“You will never achieve what you can’t imagine.”
And that’s never more true than when it comes to New Year resolutions. These absolutely don’t need to be made before the new year dawns. Yet there is a particular magic in starting the year with a clear sense that it is you who is choosing; that it is you setting the compass for the year ahead.
Allowing yourself to know what you most want, “seeing” your way forward, aligning this to your finest and most liberating values: all of this allows you to grow into the great scope of your own life. It also makes you far less anxiously dependent on troublesome, fragile “successes” that are determined by other people.
It always helps to write down what you intend or hope for. Seeing your words in black and white gives you invaluable perspective that can only come with the little bit of distance that writing gives. Take your time, too. For this, you have all the time you need. In fact, as your resolutions take shape you may even resolve to explore or shift your relationship to time. “Time” is a perception as much as it is a measure. How can it work better for you? How can you live more harmoniously with it?
In the year ahead, as in all the years ahead, your happiness and mine will largely depend on the quality of our relationships. And those relationships – intimate, social, work, communal – will largely depend on how you perceive and value yourself: who you believe you are; what you believe you can offer others and yourself.
Perhaps the very first resolution you could make, therefore, is to identify what strengths you most want to develop in this coming year. By “strengths” I mean character strengths, those qualities of attitude and response that perhaps you admire in others or even envy.
This is where our finest idealizations can be brought to life. No single person “owns” any of the great qualities of character and personal strength. We all have those qualities – even if they are just hibernating as potentials now, waiting for our enthusiasm and attention to come more fully to life.
Thinking about those inner riches, identifying them specifically and confidently, you will see how they can come to life in your life: where more sustained patience is needed, for example; or courage to make a needed change; or more delight and appreciation for what you already have and are already doing; or a greater willingness to encourage others or support them; or sufficient good humour to get over that tedious and limiting need always to be right; or the willingness to take the first vital steps towards forgiveness of an old failing.
Keep the list brief of the qualities you most want to develop. Relate them to your own challenges and circumstances. (What you may need at 20 could be very different if you are now 40, 60 or 80.) Keep them personal. And make them familiar. In a difficult moment, you can focus on them instantly. “Ah yes, a little forgiveness… a lot of tolerance…a willingness to pause… That’s what’s needed. That’s what will support me here.”
This capacity to monitor our responses and to choose consciously is at the heart of genuine self-empowerment. It’s why I chose to call my book on emotional wellbeing CHOOSING Happiness and not just Happiness.
And that’s what NY resolutions are all about: waking up our capacity to choose; recognizing that we can choose – even though it is not always easy. Recognizing, too, that we can choose wisely. And that when we don’t choose wisely, we can pick ourselves up and start again: “Fall down seven times; rise up eight.”
Making choices and creating resolutions that benefit others as well as ourselves has to be high on our lists.
It’s imagination that will let us see clearly what we most want and how to translate it into action. Empathy is just as important if we are to see what will support, nourish and enhance the lives of the people around us. (And ourselves, directly as well as indirectly.)
Any behaviours or attitudes that you fear or dislike? You are safe to assume others feel much the same. Any behaviours that lift your spirits, make you feel understood, appreciated, respected, valued? You are safe to assume that others feel much the same.
More of this; far less of that: that’s also the stuff of effective, life-enhancing resolutions!
And what about work – where so many of us spend so much of our time?
There will be resolutions that you will want to make that are specific to your social roles, including work. To a great extent, these are relationship issues also. What is your relationship to work itself? Is this harmonious or enhancing? What needs changing? What can you change quickly and effectively – if change is needed? What would you most like to be different? Don’t worry about finding “answers” immediately. Write down the questions. Let “answers” or insights emerge.
Do you know how other people experience you at work? Do you take your “best” self to work? Do you bring home your most exhausted, depleted self? How do you regard and treat people with a great deal of external power? Or none? What beliefs and attitudes determine your choices? Again: do these choices reflect your highest values? Do they enhance your sense of self, bring you closer to other people: closer to the vision you have of how you want to live?
The way we work also matters when it comes to living wisely and well. Many of us have “to do” lists that could not be finished in several lifetimes. Or we have “to do” lists that breed in the night so that for every task we complete several more appear.
Is it worth considering how you divide your attention; how you give yourself to tasks (cheerfully or resentfully?); how or whether you focus and concentrate; whether your days are impossibly fractured as well as long; what the “tone” is of your inner monologue or self-talk?
Choice matters here, too. And so does attitude. The way we do something is utterly determined by how we are describing it to ourselves.
Questioning our self-talk is essential. Speaking to ourselves positively and encouragingly is essential. And it can certainly be learned. And so can the small practical skills that shape our days.
Focusing vastly increases efficiency. This may mean – as a small example – clearing emails first and last thing but turning off your email program in between so you can’t be seduced by your own curiosity when your email programme signals, “You have mail”. It may mean thinking more strategically about how you organize tasks so that you are not simply responding, but taking charge – even of the smallest details.
Take an inner step backwards to look at the big picture also. We often put off what causes us anxiety or stress. Yet postponement and prevarication are themselves stressful.
What would it mean to you to think more strategically as well as more creatively?
What would it mean to you to ask for help? Or to locate where help might be available?
Asking for help, giving it, receiving it: these are social moments that radically influence the tenor of our days. We are social beings. We can’t do “everything” ourselves; no one can. People who are difficult to help or support may feel just as powerless as those who are interminably needy.
Identifying what you can do smoothly; identifying where help is needed and from what source; allowing yourself to get on with it rather than running a self-defeating commentary:such small common-sense changes can defuse anxiety and increase efficiency. They also make you feel far better about yourself. They shift your relationship to time. They support wellbeing. They make life far more pleasant for the people around you.
Identifying the beginning and end of tasks is also crucial for wellbeing – and so easily overlooked! Don’t let them all drift into a single stream. Notice all and every completion, however small.
Again, this will shift and enhance your relationships. It will free you up to appreciate more generously what others do; to refrain from unhelpful criticism; to give up the delusion that everything should be done in a particular way (your way!). These changes reap glorious benefits.
Books, the internet, retreats and workshops and especially the direct sharing of experiences through honest conversations: these all allow us to benefit from other people’s experiences as well as our own. They support us to grow in insight, effectiveness and joy. But however brilliant or wise, our insights must be translated into specific actions to make them meaningful.
Live as a source of joy! Be better company for other people. You will also be far better company for yourself.
And whatever brings greater joy, contentment, peace, pleasure – bring those resolutions to the top of your list. I wrote extensively in Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love about how it took having breast cancer for me to make the time to sing in one of Tony Backhouse’s glorious gospel choirs. I had always wanted to sing in a choir. A frantically busy parent, therapist and writer, I hadn’t allowed myself time for it until I was forced to reconsider time itself.
What are you reading and thinking about most? What poetry or songs are you taking to heart, learning by heart, speaking or singing out loud? As you tidy your house or drive to work, what are you listening to? Where in your home, however small, is something that will draw the eye and bring a sensation of peace as well as beauty? When are the moments of silence, or of steady listening? When are the moments of deep looking, without which appreciation and presence are not possible?
Those are questions that can shape some of our simplest, yet most life-enhancing resolutions. And finally:
Let your life and your choices clearly show what your priorities are.
Make most time for what matters most.
Live and love with a sense of abundance and possibility.
Recognize and name your spiritual riches.
Use your spiritual riches – they are utterly independent of outer glory, wealth or success.
Take the risks that will let you grow emotionally.
Dare to grow spiritually.
Live in peace, harmony and appreciation. Let your life matter.