New Year resolutions rarely work, so isn’t it time that we ditched them? Here’s why an annual life audit might be a better strategy for change…
There is something about the blank sheet of a new year that’s both exciting and inspiring — yet it can also be a little bit daunting too.
For instance, if you’re like most of us, then you probably want to make the most of the next 12 months. But you also know that New Year resolutions have a habit of being flung out the window by mid-January.
If that’s been your experience then you’re not alone, as research indicates that New Year resolutions rarely work. In fact, a study by the University of Scranton actually found that just 8% of us keep them. But if this is the case, then what is the alternative? Is there a way to set intentions for the coming year that might be a little more effective?
One method is to swap the traditional list of resolutions for an ‘annual life audit’. In essence, this just means taking the time to reflect more deeply on your feelings about the past year, your current state of wellbeing and your future dreams. What’s more, this process can reveal hidden desires and wishes that might surprise you.
With this in mind, here are five elements that you might want to include in an annual life audit:
Before you even think about making any changes in the new year, it’s important to pause and give yourself credit for the progress you’ve already made. Not only will this boost your self-esteem, but it will also help you feel more confident about what you can achieve in the future. Because sometimes, we are so busy moving towards a goal — and feeling disheartened at how far away it seems — that we forget to look back and see how far we’ve already come.
So start by making a list of your achievements over the past 12 months. Make sure to include different categories, such as work, creativity, health, relationships, money, home, experiences, hobbies, learning, personal development and contributions. Bear in mind that the objective isn’t to write a big long list beneath each category — instead, it’s to get you thinking about the achievements and accomplishments that we can overlook.
Faced and made it through a difficult situation? Put it on the list. Got better at setting boundaries with your pushy boss? Add that too. Started meditating for 10 minutes each day? Include that as well.
And if you made a new friend, tried a new activity, took an online course, did some volunteering or adopted a pet, those are things to be proud of too. Not all achievements have to be about getting a big promotion, buying your dream home or increasing your earnings – they can be as simple as planting a tree, knitting a jumper or supporting a family member through a hard time. All of these things matter, so take the time to acknowledge each victory, both big and small.
Next, you might want to think about what this past year has taught you. If you are not sure what lessons you have learned, then think of situations that didn’t go as you hoped, mistakes that you made or challenges you survived. And don’t forget to include happy and fulfilling experiences as well, for they can also be important teachers.
Now take some time to think about what each of these things mean to you — what lesson can you take from them? And how can you carry these lessons forward into the next twelve months? For instance, what new perspectives have you gained or what positive changes can you make?
If you are not quite sure what you learned, then a research project known as The Lessons of Experience might offer some clues. This massive study into adversity took place over 40 years and found that there were four key lessons people take from difficult experiences. These were:
Perhaps some of the above are lessons that you’ve learned without even realising it?
Overall, by taking a more reflective view of challenging experiences, we can find it easier to process our emotions around them and build resilience. This can allow us to move on from anger, shame and regret into greater wisdom and acceptance.
When we approach a whole new year, we can often fantasise about the experiences that we want to have and the dreams we want to be fulfilled. Yet sometimes, to make room for these things, you have to let go of other things that are no longer serving you. So ask yourself — what would you like to let go of right now? What have you outgrown? What do you want to move away from?
Admittedly, it can sometimes be tricky to identify what those things are, as we all have our blindspots. So ask yourself — what are you doing that causes problems in your life? What time and energy drains are taking you away from what you’d rather be doing? What is holding you back, impacting on your health or negatively affecting your relationships? What is stopping you from living the life that you want to live and fulfilling your full potential?
For instance, maybe there is a current relationship that is no longer healthy for you, or a past relationship that you are struggling to move on from. Perhaps you have goals that no longer feel relevant or motivating, or unhelpful habits and addictions that you want to break.
Letting go can also include physical belongings, for instance, are you holding onto clutter that you no longer need or want? Or maybe it’s time to say goodbye to a particular lifestyle, for instance, shifting from working in an office to working from home? Or perhaps you want to let go of your current line of work altogether and try out a different career?
Maybe the thing that you need to release is negative self-talk from your inner critic, for instance, thoughts of being ‘inadequate’ or a ‘failure’. Or maybe you need to let go of draining dynamics with others, such as always being in the ‘fixer’ or ‘rescuer’ role?
Of course, letting go of major aspects of our lives can be daunting and take a lot of work. Some you may be able to do yourself, for some it may help to talk to a good therapist who can support you in navigating any changes you wish to make.
Once you have looked at your achievements, the lessons you have learned and the things that you want to let go of, your next step could be deciding what you want to move towards. Reviewing a few key areas of your life and identifying your core values can give you a better sense of focus, direction and clarity.
According to Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, defining your values is really important to your overall happiness, wellbeing and personal growth. This is because, if you organise your life around a set of core values (rather than around the avoidance of pain), you will find a much deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
Maybe you’re not quite sure what your values are? So start by asking yourself a few key questions, including:
— ‘What’s important to me?’
— ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’
— ‘What strengths and qualities do I want to cultivate?’
— ‘How do I want to be in my relationships?'
— ‘What direction do I want my life to go in?’
— ‘What do I want more of?’
— ‘What do I want less of?’
— ‘What is no longer working for me?’
Of course, these can feel like daunting questions to ask about your life. That is why the ACT approach suggests that you reflect upon 10 key ‘life domains’ and what’s meaningful to you, as well as your aspirations within each:
Once you have explored these 10 life domains, what matters to you within them and how much you’re currently living by these values, cross off the areas one by one that are least important to you until you are left with the three that are most important to you — the values you want to keep in mind and use to guide your decisions in these areas for the coming year. You could think about how your values might shape choices relating to your career, living space and relationships, as well as activities and self-care. The key thing about choosing just three is that they will be easier to keep in mind and track. For instance, you could place a list of them in a prominent place, or turn them into a moodboard.
In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, particularly when life is challenging, it can be easy to lose track of what matters to us and what contributes to us living a fulfilled and authentic life. But defining our core values can be an anchor and an antidote, reminding us of who we are, what matters to us and where we want to go next.
And once you have decided on your values for the year ahead, you can then take your final step — deciding on your goals, the specific ways in which you want to move towards your values.
Hopefully, by reflecting on all of the above, you will have a better sense of what you want from the coming 12 months. However, try to avoid the trap of setting New Year resolutions and set key goals instead.
But what’s the difference? In general, resolutions tend to be unspecific and unstructured, such as ‘I’m going to get fit’. Great, but what does ‘get fit’ mean to you? Is it something you want to do or feel you ‘should’ do? How do you plan to do that, step by step? And how will you know when you have achieved it? This can make resolutions feel unattainable and difficult to stick at.
Because of the potential vagueness of resolutions, it’s no wonder so many of us ‘break’ them before January is over (then feel guilty and disheartened as a result). In contrast, a properly defined goal will provide you with a specific direction to follow in order to achieve it.
This is why the most powerful goals tend to follow the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and within a Time Frame). For instance, ‘I want to be able to run for an hour a day by the end of the year. I plan to do this by starting with 10-minutes a day, then gradually building my time up month by month. I’m doing this because I value taking better care of my body and improving my physical health.’
By using the SMART process you will have a clear objective, a plan for how to get there and a way of knowing when you have achieved it. You could also break your goals into monthly or quarterly chunks, so that you can enjoy the boost of incremental victories along the way.
And don’t forget to make sure that your goals align with your values and what’s important to you. If you can align each goal with a particular value then this will give it a deeper and more personal meaning, motivating you to commit to taking action and to stick to it when life threatens to get in the way.
Of course, the transition from one year to the next is never a completely ‘fresh start’ for any of us. Most of us carry over baggage and commitments from the previous 12 months that don’t magically vanish the moment the bells chime at midnight.
But by taking the time to do an annual life audit, reflecting on what matters to you and setting smarter, more value-driven goals, you can use this coming year as an opportunity to grow as never before.
Ready to make some positive changes this year? Therapy can help. Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with an MTA psychotherapist or psychologist today.
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