Almost every morning, when I wake my son up for school, he asks whether we have time to play – just the two of us – for a while before his father and sister get up. Since, like most families, our weekday mornings are timed more precisely than an Ocean’s 11-style heist, most of the time I have to say no. Recently, however, we both woke up early and found ourselves enjoying each other’s company while doing a puzzle for a full hour before the alarm went off. As I searched for corners and edge pieces, it occurred to me to point out to my son that he actually had what he kept asking for: pre-breakfast play time alone with Mummy. His reply? A nonchalant shrug and a cry of “Look, I found the fourth corner!” Argh!
Do you stop and smell the roses?
Perhaps we can forgive my son his lack of appreciation. He’s only five, after all. Children are so good at being happily “in the moment” that they don’t need to be told to stop and smell the roses. But what about us? What about you? How often do you take a moment to stop, look around, and take in the fact that (excuse the meme-worthy quotable): much of the stuff you have right now is what you once longed for?
For some reason, most of us are far better at seeing the part of the mountain we have yet to climb than the long path we have already travelled. We spend time setting goals, making resolutions, and thinking about what we want. We create vision boards, set intentions for the year, or make lists of milestones we want to hit before we’re 30/40/50… However, we rarely pause to celebrate the objectives we have reached, or the changes we have successfully implemented. Ask yourself this, for example: before you made your 2024 New Year’s resolutions, did you take a moment to consider the successes of 2023?
The hedonic treadmill of life
The hedonic treadmill is psychologists’ expression for an observed tendency in humans to return to our happiness set point after the initial impact of positive or negative life events has worn off. Our tendency to get what we want and then instantly start thinking about the next thing we want is a mechanism akin to hedonic adaptation; its naughty little cousin, perhaps. It keeps us constantly reaching only to find that once we have the desired thing in our grasp, we are reaching for something else. We strive, we achieve, then start striving again. There’s nothing wrong with a commitment to self-improvement, and it’s no bad thing to have direction and purpose in life. But if you never let yourself enjoy a long, hot soak in the feeling of “I did it, I made it”, what’s the point?
Enjoying the pause
So how can you jump off the treadmill? How can you insert a pause between “that’s done” and “what’s next”? What tools and techniques can you use to ensure that you don’t just get what you want in life but that you remember to enjoy it?
1. Decide what a tick-mark looks like
When setting a goal, make sure you have a very clear idea of what achieving that goal looks like, and what has to happen for you mentally to tick it off your list. This is especially important with hard-to-quantify goals. I want to feel fitter: I’ll know I’m there when I run up the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment without getting out of breath. I want to take a trip to New York. I’ll revel in achievement when I’m eating a doughnut while window-shopping at Tiffany’s. Give yourself a specific moment and decide ahead of time: that’s when I’ll stop and say “I did it”.
2. Notice and congratulate
When you’ve done what you set out to do, take the time to pause and congratulate yourself. You don’t need a gold star from anyone else if you give yourself a pat on the back and find a way to celebrate your achievement.
Tell some close and trusted friends what you’ve done. It feels good to share your achievement, but only with people who will relish and magnify your joy.
4. Create an achievement board
The bookend to your yearly vision board is, of course, an achievement board. As you reach milestones and make progress, place images of the goals you’ve reached on a board that reminds you of all you’ve done and encourages your belief in your abilities.
5. Review the year
Each December, I like to take a moment to list all the good things I did or that happened in my life over the last twelve months. I do this before turning my thoughts to what I want to achieve next. In 2023, I took myself for hot chocolate and cake at my favourite Parisian café and spent a delicious moment remembering things like family holidays, new client wins, fun activities with the children, promises kept, friends I prioritised, great books I read… For my list, no achievement or progress point is too small.
While these are all powerful techniques for your personal life, they are also applicable in professional situations. Managers can use them with direct reports individually or with their team as a whole to create cohesion, foster a sense of pride, and encourage employee engagement. That might mean ensuring that when objectives are set in annual appraisals, both manager and employee have a clear and specific agreement about what a tick-mark looks like for each task. A junior employee aims to be more autonomous; a tick mark might come when she takes end-to-end responsibility for a project. A sale manager aims to get better at anticipating support requirements for trade fairs; a tick mark might come when communications materials are ready on or ahead of time for six straight months.
Managers can make a point of noticing and congratulating an employee or the whole team for one thing at the start of every team meeting. They could point out an improved sales figure, a conflict resolved, a great job on a PowerPoint, or the fact that everyone pitched in when the team assistant was ill last week. To go a step further, managers might choose to share a team success (and perhaps a best practice) during a meeting with other division heads. They might drop HR an email to highlight an individual’s achievement, or look for an opportunity to feature the team in the company internal newsletter.
In the workplace, an achievement board might be a white board with a list of examples of team excellence that gets added to throughout the year. Having it visible and on display can be such a boost if motivation flags. Lastly, managers could integrate a review of the year and the things the team did well into an informal Christmas celebratory lunch. Another technique certain clients love is writing down successes on post-its throughout the year and putting them into a large jar. Then, at the end of the year, they open the jar and spend a gleeful moment revisiting all these positive events and victories. Doing that as a group prior to a celebratory lunch can do wonders for team spirit and morale.
However you choose to do it, take time to pause regularly and acknowledge and celebrate how far you’ve come. Doing so before you turn your attention to the path left to travel will boost morale, foster a sense of competency, and – crucially – help you jump off the treadmill that says: strive, achieve, strive more, by inserting a pause between one achievement and the next goal.
Would you like to find the time, energy and space to enjoy your life more? Among all the goal-setting and striving, are you looking for more joy, pleasure and fun? Maybe you would like to learn to be a little less hard on yourself, or find a way to achieve your professional goals while balancing a fulfilling personal life? Work with a dynamic, practical and insightful coach who takes a holistic approach to build a life and career you love, on purpose and with purpose. Contact me to find out more about working together.