Taking the guilt out of New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on the good stuff

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I recently found myself lying on a couch in the middle of a university foyer. I was wearing my fanciest suit (OK, my only suit) but looking decidedly worse for wear.

I’d just finished doing a Big Important Thing: a fancy keynote talk for some of the most influential leaders in my industry.

So of course I’d been preparing for weeks, rehearsing in my head, accounting for every little detail.

The talk went well. But a good friend of mine was in the audience, and he knew me well enough to know that behind my polished performance something was up.

As I lay on that couch, he looked at me with gentle concern and said simply, “You look tired mate”.

Yep. This year has been HUGE.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m hitting my mid-30s, or something about this decade we live in, but these days life feels more and more hectic.

Or worse, being found out as someone who has to work this hard just to feel like a viable human.

Honor Eastly lays down with a piece of paper over her face saying 'Your artwork is terrible and you are an imbecile'
Image Graham’s partner Honor Eastly doubts her ‘viable human’ status.(Supplied)

Then December hits and the pressure goes up 10 notches.

For much of this year I’ve actually had a pretty good system for keeping my to-do list out of my head and on the page.

But the ‘before Christmas’ crunch has torpedoed by best-laid planners.

Recently I’ve slipped back to my old approach of what I call ‘adrenalin-based planning’. A carefully crafted system of repeatedly snoozed phone alarms and calendar alerts.

Alarm on phone reminds person to meditate
Image Some of Graham’s ‘adrenalin-based planning’.(Supplied)

Now with the year about to close, I can’t help but wonder: how do I stop and carve out a bit of space to breathe out, and get back in touch with those good habits I’ve let slip? To reflect on where I’ve been this year, and where I want to go next?

The problem with New Year’s resolutions

The obvious ritual to engage in here is New Year’s resolutions. But there are two problems with this standard approach.

Whether it’s guilt about the bad habits we’ve had this year and want to change, or guilt about all those optimistic resolutions from last year that we abandoned by February.

In other words, New Year’s resolutions can just double down on the ‘you’re not a viable human’ storyline.

Second, New Year’s resolutions are so focused on ‘doing’: What will I do differently next year?

And at this time of year, when I feel like I’m only just surviving all the ‘doing’ in my life, that’s not particularly enticing. What’s all that hard work adding up to?

And yet here’s the thing. All this frantic ‘doing’ of the past 12 months hasn’t just been to tick off items on a to-do list.

Each one of us has been building towards something with all our hard work, whether it’s growing our careers, or strengthening our family ties and community. (Or desperately trying to do all of the above while feeling we’re failing across the board.)

Sometimes we’re consciously building toward to a goal, and sometimes we’re just blindly following where life’s opportunities take us.

But all that hard work adds up. So when do we step back and take a look at what it’s adding up to? It’s now or never right?

Three questions to ask yourself as the year ends

So, as I take the opportunity to curl up and recover from this big year, I also want to try something new: an alternative to New Year’s resolutions.

Something that isn’t about doing anything differently. Something that helps me focus on the bit that comes before doing, just checking in with how I’m traveling.

I don’t think there’s right way to do this kind of reflection. You might want to lie on a beach with a notepad and pen, or simply chat with friends about where the year has taken you.

Whatever way you approach it, I decided there are three things that were particularly useful to ask myself.

  1. 1.

    What am I grateful for this year?

    Every self-help guru I’ve ever come across seems to circle around this theme, so there’s probably something in it. I’ve found that actively looking for things that have brought me joy (or if it’s been a hard year, perhaps just some degree of comfort) can be a surprisingly heart-warming exercise.

  2. 2.

    What things have brought me the greatest pain this year?

    You often can’t remove these painful things from your life. They may well be there again next year, but that’s not really the point here. I think there’s something in the simple act of naming those painful things. A chance to say, “Oof, look at what I handled this year”.

    A friend of mine says, sometimes you ‘make’ a choice long before you can actually ‘take’ that choice. Maybe you know you hate your job, but you’re not in a position to do anything about it just yet. Or maybe you’ve noticed that your relationship with your mobile is getting a little addictive, but you can’t seem to stop picking the damn thing up.

    Again, I think that’s OK. Maybe right now is not the time for big resolutions. You’ve just spent a year making endless decisions, take a break already!

    And both these first two questions will give you clues for question number three.

  3. 3.

    What do I want more of in my life next year?

    This third and final piece of the end-of-year reflection puzzle can feel like the hardest, because it’s the most reminiscent of those cringe-inducing ‘manifest your dream-life’ techniques (complete with hefty price tag for the accompanying e-course). Even without the hype, asking what you want more of in life can seem so hypothetical, so removed from reality, especially when you’re too tired to do anything about it.

    But again, this end of year reflection isn’t about changing anything just yet. It’s not about ‘how’ you’re going to get where you want to go next year. It’s simply about asking, ‘what’ is it that you think you might want?

And above all it’s a moment to acknowledge yourself for another year of trying your best at this whole ‘life’ thing.

Here’s where I got to

Graham's dog on a bushwalk
Image Graham’s dog is grateful for … walks.(Supplied)

Back to that fancy keynote talk I did.

My mate and I decided to skip the rest of the conference and head down the pub.

There we broke out a sheet of paper and a sharpie and sketched something of a plan for my next year. (In my particularly crispy, burnt-out state, this one doubled as a kind of survival map, to make sure I made it to the next year in one piece. So far, so good.)

After some gentle but firm prodding, here’s a little of what I came up with.

  1. 1.

    What am I grateful for this year?

    Many opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone, with a few years’ hard work seeming to all pay off at once this year.

  2. 2.

    What things have brought me the greatest pain this year?

    Turns out living most of your life outside your comfort zone is a recipe not only for growth, but for massive burn-out. Wait on, achieving your goals doesn’t make you feel any less frantic? Uh-oh.

  3. 3.

    What do I want more of in my life next year?

    I want to feel more comfortable saying ‘no’. ‘No’ to adding another project onto my plate when I’m overloaded. ‘No’ to working weekends and evenings by default. It’s a terrifying word, ‘no’. I wonder if I can get more comfortable with it?

So, how about you?

Graham Panther is a consultant in Australia’s mental health system. He runs The Big Feels Club, a global club for people with “big feelings”. He co-wrote No Feeling Is Final a new memoir podcast from the ABC Audio Studios about mental health, identity, and why we should stay alive.



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