I used to have very mixed emotions about the New Year. On the one hand, January 1st represented a chance to start over, reevaluate my life, and set new goals or resolutions to make the next year better. Thinking about how much progress I could make with 365 days in front of me fired me up!
On the flip side, coming up with that list required me to acknowledge all the areas where I fell short in the current year, the goals I didn’t achieve, and the areas of my life where I was less than happy. This could get a little depressing.
I suspect I’m not alone. In fact, it’s probably this paradox that makes some people swear off New Year’s “resolutions”, or goal-setting, altogether. We don’t want to be reminded of last year’s resolution that fell by the wayside before January was even over. It doesn’t feel good to think about the things we said we’d do but never did.
But setting goals, or at least choosing a direction, is key to making forward progress in our lives, and progress (or growth) is central to our happiness and self-esteem. In “The Happiness Project”, author Gretchen Rubin references contemporary research that suggests that it is the pursuit of goals and the accompanying growth, rather than achieving the goal itself, that brings us happiness. Success guru and performance coach Tony Robbins puts it even more bluntly: “Progress equals happiness.”
So, is there a way to resolve this paradox? A way to continually improve ourselves and our circumstances, but to do so from a place of strength and confidence?
I believe there is, and it has to do with where we focus our attention.
Minding the Gap
In coaching, there’s a concept known as “minding the gap”. The gap refers to the space between where a client is, and where they want to be. The goal of coaching is to help the client develop and execute a plan to close that gap.
We do the same thing less formally all the time when we set goals and think about the steps we need to take to reach them. We’re focusing on that gap between our current reality and something “better” that we want to achieve or obtain.
Accurately identifying where we are and where we want to go is essential if we want to have any hope of creating a satisfying, fulfilling life rather than being blown around willy-nilly by life like a dried-up leaf on a windy day.
But there’s another important gap, and it’s one we usually ignore: the gap between where we were, and where we are now. And paying attention to this gap can empower us.
Creating a Success List
Last year, after learning about the importance of celebrating small victories along the way, I added something new to my prep for the New Year. While I pondered my list of goals for 2018, I also started a “2017 Success List”.
I took out a notebook, and wrote down all of the positive things that happened in the previous 11 months. Everything I accomplished (big and little). Areas where I stretched outside my comfort zone and tried something new or difficult (regardless of whether it was successful or not). Anything I had learned, skills I had developed, places where I had grown. Times when I had a positive impact. All of the experiences I had during the year that I felt good about. Everything that was meaningful and significant to me.
I left the notebook out where I could see it and add to it whenever I remembered something else. And over the course of a few weeks, that list grew to a pretty impressive size.
If you had asked me before I started my list how my year went, I would have said it was pretty much a wash. The life I wanted to live, the person I wanted to be, still seemed like shimmery mirages far off on the horizon. A few negative events drew the spotlight.
But with my lengthy list in hand, I could see it was actually a pretty darn successful year. No, I didn’t achieve all the goals that I set the previous January, but I DID accomplish all kinds of things that weren’t in my original plans. I had grown – a LOT. In many ways, I was a different person. Most importantly, I made progress.
And that felt good.
But the best part? When I started my annual goal-setting ritual, I felt more confident and empowered. 2018 would be about building on the gains of 2017, not starting over because I had failed.
Keeping a Success List Sets Us Up for Future Victories
Recognizing our achievements, progress, and growth builds self-confidence and motivation, and this sets us up to perform better in the future. By acknowledging all of your victories in 2018, however large or small, you’ll build a foundation for success and accomplishment in 2019.
Accomplishments also activate the reward circuits in our brain, which triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the “feel-good” brain chemical associated with pleasure. Celebrating your achievements gives your brain a hit of dopamine, and creates a positive feedback loop where you’ll start seeking out more opportunities for progress to get more hits of dopamine.
Finally, creating a success list helps to shift us from a mindset where we see ourselves stuck in a pit that we need to climb out of to one where the ball is already rolling, and all we need to do is keep it moving. What’s more, with just a little more effort, that ball will pick up speed.
Which image gets you more excited?
Creating Your “Success List”
As you prepare for the start of 2019, regardless of whether you are a New Year’s goal-setter or not, I challenge you this year to spend a little time developing your own “2018 Success List”. A few questions to get you going:
- What goals (small or large) did you achieve? What did you accomplish?
- What concrete steps did you take towards longer-term goals?
- Where did you make progress in your career, your personal life, and your relationships?
- What did you learn? Where did you grow?
- What obstacles did you overcome?
- When did you stretch outside your comfort zone?
- What skills did you discover or further develop?
- Where did you have a positive impact?
- What are you most proud of?
Write down every single that comes to mind. This list is for you and only you. It doesn’t matter whether these victories and achievements matter to anyone else – if they matter to you, they’re significant.
So, how do you prepare for the dawn of a new year? And how do you celebrate your victories along the way? Let me know in the comments below!
As you get ready for 2019, you may also want to read my post on why traditional New Year’s resolutions rarely work, and some more effective strategies to create the changes you want in your life: “New Year’s Resolutions and Why They Fail.”