Each year, our planet travels once around the sun. At the tail end of that cycle comes what astronomers term “The Holiday Season”: a time of merriment, consumption and occasional perspective-gathering. As part of this celestial revolution, on the 365th day, many first responders will vow to make personal change in the coming year. And at least as many, it seems, will fail.
This is not to discourage you. Quite the contrary. While reflecting on our past too much can be problematic (e.g., rumination, regret, shame), looking to the future and keying in on effective action, is empowering – life-changing even.
So how do you, a busy first responder, get your New Year’s resolution right this time?
A mindful approach
The term mindfulness as commonly understood comes from a few sources. While many might think of mindfulness emphasizing the “moment” or the “eternal now,” its Buddhist root, sati, means to remember or retain important information. After all, the biggest impediment to realizing in the “moment” is forgetting it exists – because of work shifts, deadlines, desires, laziness, illness and all the other trappings of workaday life.
This is not to say work shifts and deadlines and so forth aren’t real or don’t matter or that thoughts should somehow not arise in our heads. Certainly, these are real and often important things. What a mindfulness practice seeks to impart, however, is an acknowledgement and acceptance of the miracle that quietly underpins it all.
Another word for this is gratitude. Not cheap gratitude (i.e., “Stoked they have lasagna for the lunch special!”), but that thorough gratitude that comes from being truly alive. Mindfulness practice might be considered a reminder of this ever-present wonder.
This is in fact common among faith traditions. We take a moment to pause, amid the hustle and bustle, to remember our unearned gifts. Examples include fasting periods, grace at meals, daily prayers, meditation and so forth. Implicit in each of these acts is self-acceptance. It might sound overly basic but worth keeping in mind: You will be the foundation of your own self-improvement. Not that Navy SEAL from the podcast or that gal at the gym or even some imagined version of yourself as you once might have been – you, as you are now. That’s who’s going to show up every day.
Make a plan
Now that you’re in this rather stable and sober frame of mind, what you see for yourself in the coming year is really up to you.
Think of a New Year’s resolution as two intersecting concepts:
- A reflection upon the year that has been;
- A projection onto the year arriving.
Focus on what matters most to you as you look back. Hopefully, you will notice patterns that may have eluded you in the day-to-day scramble. Contemplation lays the groundwork for a realistic, motivated resolution for the coming year.
The work of year-long self-improvement, on the other hand, will come down to small and regular decisions made day after day, moment by moment. Following are some practical suggestions for success.
- Think small. It’s fine to think big about your future, but it’s critical to tie it all back to action. This isn’t daydreaming; the bigger the ambition, the more detailed the plan must be. Because the smaller the steps, the more likely you will actually take them. Remove any roadblocks to progress. For example, if you want to go to the gym in the morning, have your bag and meal ready to go the night before. Accept now that sustainable progress is slow and steady. Plan ahead and keep it simple.
- Be kind to yourself. Beating up on yourself is sort of the definition of self-defeating. There will be days when you feel distracted or tired or angry. That’s perfectly normal and expected. Taking a break at such times is fine. What we don’t want to do is give up or create excuses. Show yourself compassion as you work toward your goal.
- Make it social. You don’t need to share everything with the world, but social support can be motivating. If, for example, you want to read more books in the coming year, join a book club or post your thoughts about your reading to social media. Being around people who are similarly motivated is inspirational. Don’t be afraid to be honest.
- Quantify progress. For me, marking progress in a calendar – an actual paper calendar – is a powerful visual reminder of what I’ve done as well as what I have yet to do. Something about marking it up with a pen feels cathartic and real. There are also digital calendars and myriad apps that make marking progress easy and fun. Whatever works for you, keep yourself honest by marking progress.
- Acknowledge commitment. This resolution clearly matters to you, so take a moment to formally say it. Write your resolution down or tell someone you trust. Don’t just say what you intend to do, but also why you intend to do it.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t required. But it’s often the case we look back on life and wonder, “Where did all the time go?” Measured out in years, months, days or moments, time is no doubt passing for us all. Taking stock of that, and then working to make the world a better place, seems to be the point. May you and your loved ones have a joyous and safe new year in all that you do!