Making the New Year mindful
New Year’s resolutions might give you the chills, but there are lots of other practices and rituals you can use to ensure you step into the new year mindfully and with intention.
It has been said that April is the cruellest month. However, with all due respect to T. S. Eliot, I would suggest that January is the hottest contender for the title of Bleakest Month of the Year. Where I live, it’s the coldest time of year with some of the longest nights. Even for people in the southern hemisphere, it has to be rough. The festivities are over, and the next holiday to look forward to is St Valentine’s Day, and for many that’s the ultimate anti-uplift. Unless you actually have a dinner date with Chris Hemsworth on 14 February, it certainly doesn’t pack enough of a punch to make up for having to take down decorations and sorrowfully finish the last bite of pudding. With that in mind, doesn’t the tradition of making often draconian and self-depriving resolutions at the beginning of this somewhat dreary month seem faintly ridiculous, indeed almost inhuman?
Now, I’m a resolution-maker. I’m a coach, it’s like a professional requirement. However, many people find the whole business stressful and see it as a direct path to disappointment, which is a shame as the turn of the year can be a natural and uplifting cue both to look back and plan forward. So, if you want to use the beginning of a new year to reflect on the one gone by, or to turn a page and enjoy a fresh start without actually making resolutions, here are a few turn-of-the-year rituals I enjoy that you might like to try.
Year-end stock take
In the no-man’s land between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, I like to sit down and write a list of my achievements over the past year. Reminiscing over the high points of the year is a real mood boost. It might be a little harder than usual this year, but that’s all the more reason to spend time actively seeking out the good. Remember to include the little things as well as the big: everything from repainting a wall to redecorating the whole house, reading some good books to teaching your child to read, doing some yoga online to running 10K. Simply keeping up with mortgage payments and doing your job. It all counts. What did you achieve this year?
Look for learning
Another uplifting ritual is to take a moment to think back over the year and list the things you have learnt. It might be something about what makes you tick or what you need to be happy. Or a new life skill, like sewing. Or maybe you’ve read the newspapers more this year and finally have a good grasp of your county’s political machinations. What did you learn this year?
Visualise the year ahead
Now, shifting your mental gaze to the year to come, close your eyes and imagine the year. I see it as a giant planner with gold stars on the big dates like birthdays and anniversaries. Now imagine yourself entering the year. What does it feel like? What colour and flavour does it have? This simple exercise helps me feel like I’m going into the new year more mindfully. I’m stepping into it, paying attention – not just being swept along by the inexorable march of time. What do you envisage for the next 12 months?
Set your intention
Rather than setting a resolution to give something up or change something you do, try setting an intention for your being in the coming year. Complete the sentence: “Next year, I will be…”. Healthy. Patient. Kinder. Calmer. More grateful. Think of your intention as an over-arching theme for the year that will drive all your decisions. Only once you’re decided how you want to be (and therefore feel) can you align your actions and decide what you want to do. How do you want to be this year?
List positive goals
Another great alternative to negatively-worded resolutions (I will eat less chocolate. I will not smoke. I will stop shouting at the kids.), is creating a list of positive goals. I will eat one bar of chocolate per week. In January, I will only smoke on weekdays (And in February, I will only smoke four days a week, etc.). It has often been said that our subconscious mind cannot process negatives. I say “don’t think of an elephant” – what’s the first thing you think of? I say “drink no wine” and I find myself reaching for the corkscrew. Whether you believe that not, it is true that positive statements of intent are more motivating than negative ones. So express what you want, not what you don’t want. What do you want to do this year?
Make a plan
A goal without a plan is just an idea. Once you’ve set your intention, written down your goals, or done whatever you need to do to step into the new year mindfully, ask yourself: what do I need to do to ensure that in 365 days’ time, this is a reality? Write down every tiny step you need to take to get there: from asking your partner to watch the kids next Saturday while you buy running shoes to making a doctor’s appointment for a pre-training medical. Now, read the first task on the list and Do. It. Now. Maybe your goal is to learn a foreign language. Or perhaps you want to write a book. Or find a new job. The second you finish downloading that vocab-builder app, digging out your old laptop, or asking your best friend to help you re-do your CV, you’ve already taken the first step to achieving your goal! How are you going to make it happen this year?
I have long been intrigued by French words for which no satisfactory translation can be found in English. For example, profiter: enjoy, make the most of it, take advantage – none of them really conveys the full meaning of the verb for me. Gourmand: someone who likes food and eating – somewhat reductive, n’est-ce pas?
My favourite has to be La Rentrée: The Return. In the UK, we simply refer to “when the schools go back”; in France they make it sound like a long-awaited feature film, probably involving Matt Damon or Brad Pitt, definitely requiring capitalisation. Because here in France it is indeed a big deal. While it originates in the notion of la rentrée des classes – the children returning to school after the summer holidays – la rentrée touches on every part of society simply because that long summer vacation is still a reality for a large proportion of the country.
As someone whose favourite things include learning, the autumn and all things papeterie, embracing the concept of the rentrée is a no-brainer for me. It’s a great excuse to sign up for a class, wear autumnal-coloured scarves, and buy new notebooks. As a coach, I love the rentrée because it is a great time to hit “reset”, take stock, and embark upon new ventures.
A new beginning
Traditionally, we make resolutions in January – in the middle of winter when the days are short and we’re exhausted from the Christmas madness. Choosing to make September the start of your personal development year makes sense: we are usually rested after some kind of break (even if it’s just a calmer period at work), and we’ve been eating more fruit and vegetables over the summer and getting more fresh air and sunshine, so we’re physically on better form. There’s a natural energy to the start of the new school year, even for those who don’t have children, and a number of fun holidays throughout the autumn help keep spirits up as the nights grow longer, all of which makes it more likely we’ll stick to our decisions.
So, as you sharpen pencils, shine shoes, shop for cartables and sew name tags into vests, why not take a moment to think about what you want out of the coming “year”? Here are four ways to step into the rentrée consciously, putting your best foot forward.
Set an intention
Setting an intention for the coming year is a great way to have a blanket impact on your life. Take a moment to visualise a day in your life as the school year starts: picture school, work, childcare, hobbies, sports, family time, friends, home projects… Now ask yourself what feeling you wish to create as you move through that day. Don’t think about what you want to do, but about how you want to be, what you want to feel. It could be a word (light, spontaneous, peace, enjoy, curious) or an image (I want to be like the tree in the wind that bends so that it never breaks). You could use a smell, a song or a taste – so long as you can summon it to mind (or nose, or ear, or mouth), it will be a useful tool to being you back to your intention whenever you need to re-focus.
Set a goal
In contrast to an intention, setting a goal is usually something you want to do. We set objectives all the time, but often forget Doran’s famous SMART rules of goalsetting, so crucial to success.
S: keep the goal Specific. “I will lose 4 kilos” is better than “I’ll get my weight down a bit”.
M: make sure it’s Measurable. “I will work on two pages of my French grammar book every Monday” is better than “I’ll do a bit every evening”.
A: the job should be Assignable. Very useful if you’re doing family goals: a chart of who will tackle which bit of the garden is better than a vague “We’ll all pitch in”.
R: it needs to be Realistic. I know I can’t jog every morning, but I could manage once a week. Better a less ambitious goal that you actually achieve than a wildly over-estimated one you abandon after a week.
T: goals should be Time-related. Say when you’ll see results. I like to use Christmas as a deadline when setting goals in September as there’s a natural cycle to it and it means I can then set my next objectives in January with Easter/spring as my deadline.
Set a rule
A friend of mine has a plaque in her kitchen that reads “Thou shalt not whine”. It’s like her rule of thumb for life. In any situation, when unsure of her behaviour, words, or reactions, she can check in with herself and ask “Am I being whiney in any way here?”, and if she is, she knows she’s breaking her own rule. Setting a rule for yourself (for life, for this month, for just today) is a slightly bossier way of setting an intention. It gives you a touchstone when struggling to be your best self. This strategy really speaks to most clients. Great examples I’ve seen work include: “don’t be that guy”; “always delay any purchase by 24 hours”; “say yes to all new experiences” and “pull your weight”.
Set a mantra
A personal mantra can be anything from a quotation, to a piece of poetry, scripture, a song lyric or simply some wise words from a trusted friend. Its purpose is to re-centre you on what’s important on the day when work has never been busier, the childminder’s sick, your partner’s away on business, two out of three children have the dreaded gastro, and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that says you will soon have it too. This too shall pass. The only way out is through. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even deep, but it has to be something that chimes with you.
If you’re reading Message magazine, the chances are that you, like me, are a courageous ex-pat bringing up children in a foreign land, maybe with a foreign partner, almost certainly negotiating a foreign language, so I offer you one of my own favourite mantras. It comes at the end of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” and always perks me up when I’m questioning my choices:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.