As I look over my to do -list for December, I feel relief mixed with exhaustion. Relief, because it’s been an eventful year. But I also feel exhaustion: the mere thought of soon kicking off a new year is daunting. So what to do when an ambitious New Year’s resolution feels insurmountable? Here’s one option.
As the year draws to a close, quite a few of us will feel relieved. Despite vaccines, we’re still facing remote work, isolation, and uncertainty, and the symbolism of “New Year, New You” is a welcome one. In theory, midnight on Dec 31st is just another day turning into the next. But in practice, it’s so much more: a fresh start, a blank page, a new beginning. But what if you’ve done New Year’s resolutions in the past, and they’ve never stuck? Or what if you’re not a fan of them in the first place? What’s an alternative way of closing the year?
Personally, I’ve skipped New Year’s resolutions for a few years now. It started in 2019, the most demanding year of my life, when I simply couldn’t muster the energy for a bold New Year’s resolution. So I did something different: a 3-step Review-Respect-Reset. I’ll explain why and how – hopefully providing you with an option for your wrap-up of the year that was.
The end of a tough year
In December 2019, I felt the exhaustion in every cell of my body and in every crevice of my mind. My year started in the hospital, recovering from a bad case of pneumonia. I have a vivid recollection of lying in a hospital bed on a Friday evening, my back and chest aching with the pain from coughing, my heart aching for my tiny 6-week old daughter who was not allowed in the ward.
I recovered from my pneumonia, but the health scares didn’t end there; in 2019 three of my friends faced life threatening illnesses. Luckily, all three survived.
The drama extended to work. I was called in from maternity leave to handle the sale of our company’s business. My youngest daughter was 5-months old at the time. What was supposed to be a long, lazy summer with a toddler, turned into a full-blown M&A process — baby in tow.
We sold our business successfully, but I came to learn that an entrepreneur’s story doesn’t end there. Making the transition from entrepreneur to executive, from running my own show to helping others run theirs, requires a fair amount of identity work. Who am I? What’s my role as a leader? How do I re-define success?
With all this on top of the daily circus of a working parent of two, suffice to say, I ended the year low on energy.
I’m not telling you this to collect pity points. I’m telling you this because in our culture of continuous self-improvement, it’s easy to get caught up in the illusion that we need to be constantly developing ourselves. My message is this: sometimes it’s okay not to change. It’s okay to be content with where you are, who you are, and what you have. It’s okay to pat yourself on the back for the mere act of survival.
Alternative to a New Year’s resolution: KonMari your year
A new year carries a lot of hope and promise. But it’s understandable if you, like me, feel exhausted after a long year of extended crisis mode and uncertainty. So if making a bold New Year’s resolution feels insurmountable, try this: before gazing into the future, first make peace with your past. That’s what I did in 2019: I reflected on my year, said goodbye with gratitude, and moved forward with the good. I effectively did KonMari to my year. Here are the three steps I did:
1. Review: Look back before looking forward
Much like KonMari does with tidying, the first step is to take it all out and look at it. Writing has always been my preferred method of self-reflection, so what I did was sit down in a café, alone, and start typing. No editing, no judgment; simply documenting the year and my feelings about it. In an hour and a half I had filled five pages.
It was all there — the good, the bad, the “I-don’t-know-how-I-feel-about-this-yet”. Without documentation, it’s all just one big mess of experiences. But what’s documented, can be dealt with.
Why reflective writing? Reflective and expressive writing has many health benefits — easing stress, helping to deal with life changes or emotions, strengthening your sense of gratitude, releasing your creativity. When writing about difficult subjects, experts suggest not just writing what happened. Try to find meaning: What can I learn? How was this useful? Can I take another perspective?
2. Respect: Say goodbye with gratitude
Much like KonMari does with things, so did I with experiences. Reflect on each experience, thank it for having met you on the serendipitous journey of life, and be grateful for what it has given you. Then let it go. My pneumonia was tough, but it (re)taught me the importance of staying attuned to my body. An interpersonal conflict sapped my energy, but it taught me the value of picking up the phone and dealing with it, human to human, not ruminating over it in my head. Those and other experiences I happily left behind me, but respectfully so.
Why gratitude? The power of gratitude is widely documented. For example, a 2003 study showed that keeping a weekly list of things to be grateful for increased participants’ wellbeing, even though they didn’t change their lives in any other way.
3. Reset: Move forward with the good
Like KonMari advises us to do with things, so should we do with experiences: find the ones that spark joy and keep them close. In the middle of my exhaustion (or perhaps because of it), I recognised how much good I have in my life: a loving spouse, two healthy kids, dream job, working on a mission I believe in. My friends who were ill are alive, well, and recovering.
I’ve gone through tough times, and I’ve survived. I didn’t burn out. If my experiences from 2019 had happened five years earlier, I probably would have. Through it all, I managed to keep my head above water, maintain healthy routines, and focus on the things that mattered.
So as I took stock of my 2019, that’s what I took with me: new routines, lessons learned, and a deep sense of gratitude.
Before you look forward into the New Year, look back
My 2019 was difficult. It’s not a year I wish to re-live any time soon. But it was also deeply meaningful. And I learned a long time ago, that a meaningful life is not a stress-free life. My hellish 2019 made me who I am, made me the person who survived (at times, even thrived) the following year, and will continue doing her best every year since then.
So with a New Year again looming in front of us, I urge you to look back before you look forward. Because in the eagerness of the new, it’s easy to overlook the beauty and wisdom of the old. Our past is a part of our future. And a bold future cannot be built on the shaky foundation of a past forgotten or misunderstood. A solid understanding of who you were this past year might help you see a glimmer of who you will be, and who you can be, in the year to come.
Happy end to the old year, and happy New Year — let’s make it a good one.