our more lofty intentions for the year and we will avoid returning to the same mistakes, the same dramas and the same dead-ends that frustrated us in 2016. The beauty of what I am recommending is that if we honour these two strategies faithfully, we will have a better 2017 regardless of the external circumstances that greet us, even when the circumstances fiercely collide with our own desires and intentions.
Reflection is defined as serious and considerable thought (Merriam Webster). We will expand this definition to include contemplation, observation, review, examination and consideration of a past experience or situation with the goal of processing the experience and learning from it. Reflection is definitely connected to our past, but it will wisely inform our future as we use past insights to move forward. Reflection allows us to consciously create the lives we want by clarifying our values, priorities, strengths and weaknesses. Reflection helps to ensure that we do not become lost in the chaos of life, becoming unconsciously reactive and losing sight of our values, intentions and goals. Reflection helps us to live with purpose, on purpose.
Life offers up many distractions and curve-balls that make it easy to "get lost" in its many unexpected twists and turns. So often, when we react to life without the benefit of learning through reflection, our behaviours and decisions do not represent the goals we have set for ourselves or the values we hold dearly. I consider Reflection to be our Internal Mapping System, our personal GPS so to speak, helping us navigate our way efficiently to where we want to be. Reflection allows us to see where we have been and where we are positioned at any given time. It helps us to identify hidden roadblocks and potentially avoid nasty potholes. Without this information readily available to us, how would we choose where to go and how to get there?
Where Have You Been?
When saying goodbye to 2016, it is worthwhile to spend 30-60 minutes reflecting on the year's triumphs, losses, disappointments, and overall "mood". Nothing will better inform and influence how we approach the new year than a good, honest year-end review. Below is a small example of the types of questions we can ask ourselves as we look back on 2016:
1)What was your greatest achievement?
2)What was your biggest challenge?
3)What did you learn? List at least 5 things.
4)What would you do differently? What did not work for you?
5)What is still left to do? What still feels incomplete?
6)If you could summarize 2016 with one word, what would it be?
While reviewing our lives at the end each year is a very worthwhile endeavour, daily or at the very least, weekly reviews are even more important. Regular intervals of reflection will allow us to assess how we are doing and adjust our course of action so that we may find ourselves living more closely in sync with our most significant values. My recommendation is a 5 minutes daily journaling practice always done at the same time of day (upon rising or before bed works best). Within this 5 minutes, we can review our day.... work, play, relationships...and our feelings. We can reset our intentions, celebrate our wins, process our shortcomings, and plan for tomorrow. While I encourage you to find your own set of daily questions, I will offer you some examples:
1)How was my day?
2)What am I grateful for today?
3)What would I do over?
4)What valuable lessons were learned today?
5)Did I treat everybody I interacted with in a manner that is consistent with how I want to treat others? If not, why not?
6)What went really well today?
The process of self-reflection goes hand in hand with mindfulness as the more attuned we remain throughout each day, the more valuable insights we will gather during self-reflection time. Mindfulness does not require that we sit in quiet meditation for 30 minutes a day (although that is a great idea!), but simply that we maintain a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment without judgement. Mindfulness, thus defined and utilized, has its roots in Buddhist meditation, and was essentially pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970's. Kabat-Zinn studied with several Buddhist masters and then adapted the teachings to create a secular program of mindfulness known as the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). This program has been incorporated into a variety of mainstream North American Health and wellness programs over the last three decades and there are online and local resources available to help train you in MBSR.
A Canadian study, published in 2012, in the International Journal of Well-Being, found that mindfulness positively affected personal goals and gave individuals a greater sense of independence as well as improved their overall well-being. Studies have linked mindfulness to increased resilience to stress, improved decision making, improved focus, improved emotional intelligence and increased energy. Sounds like a panacea to me!
So, my challenge to you, should you choose to accept it, is to make yourself a good cup of coffee or tea and start with a 30 minute reflection on the past year. You will want to write down your insights for future reference and my personal recommendation is to use a beautiful little journal. Follow this up with daily attention to Mindfulness, remaining present in conversations and daily activities, avoiding multi-tasking, and just observing your thoughts and feelings. Next, start a daily 5 minute reflection practice. Choose a favourite little writing spot in your home, a cozy blanket and find a smooth-writing pen. Choose reflection questions that speak to you and should you feel inspired to doodle in your reflective journal, you may want to have a fine liquid ink pen and pencil crayons handy. Let's see if you can do this for the next 66 days with reasonable consistency. By then, a lovely new habit is formed and I promise you 2017 will be a more gratifying year than last year!
May you look back with interest,
May you look in with non-judgement,
May you find your way to a wonderful year!