Turning Over a New Leaf in the New Year

It’s that time of year again!

The time when people start to talk about their New Year’s resolutions.

The beginning of a new year is a great opportunity to reflect back on the year we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished and learned, and what our priorities and goals are for the year ahead.

At the same time, many of us go about setting these goals and priorities in way that feels harsh and critical — and also tends to set us up for failure.

So what can we do to start off this new year on the right track?

Forget New Year’s Resolutions

Yep, you read that right.

I want you to forget about making New Year’s resolutions. Instead, let’s focus on setting our intentions and building new habits.

Why the distinction? It may just sound like semantics, but often when we think in terms of “New Year’s resolutions,” we tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. And thinking in all-or-nothing terms does not set us up for success.

We either “stick to” our resolutions, or we don’t. When we get off track, we say we’ve “broken” our resolution. We say we’ve been “bad” or we’ve “failed.” And so most of us give up.

Thinking instead about setting our intentions or working toward building new habits encourages us to think more flexibly and to focus on the process rather than just the outcome — setting us up not only for greater success, but also for a more self-compassionate (and less self-critical) ride.

Taking Stock

Before you think too much about what you want to accomplish in the year ahead, take some time to look back at the one you’ve just had.

What were your goals for this past year? Have you made some progress toward them? If so, wonderful! Allow yourself to take pleasure and pride in your accomplishments!

If not, what do you think got in the way? What can you learn from these experiences for the year ahead? (It’s not a “failure” if you can learn some lesson from your experience!)

Don’t limit yourself to thinking about what your goals were. Consider also the things that you’ve learned, things that you think you’ve done well, challenges you overcame, or things that you are grateful for from the past year.

Looking Ahead

Now that you’ve had a chance to take stock of the previous year, it’s time to look ahead.

What do you hope to work on in the year to come? Do you want to get more organized? Improve your relationship with someone? Work toward a professional goal? Focus more on self-care and your health (mental and physical)?

Or maybe you have a special project you’ve been putting off? A book you’ve been wanting to write? A business you’ve been wanting to start? An art project that’s been burning inside of you for a while, but that you haven’t found the time to realize? Now could be the time!

Some great goals for expats and others living abroad could also include:

• learning the local language or improving your language skills so you can feel more independent and integrated into your community,
• pushing yourself to make new friends (both fellow expats and locals!),
• keeping in closer contact with friends and family back home,
• learning something new, volunteering, or developing a new professional project, or
• making a point to regularly explore your host city or country to fully take advantage of your experience abroad.

Whatever your goals might be for the coming year, take some time to write them down. If you have a lot of goals, no problem, but try to prioritize a few that you want to focus on first.

Setting the Process in Motion

Now that you have some priorities in mind, here are some tips for setting the process in motion and moving steadily toward your goals in the coming year:

1. Think in terms of making a “shift” — rather than making a “change.”

The words we use when we talk to ourselves in our own heads are important. They impact how we feel, how motivated we are to move toward our goals, how easily discouraged we might become.

When we think in terms of making a “change,” that can feel intimidating. It can feel like a steep hill to climb.

A “shift,” on the other hand, often feels more manageable. It gives us permission to start small and allows for a more gradual process to unfold.

Thinking in terms of shifts can allow us to take even small steps now that will lead to big changes further on down the road.

Imagine you’re on a little boat heading across a big lake.

Even a tiny shift in the direction your boat is headed now is going to make a big difference in where you end up over time. It may not seem huge initially, but keep sailing along long enough, and you’ll arrive at a very different place than if you hadn’t tilted your rudder just ever-so-slightly.

The key here is to be kind to yourself and nudge (not shove) yourself in the right direction. You’ll get there — one step at a time (and, yes, I’m mixing my metaphors…).

2. Focus on building the habits that will lead you to your desired outcome.

It’s important to know where you want to get, but setting your goal isn’t enough. The secret behind setting goals that you can achieve (or — if you like — resolutions you can “keep”) is building the habits that will start to make your goal a way of life.

Building habits takes time and (at least initially) effort, but that’s how you make it sustainable.

Over time, your new habit will become automatic, and you won’t have to work so hard at it. But at first, it’s going to feel effortful. (If you wait for it to feel easy, you’ll never get started.)

Research has shown that, on average, it takes about 30 days to build a new habit. The first week may be really difficult. You may have to push yourself a bit. The second one will probably be a little easier. The third one easier yet. But if you make it all the way through the month, your new habit will be almost second nature!

So focus on the small habits you can build into each day that will lead you in the direction of your goals.

3. Chose a “word of the year” to inspire you.

If setting specific goals doesn’t appeal to you (or tends to set you up for guilt and self-criticism), consider choosing a word of the year to inspire you instead.

Choose a word — or several — that will motivate and empower you.

Some ideas to get you started include: Brave, Authentic, Trust, Vitality, Confidence, Listen, Gratitude, Present, Learn, Balance, Love, Adventure, or Simplify.

There are no right or wrong answers here, so be creative!

Once you’ve chosen a word, write it down or find a picture that evokes this work for you and keep it in a prominent place as a reminder. Consider putting it on a post-it note by your computer or on your bathroom mirror (or make it your phone’s wallpaper) so you see it frequently and feel inspired.

4. Focus on personal development & self-care (rather than self-control).

Setting our intention toward personal development or how we want to take care of ourselves puts us in a different mindset than giving ourself a set of strict rules for self-control or discipline.

Imagine setting the intention to lose weight (the most common New Year’s resolution).

red leaves childNow imagine one scenario where you try to accomplish that goal by giving yourself strict rules about how often you need to go to the gym and the kinds of foods you’re allowed or not allowed to eat.

Then imagine scenario 2, where you focus on wanting to feel healthy and full of energy. You seek out physical activities that are fun and help you feel strong and vibrant. You focus on eating foods that nourish your body and help it work at its best.

Which scenario do you think is going to feel better? Which one do you think is more likely to succeed — and be sustainable? Scenario 2, right?

If your goal involves something that feels like it requires self-control or self-discipline, see if you can reframe it as something you are doing to lovingly take care of your future self.

Even if it feels like no fun right now to go to bed earlier or choose healthier foods or get organized, it’s something you’re doing to take care of yourself in the future, setting yourself up to feel better, healthier, more organized, less stressed tomorrow, next week, or next month. (For Seinfeld fans, remember that “Night Guy” can make the choice to take care or “Morning Guy.”)

5. If you get off track, use it as an opportunity to learn (rather than being self-critical or getting discouraged).

We all get off track from time to time. When we do, we have a couple of options: (1) berate or guilt ourselves into getting back on track, (2) give up altogether, or (3) learn from the experience and reset our intentions.

Which option do you think will be most effective in the long run? Yep, #3.

Try to understand what it is that got in the way of your staying focused on your intentions. Try to replace any self-criticism with curiosity.

Perhaps you’ve been stretched too thin, distracted by other priorities, too tired, or simply unfocused. Perhaps you forgot (which is why the post-it might come in handy!). Maybe you’ve been struggling to have confidence in yourself. Or maybe you chose an intention that doesn’t really feel authentic to you.

Whatever the issue, it’s not a reason to criticize yourself — it’s just a problem to solve.

Consider some ways you can address the barriers so you’re more likely to stay on track in the future. (And keep in mind that this type of learning is part of the process — so give yourself some credit for learning from your experiences.)

6. Appreciate & celebrate your progress!

Remember, we’re all works in progress.

Try not to get too hung up on your end goal (even as you keep it in mind as inspiration).

Be sure to recognize and appreciate even the small steps you’ve already taken and the positive impact they’re already having in your life. Celebrate your successes!

Yes, there may still be a way to go, but if you give yourself credit for how far you’ve already come, it will be easier to keep moving forward in the direction of your goals.

Your Turn!

What shifts do you want to make in 2017?

How do you think you can set your intention to gently nudge yourself in the right direction?

What word or phrase might inspire you in your own journey this year?


p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post! However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.

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