by Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC
The New Year is a time of natural reflection and goal setting. Frequently, people seek to begin therapy around the New Year because they are motivated to improve their lives, or because the holidays just wrapped up and family members have encouraged them to make changes. While we do not need a new year or even a new Monday to work toward improvement, the new year is a significant milestone that inspires many people to reflect on things they want to do better. We are so busy most of the time with overfilled schedules and distractions like our phones that we forget how incredibly necessary it is to practice basic reflection. The New Year is a wonderful time to get started.
A crucial step in improving your life is simply to reflect on the past. I encourage people to do more than simply ‘think’ about the past year, because your brain will selectively remember certain things and forget others. Intentional reflecting involves getting out your planner/calendar, pictures, emails, whatever keepsakes you have from the past year, and really taking the time to purposefully investigate the past year:
- What were the best times?
- What were the worst times?
- What were some healthy habits?
- What were unhealthy habits?
- What did you add to your life this past year?
- What did you subtract from your life?
- Were there any themes or patterns in the last year?
- Are you satisfied with the choices that you made?
- What was most challenging thing you faced?
- Where did you spend the most time?
- What was your mind most focused on?
We cannot learn from the past without taking the time to fully explore and understand it.
Once you have adequately reflected upon the past year, take some time to consider what you would like the next year to look like for you. Look forward and remember that you have the opportunity to create the next year of your life. The thought that we can create our lives is incredibly empowering. We often have more control than we perceive having. If you could design the next year of your life:
- What would it look like?
- Where would you go?
- What would you do?
- What do you want to accomplish?
You can ask yourself similar questions as you did in the reflection phase, such as:
- What would you like to add to your life this year?
- What would you like to subtract this year?
- What are healthy habits that you would like to start or continue?
- What are some habits that you would like to eliminate or decrease?
During both reflection and looking ahead, it is important to consider all areas of your life. These areas can include, but are not limited to: physical, psychological/emotional, spiritual, occupational/professional, social, and financial. Make sure to reflect on each of those areas, and look ahead in each of those areas to make sure that your life is designed to meet your own needs.
Once you have reflected on the past year and looked ahead to the next one by intentionally exploring and asking yourself hard questions in all areas, it’s time to make a plan. The saying “fail to plan, plan to fail” is very true, which is why we need to move from thinking to planning. Based on what you discovered when you spent time reflecting and looking ahead, what habits and practices do you want to put into action? There could be a wide range of options, with the most stereotypical being: I want to be healthier, I want to be smarter with my money, I want to be happier, I want to get a job. While those plans are great, they are not enough. In order to be successful in achieving your goals, you need SMART goals.
SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Limited.
If we take the first goal of “I want to be healthier,” people tend to say things like “I want to eat better, and be more active.” But this is neither specific nor measurable. A SMART goal for being healthier would look like: “I am going to cook dinner at home 3 times per week in January,” or “From now until spring break, I am going to go to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work and do 30 minutes of cardio.” Creating SMART goals sets you up for success, while vague goals set you up for failure.
Another example of a SMART goal, using the example “I want to get a job,” would be: “I will submit 3 applications each week by Sunday night, until I obtain a job.” One is a vague idea, and one is an achievable plan.
Maybe you don’t know where to start, or you are reluctant to commit to something. Setting goals can sometimes be an overwhelming experience, especially if you are unhappy with your life, or you have tried several times and have been unsuccessful so far. If that is where you are, it can be helpful to approach these goals as an experiment of sorts. An experiment tends to decrease the pressure and permanency of committing to something. Experiments can help you figure out where to make positive changes in your life, and can also jumpstart you towards your goals.
Tell yourself that you’re going to see what it is like to give up TV for a week, that you are going to see what it is like to take your lunch to work for a week, that you are going to do yoga once a week for a month and decide if you like it, etc. Doing these “experiments” can help you take a step in the right direction if you are unsure of your goals or not ready to commit to making long term changes.
The New Year is a great opportunity to work toward creating a life you love! And of course, I recommend seeing a therapist who can help you reflect, look ahead, and assist you in developing a plan so that you can be the best version of yourself!
By: Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC
Licensed Professional Counselor – Wake Forest