In a normal year, in normal times, when December arrives we take inventory of the previous 12 months, reflecting on our experiences and the highs and lows that life brought us. Presently there may be a temptation to dwell on the lows. And there have been many in 2020. What we risk missing when we dwell on the lows is the unexpected benefits of this unique time: quality moments spent with loved ones, appreciating the profound beauty of our natural world, the chance to learn new skills or re-discover a passion that was lost, or perhaps even gaining a better understanding of what fulfils us.
As we shift our focus to the new year, there is uncertainty ahead, but also reason for hope – it sounds like a vaccine is close – and much for which to be grateful. So what about New Year’s resolutions? Should we cancel them?
I would offer that this is an opportunity to reframe our thinking around resolutions, and aim to set small, achievable goals that focus on what’s important. If nothing else, this pandemic has hopefully instructed us to live in the present and appreciate what we have.
In this vein, here are some ideas to help jumpstart your January goal-setting:
Focus on Gratitude
This is far from the first time gratitude has been written about for the SMUSpaper, but such a beautiful concept bears repeating. Building in some form of daily gratitude practice is one of the simplest ways to measurably increase happiness. This can take on the form of a gratitude journal, a daily meditation on three things you are grateful for, or more creative outlets such as the ‘jar of awesome’ (a jar you place small notes in describing things you are grateful for when you experience them). Identifying simple, small things for which we are grateful is often more profound than the big stuff.
Our students will recognize this phrase as the opening to our ‘Off-and-Away’ signs, and there is good reason for this. In our digital society, where people regularly spend hours of their day on screens (sometimes more than half of their waking hours!), most of us would benefit greatly from spending more time being completely immersed in the moment. There is value in setting goals around screen time, or carving out moments to be quiet, still and free from distraction.
Begin With Keystone Habits
In the famous book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the value of ‘keystone habits’. He defines them as “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” The idea is that certain habits create a foundation that carries over into other aspects of our lives and makes it easier to embrace other positive habits. A simple example of this is exercise. For many people, building exercise into their routine makes it easier to eat healthier, work more efficiently, and eliminate other negative behaviours. Keystone habits differ from person-to-person, so try to find what works for you and incorporate this into your goals.
Often when I work with students I will ask them to set small, infinitely attainable goals, such as making their bed in the morning – though many parents may disagree that this is attainable! The idea is that by setting and achieving small goals, momentum is generated that carries over to larger challenges. Conveniently, something as simple as a student wearing their uniform properly each day can ignite this process. When you set micro-goals, don’t be tempted to raise the stakes if it seems simple. The value is in achieving the goal, not its difficulty level.
One of my favourite books is called The Obstacle is the Way, and its central idea is that through great adversity comes growth and enlightenment. Its author, Ryan Holiday, looks at challenges and asks the question: how can this be the best thing that’s happened to me? This way of thinking during a pandemic may be a stretch, but there are shades of truth here.
What can we learn from this collective experience that we can apply to our lives moving forward? New Year’s resolutions have earned a shaky reputation for going unfulfilled, but a thoughtful approach to goal-setting can help clear the path to self-improvement, fulfillment, and even academic achievement. Now go make your bed!