Some people love New Year as a holiday – the party, the food, the games. I have five children 8 years old and under, so my house is always a party with food and games everywhere – a party I get to clean up every night. Add an extra late bedtime and you have a recipe for emotional breakdown – and I’m not talking about the kids.
I’m a much bigger fan of starting a new year. That sense of renewal, of new possibilities, of new adventures. This year, I’ve noticed a lot more online chatter about the uselessness of resolutions or goal-setting. There’s even some compelling research that suggests that New Year’s resolutions typically fizzle out. The trend is away from self-discipline to self-acceptance.
I’m all for learning to love who we are – and we all know we’re often our own biggest critics. But I also think it would be a shame to allow the New Year to roll forward without taking the time to reflect on where we’ve been and intentionally think and plan how the coming year might bring new possibilities. This launch into the New Year is much more than just writing better goals or mustering more personal mastery. It’s about taking the time to get some closure and intentionally set our future trajectory.
Set Aside Time for Reflection
My wife’s family started an interesting tradition just a year after we were married 15 years ago. One of the gifts that we all give one another is a “year history.” Each of us takes the time to write an overview of the past year. Highs and lows. Triumphs and failures. There is always a healthy dose of laughter and tears.
Anyone in the family will tell you that writing the one-page history can be on the agonizing side. We write, and revise, and then write some more and keep making the font smaller. Some histories tell stories, some list activities, and some find broad themes to summarize the year.
It’s a tremendously cathartic experience. Possibly my favorite tradition. In the end, the process lends incredible clarity to my intentions for the new year. Having a deadline and an audience has been surprisingly helpful in pushing me to really invest in my reflective process. But even if you are writing for an audience of one, taking time to reflect and write about the past year is an investment worth making.
We tend to use labels and absolutes when talking about ourselves – I’m a writer, I’m not a math person, I don’t cook. There is a certain sense of finality about how we talk about ourselves. In some cases, this approach to language reinforces what we like about ourselves. It communicates our values and the communities we aspire to be a part of. Often, however, our language closes doors and possibilities for ourselves.
The new year is a great time to play with our sense of identity.
Most people in my job with Santa Ana Unified think I’m a Facebook junkie and a cyclist. A surprising percentage of my conversations at work start with someone asking me, “Did you ride your bike today?”
Truth be told, prior to moving from San Francisco, I was a reluctant social media user, and I had only recently experimented with occasional bike rides for exercise. When I moved here, I decided that I wanted to try out some new “characteristics” that I associated with people I considered to be creative and innovative. I bike to work almost daily. I’m one of the heaviest users and posters to our district Facebook account. Of course I had to move through all of the discomfort of being a novice, but over time I’ve learned a tremendous amount about social media and how to ride a bike to work in Santa Ana without dying.
Perhaps that seems shallow or inauthentic. But for me, my desire to play with new characteristics or identities comes from a genuine curiosity about life and a insatiable desire to learn. Sometimes I joke with my wife that I’d like to move to a horse ranch and become a cowboy. Why not?
Find Your Mantra
There’s a reason Michael Pollan’s book “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not too Much” got so much traction in the wellness and diet world. Simple Green Smoothies? Same thing. These concepts are simple. We can digest them quickly.
I’ve spent a lot of time in university classrooms, and some of the most profound concepts that have stuck with me have been the most simple. I still remember a long conversation about assessment and feedback and how difficult it can be to deliver critical feedback to others. One of my classmates wrote in big letters on the board: “One Big Thing.” The message was that people aren’t able to process that much feedback at once, especially if they perceive the feedback as negative. In essence, you get to address one thing – the most important thing – so make it count. That simple advice has served me incredibly well over the years in my work as an administrator.
Sometimes we need to switch our long lists and comprehensive plans for simple statements of intention. We need a mantra.
At the beginning of each school year, my wife and I sit down to come up with a theme for the school year to continually reinforce with our kids. Instead of outlining a bunch of things we want our kids to do and become, we just choose one. This year is “Allen’s are Courageous.” That statement hangs near our dining table, and it informs lots of conversations throughout the year. It’s a deliberate attempt to create a shared value that we hope then translates into desired changes.
With that said, I have to admit that my mantra for 2017 isn’t nearly as aspirational, although it is remarkably simple. I’m only communicating one goal to people around me – “finish my dissertation.” If I can do that I’ll consider 2017 a success. Wish me luck.